With Muammar Qaddafi surrounded in Tripoli, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad may be starting to fear more for his future. Perhaps he’s thinking that the international coalition that brought down the Libyan leader may now turn its attention to him—but now with a victory, once thought uncertain, under its belt.
Assad seemed cool and controlled in his canned interview yesterday on Syrian state TV, contending that calls from foreign leaders for him to step down are “worthless.” Nonetheless, allies and adversaries are getting ready for what comes next in Damascus.
Iran has replaced its envoy to Syria, which, an Iranian opposition website says, is “a sign the political situation in Syria was critical.” The media outlet also quoted “an unnamed Syrian diplomat saying that Iranian embassy staff have vacated their homes in Damascus and sent their families back to Iran in fear of the regime’s imminent collapse.”
However, since departing ambassador Ahmad Moussavi was evidently an ally of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, serving formerly as his vice president for legal affairs, the shuffle may merely reflect the ongoing crisis within the Iranian regime itself, pitting Ahmadinejad allies against Khameini loyalists.
The Iranians are not about to abandon Assad without a serious fight—perhaps last week’s series of attacks on Israel, engineered by Iran’s client Hamas, was evidence of this. Tehran’s defense of Syria consists in part of shifting attention away from the Alawite regime’s slaughter of the country’s Sunni majority. However, since the Iranians are presumably concerned about opening up a front against Israel from Lebanon, thereby jeopardizing a thirty-year investment in Hezbollah, they must find another staging ground. The Sinai, territory that Iran has been infiltrating since Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt, may fit the bill.
Last week, Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK) met to discuss the creation of a buffer zone in the event of protracted sectarian violence in Syria. The prospect of a refugee crisis “sending millions of Syrians to the Turkish border to seek safe haven is why Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described what has been happening in Syria since March as very much an internal affair of Turkey.’”
Lest Damascus adopt the “scorched-earth-policy” with respect to civilians in border areas, Turkey, with Europe's largest army, would have no problem in providing firepower to protect and secure refugee centers. We all know what happened in so-called safe havens in Bosnia, Rwanda and northern Iraq where hundreds and thousands were butchered despite promises of protection from the UN or occupying powers. Turks do not want anything like this on their conscience and will do everything in their power to prevent the Assad regime from going after fleeing refugees.
The younger Assad should recall how Turkey, frustrated with the terror originating in its southern neighbor, threatened military action against his country in the late 1990s... Like father, son Assad knows very well that Turkey means business and that it does not fool around.
British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg compared Assad to the colonel, saying that “He is as irrelevant to Syria's future as Qaddafi is to Libya's.” Clegg continued: “This is a man who has lied endlessly, broken his promises repeatedly, hurt his own people and now his time is up.”
That’s true, and it might help hasten Assad’s exit if his government was pushing ahead on energy sanctions against the Syrian regime. Instead, according to U.S. sources, the Brits are the major obstacle in choking off the regime’s lifeblood. “Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt played down suggestions that the EU could follow the lead given by US President Barack Obama in banning Syrian oil imports,” reads a report from Telegraph. “We have not taken a decision on oil,” said Burt. “It has got to be discussed because to be effective it has got to work collectively with the rest of the EU….What we have got to do, and what we are doing, is increasing the pressure in a manner which does not enable a Syrian spokesman to say ‘You are damaging the Syrian people.’”
The point here is not what the Syrian spokesmen are saying. (The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said Syrian “officials at every level lie. They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie.”) Rather, the EU, as well as the U.S., are concerned about getting into a situation like Iraq, where democracies were held accountable for the suffering of the Iraqi people.
To be sure, sanctions hurt Iraqis as they will invariably hurt Syrians, because that is the way these regimes are designed. The problem was that Saddam considered the national wealth his own, and the same is true for the Assad regime, which is one of the reasons why the Syrian opposition has stood up.
Perhaps the more pertinent lesson to be drawn from Iraq is that sanctions may not be enough to bring down the regime. It was U.S. military might that toppled Saddam. While no one is recommending force right now, it surely isn’t a good idea to immediately discount the possibility of using it at some point. Assad has now seen what happens when the world pools its resources against a dictator who slaughters his own people. Let him fear the same.