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Assad’s Noose Tightens

1:00 PM, Aug 9, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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Bashar al-Assad

Beirut—Kuwait and Bahrain are the most recent additions to the list of Gulf Cooperation Council states that have withdrawn their ambassadors to Syria. First Qatar yanked its diplomat, after a regime-led mob attacked Doha’s embassy in Damascus. Now, with the ruler in Damascus laying siege to Deir al-Zour, and murdering Sunni Muslims in the middle of Ramadan, Saudi Arabia has been compelled to act, withdrawing its ambassador yesterday, shortly before Kuwait and Bahrain made their announcements.

These withdrawals leave the Obama administration with one less excuse to take more forthright action against Damascus—like recalling our own ambassador, banishing the Syrian ambassador from Washington, and calling unequivocally for Assad to go. For months the White House was briefing reporters that the Saudis as well as the Israelis were anxious about Washington taking any precipitous action against Damascus for fear of what might replace the Assad regime. These claims came after top Israeli officials—including the prime minister and defense minister—had come out publicly against the regime. Since Assad’s brutality toward his own people would render him incapable of ever mustering enough popular will to sign a peace deal, he was irrelevant to Israel. As for keeping the border on the Golan Heights quiet for forty years, Jerusalem understands that this is more a matter of successful Israeli deterrence than the disposition of the Assad clan. So now that the Saudis have thrown up their hands as well, where are the Americans?

The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who was in Washington last week, called the Syrian regime's action in Hama  “grotesque” and “abhorrent” in an interview with Christiane Amanpour. It seems that the administration expects that the Senate will confirm Ford (he was dispatched to Syria in December on a recess appointment) and that the Syrians will eventually toss him out. Instead of recalling Ford, the White House wants to put the onus on Damascus, striving not to stray from its policy of engagement—apparently, Obama must show the world that he tried to reach out to despots who murder their own people, and that, in return, the despot proved incorrigible. A better option, suggested by Hudson Institute senior fellow Hillel Fradkin, is for the Senate to confirm Ford, acknowledge his fine work as a diplomat, and then for the White House to recall him. If and when Ford goes back to Damascus, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to travel much outside of the embassy, which was attacked a few weeks ago when he returned from his trip to Hama he took to show solidarity with protestors there. Security forces laid siege to the city shortly thereafter.

The White House justifies Ford’s presence in Syria insofar as it wants him to identify opposition figures who, in the aftermath of Assad’s fall, would be willing to work with minorities as well as the Sunni majority that have spearheaded the uprising. The administration is right to fear sectarian violence but its frustration with the Syrian opposition is less easy to understand.

To be sure, the opposition lacks a unified leadership, and therefore coherence, but after forty years of authoritarian rule it’s no mystery why neither the opposition in exile, nor the local coordinating committees are very bad at political organization. This is a talent that would require years of experience, and it’s the sort of political activism that got Syrians killed, jailed, or banished by Bashar and his father, Hafez. This fact is apparently lost on Obama officials, who are afraid to take the step of calling for Assad to leave until they know exactly what comes next. But berating the opposition for its lack of management skills is only going to further limit the administration’s ability to shape what comes after Assad.

The withdrawal of the Arab ambassadors shows again that the White House is playing catch-up. The question is whether this diplomatic movement is an indication that Assad’s time is running out and regional actors are betting against him.

“What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia,” said Saudi king Abdullah, explaining the move. The Syrian regime’s violence is inexcusable, he said, and has “nothing to do with religion, or values, or ethics.”

Of course, the same is true for Saudi repression and the actions of the kingdom’s ally, Bahrain. The regime in Manama has repressed its own uprising with the assistance of Riyadh and the Gulf Cooperation Council forces. It’s worth noting that some of Bahrain’s own security forces include thousands of naturalized citizens from around the region, including Syrians from the same tribal areas that the Damascus regime is now attacking. Given Bahrain’s own precarious security issues at present, there is no reason to risk alienating security forces imported to secure the realm at home.

Kuwait’s turnaround may be the most significant since, as Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains, Assad and his cousin Rami Makhlouf have reached out to the Kuwaitis for financial assistance. “Makhlouf, who is now sanctioned by the U.S. and the EU, sold off his shares in his duty-free network to the Kuwaiti Kharafi Group,” says Badran. “However, now with Saudi Arabia recalling its ambassador, and Qatar already having done so, Kuwait had to follow suit in distancing itself from Assad.”

Here in Beirut, Lebanese officials are looking at other indicators to gauge when Assad’s time is up. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, often referred to as the region’s political weathervane, is rumored to believe that the regime next door is done, but is waiting for clearer signs before he gives out instructions to Syria’s Druze community that it’s time to jump ship. So far, Syrian Druze have been watching quietly, while other minorities like the Christians have explicitly allied themselves with the Alawite minority regime, a potentially catastrophic move.

Jumblatt, it seems, is waiting to see which way the army goes, and yesterday’s report of defense minister Ali Habib’s death is “so striking,” as Elliott Abrams writes. Turkish officials believed that Habib could’ve been someone they could’ve reached out to, a prospect that may have compelled the Syrian regime to take desperate action. Habib is presumably the victim of a quiet regime execution. Ammar Abdulhamid's blog suggests that the regime may have feared his connections to Washington, given his role in leading the Syrian contingent under U.S. command in Operation Desert Storm.

Other observers believe that Assad’s doom may not depend on the breakup of the army, and that he may have already dug his own grave by making war on Syria’s powerful tribes in the eastern part of the country.

“The regime abducted and detained the chief of the tribal confederacy, Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, and assaulted Deir al-Zour with tanks,” says Badran. “The tribes are incensed and ready to mobilize against Assad. Unlike the besieged civilians in Hama or Homs, these tribes straddle the border with Iraq where they have extensions that number even more than they do in Syria. This means that should they decide to pick up arms against the regime, they will have strategic depth in Iraq. A tribal insurrection in eastern Syria poses a critical challenge to Assad and his troops—many of whom have already defected in Deir al-Zour and Albu Kamal—as he would have to reallocate resources further out in the east. With the military stretched thin as it is, unable to control multiple cities simultaneously, attrition in the east might become a fatal wound.”

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