Food crisis may well spell the doom for Al Assad

Even if the rebels fail to bring the regime down, the dire state of the Syrian economy will

Gulf News

One thing is on the mind of most Syrians today, though many would hate to admit it. It seems President Bashar Al Assad may probably be in power for much longer than most people had expected. The reasons vary — from unwavering Russian and Iranian support to a weak opposition and the lack of seriousness on behalf of the US about regime change in Syria.

The Barack Obama Administration, it must be noted, did not strongly call for the Syrian president to step down until August 2011. This was three months after Paris had taken clear sides in the Syrian revolt. The Americans were reluctant because they did not feel that the Syrian opposition was capable of delivering three things: Effective management of the Syrian-Israel border; counter-terrorism cooperation against Islamists, as the Baathists have been doing for 40 years; and control over non-state players like Hezbollah, Mahdi Army, PKK, Islamic Jihad and others. These three issues were much more vital to the Obama administration than democracy or human rights in Syria. In spite of all its faults, the Americans reasoned, the current Syrian regime was capable of ensuring “all of the above”.

When the Americans finally came out against Al Assad, they quickly realised how disunited and weak the Syrian opposition was and how dangerously infiltrated it was becoming with radical Islamists. Last September’s attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi simply added to their fears as to what a post-Al Assad Syria might look like. Two months ago, Washington had designated one of Syria’s premier rebel groups, Jabhat Al Nusra, as a “terrorist organisation,” which of course was music to the ears of Syrian officialdom. It refused to recognise the newly-created Syrian National Alliance as “the representative” of the Syrian people and made it clear that it would not be part of any future arming or funding of Syrian rebels. Recently, this was confirmed through highly reliable journalists like the Al Quds Al Arabi editor and Gulf News columnist, Abdul Bari Atwan, and CNN’s Christine Amanpour. More recently, the US has sent word to the Syrian alliance that it will not recognise a Syrian government-in-exile. If the US does not recognise it, then nobody will.

Obama clearly does not want unsolicited arms to make their way to Al Qaida-affiliated groups inside Syria. As a result, he is looking the other way as the regime continues to pound entire cities to dust. The regime has pinned hopes on incoming US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who used to be a good friend of Al Assad and has not severed his “back channels” with Damascus. When appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his appointment, he avoided coming down too hard on Al Assad and dodged questions about the fate of Syria-US relations in light of the revolt.

Contact with Kerry, the Syrians believe, will only happen after the new Secretary of State meets his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in mid-February. If the two sides decide to endorse a UN resolution that calls for a political process in Syria, one in which Al Assad will have to make painful concessions, the Syrian president will be willing to give that to Kerry and Lavrov — and not to the Syrian opposition. To date, the political process, codenamed “Geneva II”, calls for a mutual ceasefire, a cabinet of national unity, a new constitution, internationally-monitored parliamentary elections and early presidential polls. In his January 6 speech, Al Assad agreed to the ceasefire and constitution bit, but avoided the issue of presidential elections.

Meaningless dialogue

Because of what the Americans are saying and doing, the regime believes that regional and international players are backing out on the Syrian revolt. The results of western involvement in Libya and Egypt, in particular, are not that good, to say the least, and explains the “pause” on behalf of regional players, vis-a-vis Syria. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has shifted his position from saying that Al Assad’s days are numbered into now admitting that Al Assad may last in office for some time, but will depart soon. Then came the slow U-turn on behalf of the Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Junblatt, who recently visited Moscow and then echoed regime propaganda, saying that a “conspiracy” was being hatched against Damascus. This is new for someone who only weeks earlier had called for nothing less than unconditional overthrow of the Syrian regime. Until the US-Russia “Syria Deal” materialises, Al Assad is seemingly in no hurry to leave. He will continue to fight the rebels and will carry out feeble and mediocre dialogue, to show the world that he is putting his promises into action. That dialogue will lead to nowhere, as the opposition will not be party to it.

Nobody will take part in it from the opposition.

However, that does not mean that the regime is staying. If the rebels do not bring it down, the dire state of the Syrian economy will. The state is losing control of civil management due to civil servant walk-outs on the regime. There is a lack of safe roads and there is corruption and negligence. Last week, electricity went off throughout the Syrian capital for 12 hours, for the first time since outbreak of the revolt two years ago. This is topped by a complete lack of petrol and heating fuel in the Damascus market. Even government loyalists are grumbling and troops are complaining that the devaluation of the Syrian pound has hit their income rather hard.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, wheat production in Syria has dropped from 4.5 million tonnes in recent years to 2 million tonnes in 2012. Most grain mills are out of service, situated in northern Aleppo, creating a high shortage of bread. The fact that all bakeries in rural Damascus have closed because of the shelling only makes the food crisis more acute. When people go hungry, they no longer stand up for their governments, regardless of how loyal they are. This will eventually lead to a breakthrough and will be more powerful and stunning than the might of the rebels.

Sami Moubayed is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Centre in Beirut and author of Syria and the USA: Washington’s Relations with Damascus from Wilson to Eisenhower.