The accelerating pace of events inside Syria has raised expectations that Bashar Assad’s regime is on the verge of collapsing, though nobody seems to know when and how this will happen, or how the post-Assad transition will play out. The regime is fatally injured, because it is losing control of strategic patches of territory to the rebels, and it is losing credibility and confidence with those who have supported and served it for decades, especially security agency personnel.
This week’s fighting in Damascus and the bombing of the national security council meeting indicate that if the regime cannot protect its top military officers, whom can it protect? That is the question certainly being asked by thousands of Syrians who now serve in the regime’s military and political organizations. If Bashar and Maher Assad cannot protect their brother-in-law and chief muscle man and enforcer Assef Shawkat, how can they possibly protect lowly foot soldiers, senior officers, Shabbiha gangs, and the three-dozen remaining Baath Party faithful in the country? The consequences of such hesitation and questioning by regime loyalists and apparatchiks when it comes to the regime’s will determine the pace of the regime’s collapse.
Trying to predict how and when the Assad regime will fall is fascinating, but an inexact science. All we can say for sure now is that the regime is moving down that fateful path that has been traveled by all other such militarily strong regimes that eventually collapse when they lose the single most important ingredient for their incumbency: public confidence that the regime and the single top leader can stay in power and provide the combination of protection, patronage and privilege that are the glue of such regimes.
This was the case with the shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, Suharto in Indonesia, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and dozens of other collapsed autocracies around the world. Assad, like them, is strong in military terms, but weak and vulnerable by any other standard, and totally lacking in legitimacy and respect in the eyes of the majority of his own people – the ultimate criteria that determine the fate of a regime.
The battles in Damascus, the lethal bombing of the meeting of top security officials Wednesday, and the Free Syrian Army’s capture of several border posts on Thursday indicate that the situation in Syria will continue to evolve as it has for the past 16 months: Incremental and continuing military and diplomatic advances by the opposition groups will combine with the government’s inability to do anything beyond using brute force to quell the rebellion, leading to the steady contraction of the regime’s control of Syrian land and people.
At some point soon, the movement of those loyalists deciding to flee the regime will abruptly increase. Panicked low- and mid-level security personnel will abandon their posts and uniforms and melt back into civilian life, and opposition forces will take control of key installations, such as border crossings and provincial police posts. When opposition fighters obtain more sophisticated anti-tank and shoulder-mounted ground-to-air missiles, as is happening now, the regime will lose two of its key military advantages, and the end will then come quickly.
Everything going on at the U.N. Security Council is now irrelevant, and has been for about a month, for the center of gravity of this political struggle shifted some time ago to military developments inside Syria. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice’s protestations against the Russian and Chinese vetoes of resolutions to pressure Syria are pathetic gibberish, given the much worse track record of the United States in vetoing resolutions that seek to force Israel to comply with international law and morality. The U.S. and Russia at the U.N. are acting like children, with their self-serving hypocrisy and selfishness. We just have to accept that the Security Council does not function when the superpowers shift into infantile mode, and talk nonsense. We should keep our gaze instead on more important things, like developments inside Syria.
This leads me to conclude that the bigger story that links Syria with the other Arab uprisings and recent Middle Eastern developments is that the will and actions of indigenous Arabs, Iranians and Turks will always have a greater impact than anything done by powers abroad. The striking inability of the Americans, Russians and their assorted allies to shape events in Syria follow similar serial failures in recent decades in their attempts to promote Arab-Israeli peace, democratic transformations, economic trajectories or other such strategic issues.
Only when local people across the Middle East took matters into their own hands did conditions change, and history resume. The sentiments of ordinary people such as those in Bab al-Hawa, Midan, Deir al-Zor and Deraa are far more significant that the pronouncements of the world’s powers. The sooner we learn this lesson, the better off we will all be.
The colonial era may finally be drawing to a close.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.