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The beginning of the end in Syria

Tuesday 5 May 2015



President Bashar Assad’s regime is beginning to crumble despite assistance from Iran and its allies. However, such a prospect did not prevent the recent liquidation of Rustom Ghazaleh, once the head of Syria’s military intelligence network in Lebanon.

The Syrian regime’s loss of Idlib and Busra al-Sham in recent weeks, followed by the defeat in the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur last week, has exposed the gangrene at the heart of Assad rule. Something has been broken in the Alawite backbone of the state, with younger men in the community preferring to escape Syria rather than sacrifice themselves for a leader who cannot conceivably endure in the long term.

What are the Iranians thinking? They have made Assad’s political survival a strategic priority, but the incompetence and brutality of his regime – to which Iran has amply contributed – have ensured the task is unachievable. Even with Iranian and Russian help Assad is losing ground rapidly. Partly that’s because the life is gone from his armed forces, which have been successful only in their campaign to slaughter tens of thousands of civilians.

What the Iranian regime has failed to grasp is that violence and terrorization are rarely sufficient to keep a leader in office indefinitely. For the past four years Assad has deployed no other methods. He never offered those who fought on his behalf a vision of a desirable future that would make them pursue the fight. To stick with Assad offered no compensations, no light at the end of the tunnel. Only more depravity and abuse.

There are those who argue that the war in Syria will continue for some time yet. Assad is well-entrenched in Damascus and Iran will invest what it takes to ensure that he doesn’t fall. Perhaps. But then what? How will the Iranian security establishment reverse the tide? Assad is not salvageable. The cohesiveness of the regime is disintegrating amid myriad rifts. Even Hezbollah, whose men are dying to ensure that Assad stays, has nothing but contempt for the Syrian army. The corpse’s stench is growing and no amount of Iranian stubbornness will reverse this.

Ghazaleh’s fate is a reminder of affairs in Damascus. While many believed his death was a result of disagreements within the Syrian security establishment over Iran’s exaggerated role in Syria, the truth may be more prosaic. As the Special Tribunal for Lebanon refocuses on Syria’s role in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, it may be that the regime feared that Ghazaleh might be called in as a witness. He was interviewed by United Nations investigators back in 2005, and as one of those present described Ghazaleh then, “He looked guilty as hell.”

Imagine if Ghazaleh had been summoned again. By refusing to comply the Syrian government would have been viewed as hiding something. Had he gone, there was a risk he would be detained, and given Ghazaleh’s anxieties that he could become the fall guy for Hariri’s murder, he might have spilled the beans. Better to get rid of that problem now to avoid headaches in the future.

The prosecutor of the special tribunal can alter his indictment at any stage, and one thing the harried Assad regime does not need today is to find itself accused by an international court of assassinating Hariri. Ironically, this may have more bearing on the regime than the carnage for which it has been responsible at home, because the trial, made possible thanks to a U.N. decision, can alter the behavior of states. Russia would be especially embarrassed by having to defend Assad and his acolytes against an institution that it was instrumental in creating.

Ghazaleh’s death helped propagate the image of a regime that is devouring its own. Most people assume Assad has become a puppet in the hands of Iran. In light of this what hope is there for the inheritors of Hafez Assad? Every rule the late Syrian leader imposed to preserve Alawite domination has been broken by his inept sons, assisted by the vast criminal enterprise of an inhumane intelligence apparatus.

Only fear of what might come after Assad has made countries reluctant to help accelerate the Syrian president’s exit. To quote the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, who was speaking last month to the Council on Foreign Relations, “The last thing we want to do is to allow [Islamic extremists] to march into Damascus.” That attitude has long prevailed in Washington, but only now are the Americans realizing that their hesitancy to see Assad pushed out in 2011 only created conditions that made a worse outcome probable.

That is worrisome, particularly for Syria’s minorities. As far back as 2011 Syria’s Christians were warned that wagering on Assad would only bring disaster. Even Lebanon’s Christians, represented by that great moral paragon, Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, endorsed Assad on his foreign visits. We now have someone else to thank, then, at a moment when the Christian presence in the Middle East is under existential threat.

Assad may hold out for a time. But he has nothing on which to rebuild his authority. His community is in disarray; his army and intelligence services are as well. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are filling the void, but with increasingly limited effectiveness and no hope of amelioration. Bashar Assad’s regime is on life support. Someone needs to pull the plug, preferably Assad’s friends, while a negotiated transition in Syria is still vaguely possible.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.


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