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Assad's Days Numbered? Think Again

Too many analysts and journalists have based their pronouncements of Assad's "numbered days" on wishful thinking.
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad carry the national flag as they ride on motorcycles in Qusair, after the Syrian army took control from rebel fighters, June 5, 2013. Syrian government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies seized control of the border town of Qusair on Wednesday, dealing a major defeat to rebel fighters battling to overthrow Assad. REUTERS/Mohammed Azakir (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTX10CO4

Let’s start with a proper disclosure. I also thought that his days were numbered. Maybe he had more than two weeks left, but I followed the rebels’ reports, even if they sometimes bordered on manipulative propaganda, and I came to the conclusion that the man, his family, his government and his ethnic community were all living on borrowed time.

I was absolutely wrong about that.

By now it’s obvious. Like so many others, I reached the conclusion that the wimpy leader who was the butt of everyone’s jokes, and who gave the impression of being like a leaf blown about by the wind, would not stay in power for long. By now it’s quite clear that he not only survived the storm that was the Arab Spring, but that he even managed to repel it with his blood-stained hands.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Syria’s new strongman, Syrian President Bashar Assad. The “wimp” has exited stage right. He has fallen on the sword of a media that elevated his opponents. And from the ruins and battle smoke that continues to hover over Syria’s cities — Assad has risen; Assad the Stubborn, Assad the Survivor, the man whose premature obituaries were greatly exaggerated.

Bashar Assad is preparing to put up a fight in Damascus, just so that he can stay. Despite all their good intentions, plans by Europe and the White House to arm the rebels or provide logistical assistance are unrealistic. They won’t bring down the Syrian regime. They’ll just end up adding to the awful bloodshed there.

Last month [May] the Syrian army and its adjuncts in Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards successfully curbed the rebels’ advances. They managed to take back control of the key city of Qusair and to prepare for the decisive battle for Aleppo. The rebels may have won the propaganda war, but Assad won the battle. It doesn’t matter why. It makes no difference whether it was because of aid from China or Russia, or if it was the result of divisions and disputes among all the rebel groups, which have not had the good sense to consolidate or for any other reason. Bashar Assad proved that if you fire all your weapons, and by that I mean all your tanks, your jets and maybe even your chemical weapons, your chances of winning increase.

Sitting in his palace in Damascus, Bashar Assad can watch al Jazeera with contempt. He can follow live broadcast of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s trial in Cairo, smile to himself and say out loud, “Who do you think you are, Mr. ex-Rais, Mr. ex-President, to tell me how to stay in power?'' By the way, it sounds much better in Arabic.

Beyond the personal issue, it is time to reassess the situation. Was the European decision to lift the embargo on arms shipments to the rebels a wise move? Was it helpful? Is it in the interests of the European Union to help Islamist militias like Jabhat al-Nusra, which is actually a branch of al-Qaeda that dreams of uniting Syria with Iraq and perpetuating the bloodshed and massacres?

Given the way the Syrian crisis was managed, it looks like everybody came out a loser. To the American public, and to the international community as well, the Obama administration failed in its foreign policy. It didn’t read the situation properly. More precisely, it failed again. The same thing that happened to the Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt, is happening again in Syria. While President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and others dithered, considered and acted with caution, and then reconsidered and made threats about crossing red lines, only to back down, someone else went for the win.

By "someone else" I mean China and Russia, but mainly Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stood on their hind legs and announced to the world, “We will not let Bashar Assad fall,” and indeed, Assad is showing clear signs that he’s here to stay, and for much longer than two weeks. In the battle between the superpowers, Putin beat Obama. He beat him in a big way.

And then there is another major player in the region: Israel.

Israel spent a long time sitting on the fence. According to news reports, it had been providing some assistance to the rebels, though not in any orderly way, until one fine day it attacked from the air. What came of that? Bitter tensions between Israel and Syria, and a northern border that could blow up at any moment.

So what’s the final conclusion? Should Israel and the West file all their plans for the “day after”? Should they prepare for a Syria led by a different Bashar Assad? It seems to me as if there is no choice but to accept Bashar Assad in his new incarnation. As a leader, what didn’t kill him made him stronger.

Almost all of us, and by that I mean all the journalists, reporters and commentators, based our analyses of events in Syria on false images that we created ourselves.

The time has come for us to mend this distorted picture and to present a very different reality, one not based on wishful thinking or fantasies, but on the facts on the ground.

The sooner we do that, the better. 

Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

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