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Pressuring a Defiant Syria

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 30, 2011

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The Assad regime, which has instigated a bloody crackdown against protesters leading to accusations of human rights abuses (Reuters), is now facing the weight of sanctions imposed by the international community, most recently the Arab League. CFR's Mohamad Bazzi, a leading Arab expert, says the Assad family is the most isolated it has ever been. "There is no precedent for the regime dealing with this many crises and sanctions at the same time, so it must be feeling more threatened than ever before, but there is very little indication that it is about to capitulate to the Arab League," he says. The consequences of sanctions could cause the business elite to actively turn against the regime, but security forces are likely to remain loyal, Bazzi says. He adds that Iraq and Lebanon, Syria's major Arab trading partners, are not supporting the League's embargo, which could hamper its effectiveness.

The Arab League over the weekend approved sanctions (LAT) against the Syrian government. Is Syria able to weather the political storm or is it really teetering on collapse?

This is certainly the most isolated the Assad family regime has been since it was founded forty-one years ago by Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez al-Assad. Syria has faced international isolation before and faced sanctions from the United States over the years and sometimes from Europe as well. But this is the first time it's facing these kinds of sanctions from fellow Arab countries. There is no precedent for the regime dealing with this many crises and sanctions at the same time, so it must be feeling more threatened than ever before, but there is very little indication that it is about to capitulate to the Arab League.

On Monday, the day after the sanctions decision was announced in Cairo, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, was quite defiant (Bloomberg) in Damascus. He was indignant at what he called the "economic war" on Syria. He made some real threats in pointing out Syria's location in the region and how Syria is a transit point for commercial traffic. He was alluding to the fact that much commercial truck traffic from parts of Europe and from Turkey going to the Persian Gulf has to go through Syria. Many Arab airlines have to cross Syrian airspace. He seemed to be suggesting that the Syrian government might retaliate. The regime doesn't appear to be about to give in, but the sanctions definitely heighten the pressure on the regime. The most important consequence might be that these sanctions could make life so difficult that the business elite, especially in Damascus and Aleppo--the Sunni business elites that have stayed on the sidelines since the uprisings began--might finally have enough and turn against the regime.

As you just noted, the so-called "Sunni business elite" has been backing the Alawite leadership of Assad, and the Alawites are a part of the Shiite sect. But would the business elite just fold up shop? What could happen?

It's not entirely clear if they still support Assad actively. I would guess that many of them don't support the regime. They have stayed on the sidelines by not financing the opposition, or encouraging more protests, or going out into the streets themselves, or shutting down their businesses, or participating in general strikes and these kinds of activities. This business community, if it turns against the regime more actively, instead of standing on the sidelines and being passive, could begin to participate in strikes. It could cause widespread closure of businesses, activities that we saw, for example, in the lead-up to the Iranian revolution that brought down the shah in 1978 and 1979. Such activity could bring the Syrian economy to a total halt.

There is no precedent for the regime dealing with this many crises and sanctions at the same time, so it must be feeling more threatened than ever before, but there is very little indication that it is about to capitulate to the Arab League.

The Syrian economy has already been damaged quite severely over the past year. Two major economic sectors, tourism and oil, have been struggling because of the unrest and previous sanctions from the United States and Europe. Syria doesn't have a lot of oil, but now because of the sanctions it has very few places to sell that oil, and the regime has had to dip into its foreign currency reserves to stay afloat. There have been reports of problems securing heating oil, and food is getting quite expensive in Damascus. People have much less purchasing power. All of those factors taken together make life more and more difficult for the average Syrian, who might not have gone out into the streets actively against the regime, but who now will have to suffer the consequences of the regime's intransigence. So we have something of an economic death spiral that's accelerated as a result of these sanctions.

What about the security forces? Is there any chance of a military coup?

That doesn't appear likely right now. The security forces are still loyal to the Assad regime, and many of those security forces are Alawites. The regime has tried very hard to keep the security forces, instead of the army, as the first line of defense against the protesters. They've had to deploy the Syrian army to various cities and towns, but often they have the security forces go in first to carry out the most severe repression, to carry out the arrest and torture of people. The security forces have been wildly indiscriminate in killing protesters and carrying out torture and imprisoning thousands of people.

For now it seems that security forces are still as loyal as ever to the Assad regime. Part of the reason is because so many of them are Alawites; they see this as a struggle to the death, that it's either kill or be killed. Part of the regime's success in the past few months has been to convince the Alawites that their future is tied to the Assad family. This fear has also crept into the thinking of some of the other minority communities in Syria, especially Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population. They've been pretty solidly behind the regime because they fear the alternative of radical Islamists taking power.

Why hasn't Assad carried out his promises to have reforms and to lead the way to elections. In fact, he repeated some of this in an interview (CNN) with the Sunday Times recently.

Assad and other members of his regime began talking about this constitutional revision process, amending various laws, allowing or setting up a committee to study a multi-party system, to study also the possibility of allowing more than one candidate during elections. But those were all very cosmetic initiatives, and were designed to buy more time. There's a lot of rhetoric, especially about setting up the committees and studying various reforms, but the central demand of the protesters--having real competitive elections, disbanding the Ba'ath party monopoly on power, which is enshrined in the constitution--has not been addressed. So as time has gone on, the opposition and the international community have lost faith in Assad and his desire to accept any real change.

If Assad had responded dramatically differently when the protests began, and he had accepted some of [their] demands, he could have actually been a competitive candidate if there were real elections for the presidency.

Right now, the regime is focused entirely on security. The regime has argued that it's facing external terrorist groups and they need these clean-up operations in various cities that will restore public order. The regime has tremendous fear of real reform because it's that it would lose power if there were genuine elections. If Assad had responded dramatically differently when the protests began, and he had accepted some of these demands, he could have actually been a competitive candidate if there were real elections for the presidency. At that time, before the very brutal crackdown, he still had a considerable level of popular support.

At the time of the Arab League decision, two nations didn't support this resolution imposing sanctions. One was Iraq and the other was Lebanon. Can you discuss the relationships of those two countries with Syria?

[A lot of Syria's] economic activity centers on its neighbors Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. Without Iraq and Lebanon participating in these sanctions, it's going to be very difficult for the Arab states to enforce them.

Lebanon has a very active banking system, and Syrians over the years have kept money in that system. We might see more banking activity, more funds from Syria ending up in Lebanese banks. There's a government that's very friendly to Syria right now in Lebanon, and certainly the current Iraqi government is also very sympathetic to the Syrians. Part of the reason that the Iraqi government has been so supportive to the Syrians is because of Iran, which is a major backer of Syria. We have a Shiite-led government in Baghdad that's an important ally of Iran, and Iran is probably Damascus' best friend right now. The Iraqis are acting as Iranian proxies when it comes to Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies have shown that they're going to support the Syrian regime as long as the Iranians try to keep Assad in power.

In Lebanon, you have a host of complicated factors where the current government is led by Hezbollah, which is another important ally of Iran. Syria has been the most crucial transit point for Iranian weapons and material support to Hezbollah, so Hezbollah has been very reluctant and quite scared of losing its ally, the Assad regime.

Let's talk briefly about Turkey, which, of course, has come out fairly strongly against the Assad regime. Were you surprised by this?

Turkey had been ambivalent for several months. At first, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tried to be as supportive as possible to his friend Bashar al-Assad. He gave Assad many chances to respond to end the crackdown, and finally the Turks got extremely frustrated with Assad breaking his promises. Erdogan called on him to step down recently. The Turkish government expressed support for the Arab League decision.

The central question is going to be how involved will Turkey become, especially in supporting the Syrian opposition. Is Turkey going to provide a safe haven for Syrian opposition, and especially armed groups and Syrian army defectors? Will the Syrian opposition be able to rely on Turkey as a staging ground? Will they be able to transit weapons into Syria through Turkey? Those are all open questions.

So far, Turkey has allowed several thousand Syrian refugees to live on its territory, so it's dealt with the humanitarian aspect of the crisis. It's also allowed some of the Syrian army defectors, the so-called Syrian Free Army to remain in Turkey. It also allowed some political opposition leaders to operate in Turkey, but it's not entirely clear if the Turks are going to allow their territory to be used as a staging ground for wide-scale attacks against the Syrian regime. I think that the Turks are naturally worried about what Assad's response would be. Would Assad then support some of the Kurdish separatist groups, and instigate them to attack Turkish targets? That's always been one of the games that the Syrian regime plays.

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