Assad Playing His Cards Right

Article Summary
According to Soli Ozel, it was clever of Bashar al-Assad to internationalize the Syrian conflict and portray his regime as a beacon of stability for Arab Christians and Muslims alike. Yet at this point, his regime is dependent on Russian support for its survival, whatever strategy it chooses to adopt.

The Syrian issue is turning out to be more complicated than originally expected. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has not only surpassed expectations by surviving this long, but has also played its cards right, finding additional allies beyond Iran. The Ba’ath regime’s struggle for survival has become part of regional and global power plays. So far, its calculations have been working.

The Assad regime has engaged in extreme violence consistently and without mercy. Since the resistance took up arms, it has managed to portray itself as the only actor preventing the country’s slide into civil war. By emphasizing that it is the only body capable of averting sectarian wars, the regime effectively issued a warning to non-Sunnis that  “without me, you are finished.” Because the opposition was too disorganized to attract the urban middle classes into their ranks, Assad benefited from not only the support of Nusayris (Syrian Alawites) and Christians, but also the reluctant support of Sunnis.

Despite being dealt a weak hand, Assad has managed to capitalize on Syria’s strategic importance. As all regional players rushed to fill the massive void left behind by the US withdrawal from Iraq, Assad took advantage of Russia’s desire to step back onto the regional stage, wave its flag on the Mediterranean and settle scores over NATO intervention in Libya. With the support of Iran, China and Russia, armed with Russian weapons and with the knowledge that the probability of foreign intervention is very low, Assad is now laying ground for the future.

Lebanon-based American journalist Michael Young wrote back in July 2011 that the Assad regime had the capacity to create a “Nusayristan,” an Alawite province in the Latakia region with links to Shiites in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa valley. Last week Young wrote on the strategic rationale for the brutal attack on Homs: To control Homs would not only secure contact with the Nusayris there, but would also mean control over the critical roads linking the north, Damascus and the Nusayri lands.

With all of its foreign backing, and given that the Arab and Western countries don’t have a real option to interfere militarily, the regime believes that it will preserve its rule over  the country. If this doesn’t work, it will be able to re-establish itself in Nusayristan. However, Russian support will be essential for both options.

This is why tomorrow’s [February 24] meeting in Tunis and the Russian presidential elections are both important for the Syrian issue. Even if the Syrian regime has not collapsed as quickly as expected, it will not be able to last much longer. If the status quo persists, Russia’s position will eventually be imperiled as it continues to back a bloody regime. What’s more, Russia may pay for its support of Assad by losing its privileges in the port of Tartus should the opposition prevail.

Given the present circumstances, Turkey alone doesn’t have the power to shape developments in Syria. The reluctance of the West along with some of Ankara’s mistakes in its handling of the Syrian crisis are making things harder for Turkey. For the time being Ankara’s most important task is to force the issue of humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people. Ankara should also try to persuade Russia to abandon Assad, as this would certainly be of greater benefit to Moscow in the long run.

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