Why every power is keen on Assad's survival in Syria

Why every power is keen on Assad's survival in Syria

Assads tough regime represents stability for Iraq, the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others

public anger Opponents of the Syrian regime demonstrate outside the Syrian embassy in Ankara, Turkey. AP

Thousands defy the regime to protest, and some demand referring Assad to the International Criminal Court. Despite the anger, the killing of more than 1,100 protesters and international condemnation, Syria’s regime may escape the fate that befell those in Tunisia and Egypt. Syria’s strategic location in a neuralgic part of West Asia makes all parties apprehensive of the prospect of chaos that would follow Assad’s downfall. Leaders who condemn Syria publicly seem to pray privately for the survival of the Assad regime for the sake of regional stability.

What favours the regime is Syria’s unique ethnic-religious composition. Unlike Egypt with its 93 per cent Sunni Muslim citizenry, Syria’s 91 per cent Muslim population is divided: Sunnis, 68 per cent; Alawis, 13 per cent; Druzes, 6 per cent; and Ismailis, 2 per cent. Non-Sunni Muslims as well as Christians, 9 per cent, prefer secular rule of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, chiefly because it assures stability and security.

So far, among the Sunnis, the influential merchant class in two largest Syrian cities — Aleppo and Damascus — have avoided the protest movement. While not staunch supporters of the Assad regime, they are fearful of the sectarian violence erupting in the post-Assad era as it did in Iraq after president Saddam Hussein. By arming Alawi villagers around the port city of Latakia, the authorities have hinted strongly that bloodletting could occur between Alawis and Sunnis in the area in the wake of the fall of the Alawi-dominated regime.

Different from Egypt

Top leadership of Syria’s military, police and intelligence services is far more cohesive than Egypt’s. Most army generals and high ranking officers of the other security forces and intelligence agencies belong to the Alawi sub-sect within Shia Islam — as does President Assad. Their minority status in Sunni-dominated Syria makes them hang together for fear of hanging separately. The chance of any split in Syria’s military high command, as happened in Egypt, can be virtually ruled out.
Another key to understanding the different fates of street protests in Syria and Egypt lies with the composition of their respective military high commands and advanced weapons supplied to them by major powers. Since 1971, Syria has depended primarily on the Soviet Union/Russia for advanced weaponry.

Syria’s situation is altogether different. Since the seizure of power by air force commander General Hafiz Assad in 1971 in the internal struggle in the eight-year-old Baathist regime, Syria has depended primarily on the Soviet Union/Russia for advanced weaponry. So Washington and Brussels have no leverage over Syria’s military.

Little wonder that Assad’s lifting of the 48-year-old emergency laws on April 21 made no difference. Syria continues to use its repressive instruments to the fullest.
Major powers are divided on how to respond to the crackdown. Condemnation by US and European Union leaders is combined with travel and financial sanctions against Syria’s top officials, including President Assad.

The Kremlin’s stance is rooted in its global security strategy. Buoyed by the rising prices of oil and gas, Russia has reinvigorated its navy and reestablished naval presence in open seas since 2007. Among other things, this has raised the significance of the Syrian port of Tartus.

Under the rule of President Hafiz Assad, Tartus became a supply and maintenance base for the Soviet Navy’s 5th Mediterranean Squadron in 1971.
Following Medvedev’s visit to Damascus in May 2010, there were reports of $1 billion worth sale of Russian warplanes, artillery and anti-aircraft missiles, to be financed by Iran, which signed a mutual defence pact with Syria in 2006.

In August 2010, Russian Navy chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said that, with the completion of the first stage of modernisation of Tartus in 2012, the base would accommodate heavy warships, including aircraft carriers.

A foothold in Syria means a lot to any major power. Syria shares borders with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Damascus is the headquarters of all the secular and radical Palestinian factions. While Hamas governs the Gaza Strip, its Politburo is based in the Syrian capital. Until Israel settles its dispute with Syria on the occupied Golan Heights, Arab-Israeli reconciliation will be incomplete.
Role in Lebanon
Though its troops departed from Lebanon six years ago, Syria remains the main player in that country. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been in office since January, thanks to backing from Hezbollah, a close ally of Syria. Its leader Hassan Nasarallah has called for support to Assad. Even former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance and son of the assassinated Rafiq Hariri, paid respects to Assad with a visit to Damascus.

By letting jihadists from other Arab countries infiltrate Iraq during the mid-2000s to create mayhem for the US troops there, Assad proved that Syria’s cooperation was essential to stabilise Iraq. This is even more so as the Pentagon prepares to end its role in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia, which openly contests Syrian influence in Lebanon, is backing Assad in the name of stability. Earlier Saudi King Abdullah had urged US President Barrack Obama to stand by Mubarak, and given refuge to the deposed Tunisian President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali.

Finally, Israeli leaders would prefer dealing with Assad, the known adversary, rather than risk dealing with a new regime led by majority Sunnis likely influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood repressed by Hafiz Assad in 1982.

Commenting on Assad’s amnesty offer for political prisoners, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded an end to unjust detentions along with allowing entry of human rights monitors into Syria. While suggesting that Washington’s patience with Assad was exhausted, she refrained from explicitly calling on him to step down.
Given near certainty of Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council and the ambivalence of the leading western nations, now embroiled in battle in Libya, the regime of Assad may yet survive the upheaval unleashed by the Arab Spring.

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