Protests in Syria continue, but Assad’s grip on power remains safe

This is my first post in a couple months, but a friend encouraged me to blog about Syria, so here I am, and hopefully this motivates me to continue posting again.

The protests in Syria have persisted for eight months now, and the Syrian government’s aggressive crackdown has now killed over 3,500 protesters, according to the UN. The international community has grown increasingly frustrated by the brutal repression by the Assad regime. The Arab League has suspended Syria’s membership and is threatening it with economic sanctions, and the UN has attempted to strengthen its sanctions against Syria, but was vetoed by Russia. Some members of the military have defected and formed the “Free Syrian Army,” (FSA) which seeks to overthrow Assad and have started attacking military bases. But is this enough to challenge Assad?

Although Assad’s regime is isolated in the international community and resented by its own citizens, I do not believe his hold on power is threatened yet. Perhaps, if the pressure continues to build for him to step down, he may transfer power to a crony from the Ba’ath Party, but it will not be a true revolution and little will change. Since Syria holds such tight control over the media, it is difficult to know how far these defections go and how strong the Free Syrian Army is.

Assad has made it clear that he will not accede to demands to step down, so the only hope is for an organized revolution that will bring him down. Unfortunately, the revolution will have to be violent. The peaceful protests were a good start for Syrians to voice their discontent and bring awareness to their struggle, but Assad has shown he will not listen to the protesters, so the protesters’ greatest hope is that the military will listen to their discontent and continue to defect. I said it months ago in one of my posts, and it remains true today: the revolution’s chance for success rests on the military’s willingness to defect and side with the protesters.

Again, it’s difficult to know how strong the Free Syrian Army is in comparison to the military still loyal to Assad, but it is doubtful they would stand a chance against the Syrian army currently. Unlike Libya, where military defectors took Benghazi — Libya’s second largest city — shortly after the rebellion began, the FSA has not made any substantial gains. Libya’s rebel army took nearly half of the country before the UN established a No Fly Zone, and the U.S., France, and Britain began aiding the rebels. Besides attacks on military bases, where they likely gained more defectors and military supplies, the FSA has not accomplished anything. While the FSA estimates a count of 10,000 members (which cannot be verified), the Syrian army has 200,000. Clearly they are significantly outnumbered, and the most elite members of the military are extremely loyal to Assad, so they will unlikely defect.

The international community’s approach is to apply sanctions to Syria. Sanctions will hurt Syria’s economy, but it will not weaken Assad’s control over the country, so if he is determined to remain in power, he will just shrug off the sanctions and allow the economy to falter, as so many other dictators have done and continue to do. Sanctions never destabilized the dictatorships in Cuba, Iraq, Libya, or North Korea, and I cannot imagine it would be any different for Syria. In addition, Syria will likely be able to continue trading with China and Russia as well, so they still have two powerful economies to trade with.

I strongly believe that Assad’s downfall would require the FSA to be strengthened by international support, similar to what happened in Libya. Economic sanctions just will not cripple Assad or his loyal military. The FSA likely realizes this and has called on a No Fly Zone, which could be used to provide military support. There are several reasons why this will not happen: establishing a No Fly Zone with the approval of the UN would almost certainly be vetoed by Russia and China, who did not anticipate how far the U.S., France, and Britain would take the No Fly Zone in Libya and would not want to see a repeat of it in Syria. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine the public in U.S., France, and Britain would support yet another military intervention in the Arab world, and with an election in less than a year, I doubt Obama would risk an unpopular war. Also, for foreign powers to throw their support behind a revolutionary army, they need to know that army has a very good chance of winning, and no one would say that about the FSA yet. Furthermore, besides Syrians’ discontent with Assad’s dictatorship, there is no ideological thread that tie the protesters together, and the FSA has no ideology other than to try to protect the protesters. Without some common ideals representing the movement, foreign powers will not support them because they do not what they stand for. In a country where anti-Americanism is especially high such as Syria, the U.S. has to fear what would replace Assad. While the U.S. dislikes Assad, they know what they have with him and Syria is stable. With Syria sharing borders with Israel and Iraq, a revolution in Syria could create chaos that would pour over in neighboring countries such as Iraq and Israel, which the U.S. certainly can ill afford. Finally, Syria also lacks the oil that Libya possesses, so there is less of a capitalist incentive to gain access to its land.

Hence, I do not see the U.S. or other countries throwing their military support behind the Syrian protest movement, I do not believe the FSA is capable of removing Assad from power without significant foreign help, I do not think Assad will step down unless he is physically removed from power, and Syrians’ peaceful protests and international sanctions are incapable of removing him.