Foreign Affairs

Assad likely to survive due to Obama’s unwillingness

President Barack Obama declared the U.S. would use “every tool available” to stop the slaughter of innocent Syrians and “transition” that regime.   But the Syrian rogue regime is likely to survive because Obama and the international community lack the will to do what is necessary to stop the killing.

Last year tens of thousands of Syrians filled the streets of Damascus, Syria calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, the overthrow of his government, and the end to the Ba’ath party rule.  Al-Assad brutally responded to that uprising by unleashing his security forces that have killed at least 7,500, wounded tens of thousands, imprisoned untold thousands, and destroyed entire neighborhoods.  

Those crimes against humanity and many others committed by the regime warrant al-Assad’s immediate removal.  But that won’t happen because short of an invasion or at least a Libya-style intervention, al-Assad will crush all opposition and survive.

There are other reasons to remove the regime.  Specifically, al-Assad has long harbored terrorists such as the leadership of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, Israel’s terrorist threat.

Americans were the victims of al-Assad’s terrorist activities as well.  During the Iraq war the regime provided transit and sanctuary for jihadists who crossed into Iraq to kill Americans and since the early 1980s the regime has acted as Iran’s strategic partner supporting the terror group Hezbollah, which occupies most of Southern Lebanon. 

The Syrian regime shares a dangerous taste for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) like its North Korean and Iranian allies.  Syria had a secret nuclear program which, thanks to Israel, was destroyed by bombing in September 2007.  But al-Assad’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons is very large and deployable by simple grenades or long-range rockets.

Worse, the regime may have already used chemicals on innocent citizens.  Earlier this month Syrian opposition forces reported military units used small quantities of chemical munitions near the city of Homs.  And last week the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported U.S. officials secretly communicated with Syria’s neighboring governments warning them about the WMD threat.  The secret cable reportedly cautioned that Syria might use WMD and an Obama official told Foreign Policy it is “really concerned about loose WMDs.” 

A brutalized population, support for transnational terrorists, and use of WMD should be sufficient cause to topple a regime.  But there are at least five significant reasons why the regime will likely survive.

First, al-Assad has strong support from allies Iran, Russia and to a lesser extent China.  Russia and China vetoed attempts to impose sanctions on Syria at a  recent UN Security Council meeting.  But Western nations and the Arab League went ahead to impose sanctions and then Syria’s allies intervened to help the regime overcome those restrictions.

Iran is especially helpful.  Haaretz reports Tehran provided $1 billion to Syria to help it overcome the oil embargo and banking restrictions.  That news comes from documents leaked following a cyber-attack against the e-mail server of the Syrian president’s office.

One of the leaked documents indicated Iran agreed to buy basic supplies from Syria like meat and poultry.  Further, Iran agreed to export to Syria fertilizer and raw materials for the petrochemical industry and the Iranians promised to examine the purchase of 150,000 barrels of oil from Syria per day for a year, which would allow Syria to continue to export oil despite the sanctions.

The Iranians proposed creating an air-and-ground corridor through Iraq and discussed setting up a joint bank for transferring money through Russia and China. A document dated Dec. 14, 2011, states “the central banks of Syria and Iran agreed to use banks in Russia and China to ease the transfer of funds between the two countries.”

Second, most Syrians, according to a poll, oppose the uprising not because they support al-Assad, but because they fear what might follow the regime.   These so-called loyalists describe the uprising as a crisis to be overcome by the government and perceive that elements of the opposition are inherently violent and radical.

Syrian Christians express grave reservations because of the prospects of an Islamist government taking over once al-Assad is ousted.  They point out that more than one million Iraqi Christians fled to Syria after sectarian violence in that country.  Syrian Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo warned that “Christians will pay a heavy price.”

Third, surrender means certain death for al-Assad and his Alawite government.  The minority Alawis, which constitute about 12% of the population, have ruled the majority Sunni nation since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took power in a coup.  They are hated for their sectarian rule and therefore expect no mercy if the government falls.

They need only look at the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Libya to understand their likely fate.  Don’t expect the regime to fall without a long fight.

Fourth, the armed opposition is not effective.  The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the primary armed opposition which is a loosely organized militant group with roughly 40,000 fighters and no unified leadership, according to a report in al Jazeera.

The FSA includes a few Syrian army defectors but most of the fighters are lightly-armed civilians who blend in with the population.  They operate like Iraqi insurgents or Taliban in Afghan villages conducting ambushes on targets of opportunity and employ improvised explosive devices.

They have limited effect against al-Assad’s well-armed military which is why their only hope is outside support.  But providing the FSA arms is “premature” according to U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because we don’t know the Syrian opposition.

Besides any outside intervention is doubtful.  NATO, which led the military intervention in Libya to oust that dictator, has no intention of intervening in Syria.  The only outside intervention being discussed is an “Arab force” to protect a possible “humanitarian corridor to provide security to the Syrian people.”

Finally, the Syrian political opposition is splintered along ethnic and social lines.  The Syrian National Council (SNC), which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls a “credible” representative of the Syrian people, lacks coherent leadership and it does not have widespread support among Syria’s diverse ethnic and religious groups and no apparent strategy.  

Part of the problem may be the SNC’s membership and base.  It is based in Paris and made up of mostly Sunni members.  Its leader is Burhan Ghalioun, an exiled Sunni academic from Homs.  Its members include mostly exiled Syrian Muslim brotherhood and grassroots activists.

The Syrian uprising is more than a year old and still the international community lacks the will to use “every tool available” to stop the slaughter as Obama promised.  That is why in spite of a host of reasons to oust the tyrant of Damascus, al-Assad is expected to survive and the Syrian people will go on bleeding.

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