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Assad’s Noose Tightens

1:00 PM, Aug 9, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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“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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