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The Fall of the House of Assad

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By LEE SMITH
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Bashar al-Assad is finished. The Arab League has condemned him, as have former allies Qatar and Turkey. One time Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal says Assad’s exit is inevitable. Perhaps most significantly, King Abdullah II of Jordan felt sufficiently confident of Assad’s fall to call for the president of Syria, the Hashemite Kingdom’s historical nemesis, to step down.

Photo of people burning a poster of Assad

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In the past, a more vigorous Syrian regime would have lashed out against its critics and rivals by unleashing its terrorist assets. But to date, Hezbollah has kept its head down, balancing its support of Damascus with the recognition that the regional Sunni majority has come to detest a regime that has so far slaughtered upward of 3,500 people, most of them Sunni. Hamas is doing its best to distance itself from Assad and is looking to relocate—maybe to Qatar, or even to Islamist-friendly Tunisia. It’s true that Assad hasn’t played all his cards yet: He’s still threatening to destabilize Turkey, but attacks on embassies in Damascus—including those of France, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco, and others—rather than terrorist operations abroad suggest the regime is hemmed in.

The domestic front is no better for Assad. The Syrian economy is in free fall. Businessmen are betting against his survival by holding on to dollars and euros and devaluing the local currency. The last few weeks have seen more and more defections from the Syrian military and armed operations against security and military outposts. Assad has the Russians in his corner, for the time being, but soon he may have only Iran standing with him.

Meanwhile, as Assad is running out of time, the Obama administration’s Iran policy is running out of options.

The peace process that was supposed to galvanize a coalition of pro-American Arab states to take on the Islamic Republic is moribund. Moreover, some of those allied regimes no longer look the way they did when Obama came to office. Egypt, for instance, is too consumed with its domestic upheavals to align its foreign policy with the foreign powers whom the loudest voices in post-Mubarak politics perceive to be the real enemy—not Iran but Israel and the United States.

Obama’s engagement with Tehran also proved fruitless. The prospect of reaching an accommodation so clouded the president’s judgment that when the Green Movement took to the streets in June 2009, he missed a huge opportunity to back the regime’s internal opposition.

Containment will fail too. For in the scheme put forth by the White House, containment is a catchword rather than a policy. If the model is meant to conform to the Cold War, it becomes obvious that no matter how many weapons are sold to the Saudis, Emiratis, and other Gulf Cooperation Council members, the coalition is worthless without a strong American presence on the front line. But, instead of maintaining a presence comprising hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, the White House is withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, the one forward position in the region that could have served a role similar to that of the American troops still in Germany.

Obama has a big move left on the board, but it will require the president to turn his worldview on its head. He came to office with the idea that Syria was central, and as it turns out it is—but not for the reasons he imagined three years ago.

Obama believed that getting Damascus at the negotiating table with Israel would cool the region, earn the president the confidence of Arab regimes and their subjects, and drive a wedge between the Syrians and the Iranians. The Arab Spring brought clarifying, if intemperate, weather: Damascus was key not because it was strong, but because it was feeble, the weakest link in a chain that extended from Hezbollah to Iran. The self-described “beating heart of Arabism” was nothing but a smoke and mirror show. Assad exported terrorism to Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere for the same reason his father did—to destabilize his neighbors before they could destabilize Syria. With history as a guide, a post-Assad Syria will almost certainly look like the Syria Hafez al-Assad inherited in 1970—a country susceptible not only to the influence of regional actors, but vulnerable to its own internal dynamics.

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