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Al Assad legitimacy further sapped

Russia and China remain steadfast in their support

Gulf News

Beirut: President Barack Obama stated on December 11, 2012, that the US would formally recognise the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) as the de facto administration of regions under its control. The move will further sap the legitimacy of president Bashar Al Assad and colour the outlook for Syria in 2013.

Although widespread concerns remained over a post-Ba’ath regime, allegedly because of a fear that ethnic and religious groups might be excluded, the Obama decision alleviated some of these anxieties. It was unclear, however, whether Washington was now prepared to arm revolutionary forces or offer other kinds of military support. Moreover, it was also uncertain if the US and Russia could reach an accord over Syria’s fate, following positive signs that Moscow gradually altered its adamant positions.

Still, if past efforts failed to impose a peace plan for Syria, more recent efforts ensured that a transition accord would be far more difficult to reach, especially as Moscow and its allies insisted on Bashar Al Assad remaining as the Head of State until 2014. When UN Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan brokered a tentative agreement in July 2012, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that Al Assad would still have to go, declaring “it is now incumbent on Russia and China to show Al Assad the writing on the wall.”

Meeting her counterpart in Ireland a few days ago, Clinton maintained that Washington would insist once again that Al Assad’s departure be a key part of any transition, even if she noted how the United States and Russia were committed to trying to set the wheel for an effective political transition in motion. Clinton further stated that she and her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, were committed to supporting a new push by UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi “to work with all the stakeholders in Syria to begin a political transition.” In reality, however, neither side budged from fundamental positions, watching developments on the ground on a day-to-day basis.


Military developments

It was difficult to see how Western powers could agree with Russia and China as all sides believe the conflict would eventually be resolved militarily. Nevertheless, and even if Washington and Moscow somehow managed to reach a broad agreement on a path forward, it was unclear what kind of effect such an accord may have on the fighting.

While the US continued to criticise Russia for shielding Al Assad, and Moscow accused Washington of meddling in internal Syrian affairs by demanding Al Assad’s downfall, revolutionary forces reached Damascus suburbs. Various warnings about the possible use of chemical weapons by the Al Assad regime circulated, which illustrated tensions, even if some of these cautionary steps were exaggerated. Still, this was the tipping point in the civil war, especially as the Free Syrian Army scored significant gains in recent weeks and was likely to perform better in the months ahead.

In fact, and notwithstanding steady Russian and Iranian financial and military assistance, observers agreed that the Al Assad regime’s fate was uncertain. While few anticipated Western assistance similar to the air bombardments that supported Libyan insurgents fighting Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, military analysts concluded that Al Assad was left with three possible choices: to fight tooth and nail until the end, seek asylum abroad, or retrench into the country’s Alawite-dominated enclave around Lattakiyyah.

Although the first option was deemed the least likely, president Al Assad repeatedly claimed that he would “live and die in Syria,” even if a steady military erosion posed significant risks.

Likewise, asylum in Iran or, perhaps, in Venezuela could not be excluded although such a settlement also depended on military developments on the ground. Importantly, while such a consideration was practical for the president and his immediate family, thousands of die-hard supporters, men and women who are fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve their privileges, may be caught in the whirlwind of the chaos that would inevitably follow a carefully planned departure. Indeed, occurred in Iran in late 1978 and early 1979 after the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Tehran, and it literally occurred in every situation where the head of state fled.

By far the more bizarre and unlikely option was “for the regime and the core of the army and security forces to retreat to the Alawite-populated mountains on the Mediterranean coast.” According to various reports that quoted unnamed diplomatic sources, unconfirmed reports alleged that the regime planned “to register all Sunnis who live in the coastal cities of Tartous, Banias, and Latakia which could potentially form part of an Alawite-dominated enclave.”

Given that nearly 14 per cent of the country’s total population of 22 million were Alawi — or roughly 3 million individuals — it was difficult to fathom a discreet movement. Mass population movements like the 1970 case that followed the creation of Pakistan — which separated from India — were rare occurrences. Such a plan would certainly draw the ire of Syrian patriots who reject partition.

Of course, an Alawite State existed between 1920 and 1936 under the French Mandate, though times have changed. Ironically, the Ba’ath ideology, which was practiced with a vengeance by the vast majority of Alawis, may be the reason why few secularised Syrians would accept that the country be torn apart. Few Syrians outside of die-hard extremists wished to pursue a reckless sectarian strategy given what was at stake.

Economic woes

With several million Syrians internally displaced, and at least a million refugees in neighbouring countries, the regional costs are bound to increase. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided fresh statistics on December 11, 2012, describing dire conditions for hundreds of thousands of Syrians in neighbouring countries. Lebanon now apparently hosted 154,387 registered Syrian refugees, while Jordan had 142,664, Turkey 136,319, Iraq 65,449 and North Africa 11,740. These were conservative estimates and did not include unregistered refugees who did not receive UNHCR assistance.

According to opposition figures and regional NGOs, actual figures were at least double, as a steady flow of Syrians continued to cross into neighbouring countries. These included about 100,000 in Jordan, 70,000 each in both Turkey and Egypt and tens of thousands in Lebanon.

Beyond refugee conditions, the League of Arab States estimated that the Syrian economy faced a catastrophe, losing as much as $30 billion (Dh110 billion) in revenues in 2011. With no end in sight to the civil war, in June 2012 the Syrian Investment Agency reported a significant decline of 43 per cent in the number of licensed projects, which clearly reflected the lack of confidence of the business community. Moreover, sanctions imposed by the international community have also contributed to the steady economic erosion, conditions that were bound to get worse in the year ahead. As long as the European Union imposed an import ban on the oil sector, Syria’s Gross Domestic Product was bound to diminish in 2013, with added pressure on an already weakened currency. There were few options to redress current conditions as Damascus headed for an anarchic new year.