As the rule of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi appears to be reaching its end after rebel forces took over his Tripoli stronghold, it is legitimate to wonder about the effects of these developments on the course of events in Syria and the future of President Bashar Assad. It is hard to draw a parallel between the societies and regimes of Libya and Syria, but the common denominator between the two is that their rulers have used their security and military forces to crack down on protesters in an attempt to regain “stability” and remain in power.
The latest developments in Libya will have a tremendous effect on the Syrian uprising. They will certainly boost the morale of Syrian protesters and cast doubt on the destiny of the Syrian ruler. The Libyan fallout, along with the international isolation and sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime, will weaken it and shake the army’s resolve to continue its campaign to put down the uprising.
The main difference between what is happening in Syria and what has happened in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya is that Syria is ruled by an Alawite minority while the other states were ruled by leaders from the Sunni majority. Also, the discipline at both security and political levels imposed by the Syrian regime is much stricter, and Syria remains less susceptible to collapse under the pressure of popular protest of the masses. Also, the military and security apparatus are fully controlled by Alawites acting on orders, believing their destiny is linked to the survival of Assad’s regime.
For almost five months the international community, led by the United States, was reluctant to take any clear position on discrediting Assad and his regime despite its brutal crackdown and killing of over 2,000 people, most of them civilians. After the recent failure of the latest Turkish diplomatic effort, Washington and major European governments, along with Canada, decided to block the regime’s assets and impose restrictions on the Syrian petroleum sector. If the European Union decides to ban oil imports from Syria, it would deprive Assad of 60 percent of the revenues needed to continue the present military campaign.
All these sanctions together will place growing economic pressure on a regime that is already suffering from serious economic difficulties. The latest financial reports from Damascus indicate the transfer of huge deposits from the Syrian banking system to foreign banks, including Lebanese banks. These developments place growing pressure on the Sunni business elites in Damascus and Aleppo and could weaken their backing for Assad and his regime.
Assad appeared on television the evening of Aug. 21 as defiant as in his previous appearance on June 20 and ruled out bowing to Western demands or stepping down. Assad, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein before him, dismissed the possibility of any foreign military intervention in Syria, saying, “Syria wouldn’t succumb to [such] pressure as the West faces a domestic economic crisis and military failure in the region.” Assad’s rhetoric did not change, and he kept blaming “saboteurs” for continued violence. On the other hand he again promised reform, yet invariably falling short of abolishing Article 8 of the Constitution that categorizes the Baath as leading the Syrian state and society.
Assad’s rhetoric underlines the urgency of further diminishing his regime’s capacity to campaign against its own people. The Turkish role, as well as that of the Arab countries and especially the Gulf states, is of great importance in escalating pressure on the Syrian president. The Syrian people expect these governments to take all possible action to hasten the collapse of the regime.
Lebanon should follow other Arab governments in condemning the use of military force to crack down on protesters throughout Syria. Politically, Lebanon is split into two distinct camps on the matter: the March 14 coalition that has made a strong statement of solidarity with the Syrian people; and the March 8 coalition that, with the present government of Najib Mikati, is seeking more room for maneuver and waiting for a clearer view of the situation in Syria.
Hezbollah, in turn, is cornered as it seemingly applies a double standard regarding the Arab uprisings. Hezbollah officials have cheered all the Arab revolts except the one taking place in Syria. Their support for the Assad regime is causing deep confusion among Hezbollah supporters and among Shiites in general.
As a neighboring state, Lebanon has an enormous stake in averting enduring instability in Syria. Chaos in Syria would have a swift and potentially devastating impact on Lebanon. Consequently, the Lebanese should strive to prevent any cross-border trafficking involving weapons or money.
The major powers along with Turkey and the Arab countries have raised the ante on Assad. Last weekend the Arab League demanded an end to the bloodshed in Syria and announced that it would pursue a political initiative to end the Syrian crisis. And on Sunday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul declared that his country had lost confidence in Syria. The international community should continue to exercise the utmost pressure on Bashar Assad to make him understand that continued violence will only further deepen his crisis and that his fate will not be any different than that of the Libyan leader – regardless of the differences between the two countries.
Nizar Abdel-Kader is the author of “Iran and the Nuclear Bomb” and a board member of Lebanon’s National Defense Journal. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.