International Pressure Rises on Violent Syrian Dictatorship

As Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime collapses, another Middle East autocrat is facing more and more heat internationally: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The latest indication that Assad is losing ground in his battle with anti-regime protesters came on Wednesday when a key ally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, offered at least veiled criticism of Syria’s violence against its own people—and in an interview on a TV station affiliated with one of Syria’s closest patrons, Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

Speaking on Al-Manar TV, Ahmadinejad argued against violence as a means for solving a dispute between a regime and its people. According to a report on the interview by the website for the Iranian presidency, Ahmadinejad said internal violence and massacres from either side as a means to solve problems ultimately benefits “the Zionists,” the Iranian term generally used for Israel.

Based on the report it was unclear if Ahmadinejad was speaking specifically of Syria at that time, although he also referred specifically to the situation there during the interview. Noting that he believes the West interfered in Libya because of self-interest, including money and oil, Ahmadinejad linked his repeated critiques of the West with advice for Syria.

Said the Iranian president, “The Syrian people, too, should beware and alert and try to solve their problems based on mutual understanding and the required reforms, knowing that the westerners are after managing the regional crises, even resorting to military moves to reach that end.”

Prof. Eyal Zisser, a regional expert on Syria and dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University in Israel, said in a phone interview with The Mideast Update that there was “no doubt” that the international response is escalating against Assad. He noted that one reason for Iran to critique its key ally is to keep from losing the support of the Arab public—a public that has risen up against dictators in multiple countries across the region.

According to a report on the Al-Manar website, Ahmadinejad seemed to reach out to the general public, saying that people should “have the right for elections, freedom, and justice, and so they should specify a time frame for these issues to be implemented without permitting any western intervention.”

Ahmadinejad’s critiques come as Syria’s violence against its own people has included military incursions and even tank attacks against Syrian cities. Reports have pegged the death toll at well over 1000 and rising. Yet the protests have now managed to continue for months on end, and Zisser noted that Iran is also trying to cover itself somewhat in case the Assad regime eventually does fall.

However, despite the limited Iranian verbal critiques, it remains to be seen if Iran’s key practical support of Syria will continue. Another expert on Syria, Dr. Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC-Herziliya in Israel, said at this point it is unclear if things will change there.

“Certainly, up until today, in practical terms, one of the key assets remaining to the Syrian regime has been the fact that their strategic ally or patron, Iran, has been backing them all the way, helping them in their process of repression,” said Spyer, speaking with The Mideast Update by phone. “If that’s going to change, and we don’t yet know if it is going to change, that will change the picture significantly in Syria. But right now at least, all we have is one statement from Ahmadinejad.”

He said there is a sense that Iran and Hezbollah have been made to feel “uncomfortable” by their hypocrisy in supporting protestors in some places but not in Syria, although as of now that doesn’t appear to stopped their “on the ground” support for Syria. He felt that active support was likely to continue in light of Syria’s strategic importance to Iran and Hezbollah, at least until the Assad regime really appears to be “doomed,” should that time come.

Syria’s troubles don’t end with Iran, however. Turkey, which at one point was growing closer to its regional neighbor, has unleashed harsh criticism, especially as refugees from Syria have fled to Turkey. And the West is upping the ante as well.

Zisser summed up the growing pressure on Assad by pointing out that at the beginning of the protests US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton effectively called Assad a reformer, and now President Barack Obama has called for Assad to step down.

However, words can only do so much, and the West has also been upgrading sanctions on Syria. Spyer said that one very important move could be a decision by Europe to initiate sanctions on Syrian oil.

“There are European countries which are the major purchasers of Syrian crude oil, so if that sector is hit, at a time when other important sections of the Syrian economy such as tourism have been reduced to an absolute standstill by the unrest, this places the regime in trouble,” said Spyer. “The Assad regime does not have limitless currency reserves, and it is an expensive business to go from town to town slaughtering your own population.”

Despite his repeated assertion that things are heating up internationally for Assad, at this point Zisser was unwilling to make predictions on how the international pressure would ultimately affect Syria. Spyer too was cautious, noting that the rebellion is very hard to predict. He also pointed out that based on experience sanctions “take a long time to play out and generally they themselves are not sufficient to bring a regime down absent other factors.”

Spyer felt some key goals which the rebellion has not achieved, and which would “begin to really place the future of the regime in jeopardy,” were to precipitate “a split” in the elite around Assad or the Syrian security forces—neither of which has been the case as of yet, aside from some “minor exceptions.”

“Neither the rebellion nor the regime are willing to give ground… It’s kind of, in a certain sense, a stalemate at the moment,” said Spyer. “In spite of the appearance of action, there’s a lot going on, but in the more strategic senses right now it’s stalemate, with neither side wiling to back down and neither side right now capable of destroying the other.”

The one prediction Spyer felt comfortable making is that the situation looks likely to be a long-term one. “My own sense is that this has a way to run yet, that’s something which I would be willing to take a risk and predict. In other words, I don’t think that the Assad regime is going to back down any time soon. My sense is that it’s going to get worse before it changes,” said Spyer, who noted its possible the situation could see the rebels taking up more arms against the regime. He didn’t think economic pressure would be enough to bring down Assad quickly.

Said Spyer, “For as long as the West rejects more direct intervention into Syria, I think that this could play out for quite a long time to come. We know from experience in the Middle East that rebellions can carry on for a long time, without either ending or achieving their goals. And my own sense is that’s what is most likely in Syria right now.”

(By Joshua Spurlock,, August 26, 2011)