Expert: Syrian Ruler Feeling Pressure, But ‘A Long Way to Go’

Photo Courtesy of UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

While Arab League monitors have entered Syria to observe firsthand the regime’s vicious crackdown on dissidents, one regional expert believes there’s still a ways to go before Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad finally succumbs to popular pressure. Dr. Jonathan Spyer told The Mideast Update by phone on Thursday that the Syrian authorities are pretending to end their brutality, but only enough to give the Arab observers a false impression.

The United Nations has said that more than 5,000 people have been killed by the Syrian repression of a protest movement that began in March. Syria has agreed to a multi-faceted deal with Arab states that would see the regime end its military operations against civilians, but isn’t truly adhering to the agreement.

“I don’t think that the Assad regime can step down the violence if it wishes to survive, and all the evidence suggests that the Assad regime is determined to survive, is determined not to compromise and intends to fight this to the end,” said Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC-Herziliya in Israel. “…The regime cannot and will not withdraw its forces  in real terms from populated areas if it wishes to survive. So what it has to do then is to, in effect, pretend to be doing that in the face of the Arab League observers, while in reality failing to do so.”

As an example, Spyer said that the observers visited a town on Wednesday, and the Syrians removed their armed vehicles from the town “for a short period of time,” with the head of the observers then giving a positive report on the town’s situation. But as soon as the monitors left, the armed forces returned. “The Assad regime is trying to buy time; it will try to give an impression of complying with the protocol,” said Spyer.

Spyer noted that some in the Arab world are “somewhat skeptical” about the observer mission, but that there is also a concern about paving the way for international intervention in Syria as was seen in Libya. “I think those countries of the Arab League who are promoting and supporting this are themselves concerned, if one is to be honest about it, not only with a good outcome for the Syrian people, but they are also concerned actually to prevent international intervention,” said Spyer. He said that this allows some in the Arab League to argue that they can handle this and ask others to give the mission a “chance to succeed.”

Spyer said there are Arab states who fear international intervention “very much” and fear “what the possible implications and results of that could be.”

Overall, Assad is feeling the heat from a variety of sanctions on his country from the West and the Arab League in response to the regime’s crackdown. Spyer noted that the Syrian economy is projected to contract next year by 3%. “They are feeling the heat without a doubt, and I think the economic sanctions are biting,” said Spyer. The loss of tourism has also hit the economy, not to mention the high cost of continuing the government’s repression of the dissidents.

In light of that, Assad’s not invincible and Spyer doesn’t think it’s likely he will ultimately triumph over the opposition. However, Spyer also pointed out that Assad has a number of factors supporting him that could drag this out a lot longer.

One is international support. Assad has the backing of Russia—which already vetoed one UN Security Council condemnation of the Syrian brutality—as well as support from economic partners such as China. Assad also has support logistical and aid from Iran, which sees Assad as a critical ally in the region.

Spyer feels that the opposition movement is still splintered, and that regardless Assad has many more resources and manpower at his disposal. “The Free Syrian Army [an opposition force] claims to have between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters. I’ve spoke to reliable sources on this who say that the real number is probably a lot lower, something like 3,000 fighters,” said Spyer, who compared that to the official tally of more than 200,000 people available to Assad’s army. “Of course Assad probably can’t call on all those people, but he certainly has a much larger number of loyal fighters, of course far better equipped, than anything which the rebels right now can put into the field,” despite Syrian army desertions.

Elements in the opposition have increased their use of force against the Assad regime, with Spyer saying that a quasi-civil war is essentially already underway. That could cause serious concern for Turkey, which shares a border with Syria.

“I think that in many ways there is already a kind of low-level civil war in existence in Syria,” with Spyer noting that the death toll is showing that “this is no longer simply an insurgency and there are dead on the Syrian army side too.”

Despite that, Spyer said Turkey does not want to get involved and risk engaging their military with Syria’s, and thereby launching a full war between the neighboring countries. For now, it doesn’t look like the West has the desire to launch an independent Libya-style intervention either.

The final timeline for Assad’s reign of terror is unclear. Spyer pointed out that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak believes the Syrian ruler has only weeks in power left. However, while Spyer said Barak has access to additional intelligence and may know something he does not, based on what he can see the Syrian revolution looks like it will last for a while.

“My sense right now remains is that this regime can hold on for quite some time to come,” said Spyer. “At the same time it is not succeeding, in spite of some of its boasts, in putting down the insurgency. In fact the insurgency slowly, but surely, is continuing to spread… There’s a kind of stalemate, a very bloody and difficult stalemate, which pertains right now.

“…It’s very unlikely that Bashar Assad will be handing on power in Syria on to his son in 20 years time from now the way that his father did to him, but anything less than that I think it would be rash indeed to start making predictions.”

(By Joshua Spurlock,, December 29, 2011)