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We Don't Want to Lose You, But We Think You Ought to Go

Author: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
June 2011
London Review of Books

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Bashar al-Assad has many enemies outside his own country, but none of them wants him to lose power. He appears to have gained the upper hand against a two-month-old popular uprising, ensuring the survival of the Baathist regime and, for now, defusing the most serious challenge to his family's rule since the 1980s. He has used brute force – there have been mass arrests, towns and cities have been besieged, hundreds of civilians killed – without so far losing the support of his military, unlike the ousted leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. To prevent crucial segments of Syrian society from joining the protests, he has played on the fear, inside and outside the country, that his fall would precipitate widespread sectarian violence, even civil war.

His success is chiefly due to a foreign policy, pioneered by his father, that allows the Baathist regime to portray itself as a linchpin of regional stability and security. Since coming to power after his father's death in 2000, the younger Assad has learned to keep his options open and to play Syria's friends and enemies off against one another. Today, nearly all the regional and Western powers want him to remain in office, an unusual congruence of interests. Syria could count on the support of its regional allies, Hizbullah, Iran and Turkey (though Turkey did have some criticisms), but while the United States and the EU have called for an end to the crackdown, and imposed new sanctions on senior Syrian officials, including the president and his brother, they have little leverage over Assad – and no appetite for another military intervention in the region. Israel has remained silent, but prefers Assad – who has kept the peace along the occupied Golan Heights – to a new regime led by Syria's Sunni majority and influenced, perhaps, by the Muslim Brotherhood. Even Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab regimes allied with the US have lined up behind Assad in  the interest of preserving stability. He seems to be the dictator whom no one outside his own country wants to fall.

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