Across the Bay

Thursday, October 06, 2005

It's All Over

So says Volker Perthes about Bashar's regime in a fine piece in IHT (via Ammar).

Perthes shows why all of Bashar's "counter-attack" plans will amount to nothing, even if the report doesn't actually name him personally. The post-report mechanisms will continue to pressure him and keep eroding his credibility until other alternatives emerge.

Perthes outlines three scenarios:

First, Assad could embark on a movement to change the system from the top. He would put the blame for the mistakes of the past five years on some of his associates and retire them, release political prisoners, announce real parliamentary elections in a year or so, with competitive presidential elections to follow. At the same time, he would decide that it is more important, from a Syrian national interest perspective, to prevent civil war in Iraq than to gain the satisfaction of seeing the Americans fail.

This is the rosiest scenario for all the Bashar believers like my friend Josh Landis, who has been trying to sell this line for a while, and has cranked it up the last few days with posts on how Bashar is now cracking down on "Jihadists." The DS ran a story about some move by Bashar to "reform" the Judiciary. I think it will fall flat like everything he's done. I don't think there's anyone who believes this guy can deliver anything. Neither does Perthes:

This scenario would demand strong leadership, so unfortunately it is not likely to come about. Neither Assad nor most of his associates [ed.'s note: see Dardary's remarks here] seem to understand the world around them. Assad is simply not up for the job he has inherited. And an increasing number of Syrians, including many in high military and security positions, are realizing this.

The second scenario is the continuing disintegration of the state leading to ethno-sectarian strife. This is the scenario that drives Josh's analysis, and pushes him to advocate Bashar instead. The fear of chaos is reasonable of course and it would be bad not just for Syria but for its neighbors. However as Lee Smith (see below) pointed out, as far as the neighbors are concerned, this regime already exports its own tensions by interfering with neighboring countries, and manipulating their tensions. We've seen this in Lebanon and Iraq. Perthes now adds the element of post-Mehlis erosion of legitimacy, control and credibility of the state, possibly leading to that chaos regardless of whether Bashar stays or not. This is why Landis had to propose that the US back Bashar in a campaign to reassert by force the regime's authority, and has been advocating that the Lebanese simply "get over" their desire to seek the truth behind Hariri's assassination (not to mention the ones that followed). I myself proposed a "Syrian Taef" of sorts to be able to absorb this kind of tension, and to try and achieve a peaceful transition.

Perthes has a somewhat different third scenario, though not in total conflict with mine:

Given the risks of disintegration, a growing number of Syrians see a third scenario as almost inevitable: a military coup. Such a takeover would have to be led by someone from the highest military echelons who would also be a member of the Alawite sect (to which Assad belongs).

In today's Middle East, coups are probably only possible if they come with a credible promise of democratic change. Any military officer who pushed away Assad and his entourage would therefore have to allow the formation of political forces and real elections in due course. Such a program would win the indispensable support of the bourgeoisies of Damascus and Aleppo as well as of civil servants, intellectuals and even much of the rank and file of the Baath Party. A takeover by a Syrian Musharraf, as it were, would not be a perfect way out, but it might be the least bad solution.

It is not a coincidence that Bashar removed Khaddam and Shihabi, the two powerful Sunni potential-rivals. And it's easy to entertain the rumours that these two have met in Paris with French and Saudi officials, with the implication that the two countries were looking beyond the Assad era.

As for Alawite figures, Ghazi Kanaan comes to mind, and he's been involved in a bitter power-struggle with Bashar's brother-in-law Asef Shawkat. There have been hints and leaks (probably by Asef's people) that Bashar was looking to dimiss him, and there was speculation whether he'd be scapegoated for the Hariri assassination along with Rustom Ghazaleh. No one knows for sure. And Perthes is right. Anyone from within the system is cleary not an ideal option, and they would have to initiate a proper transition into something more legitimate and more representative. I think my own scenario can come into play in this case, where the transition would be under an international and regional umbrella, in order to contain it and keep it together. Therefore, Perthes is right to say: "Europe and the United States have a strong interest that change takes place in Damascus and, even more so, that such change come about without anarchy and state failure."

We've already heard this coming from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France, even the US. Unfortunately, as Ammar noted, Bashar tried to spin this as "breaking Syria's isolation." But it's a false hope, and only a short breather. Interest in stability won't buy Bashar credibility. It only means prolonging the inevitable, until some proper alternative emerges. Bashar has cashed in all his chips. There are no more creditors.

In contrast to Josh's hopes, and in agreement with Ammar's fears, I think Bashar's behavior will again prove destructive. He will try to spin this as a victory of sorts, in his typical petty defiance. He will also pursue his regional cards, especially in Lebanon, where I'm afraid, we will continue to suffer from explosions and such. The French have already stated that any such acts of violence in Lebanon will be blamed, fairly or not, on Syria. But this regional "strategy" is integral to the regime's nature (two good pieces on this are Hazem Saghieh's in al-Hayat, and Naseer al-Asaad's in al-Mustaqbal).

Bashar will likely continue to narrow his base, in fear of any possible alternative. This is what he has been doing anyway. Any sudden "change of heart" will find few, if any, buyers. It's all about transition now. Rien ne va plus.

Perthes, to a certain extent, agrees:

Should Assad decide to change course, cooperate with the international community and embark on real political reform, Europe and the United States should still be prepared to lend him a helping hand. But if high Syrian officials are accused in the Mehlis report and if Assad refuses to cooperate, the West should isolate his regime - not punish the Syrian people - and signal their preparedness to work with its successors.

The first sentence is essentially negated by the second, which is why, no matter how hard he tries, the Mehlis report, and, more importantly, the post-report mechanisms, will prove to be the final nail. That's why it's key for him to discredit it and try to get around it, which is the purpose of his current campaign, with all his Lebanese cronies, from Lahoud to Hizbullah, chipping in. But it's impossible to conceive that no Syrian official will be named. Bashar's "cooperation" then will make little difference. So, to build something long-term on Bashar seems hardly likely. His credibility will continue to erode, and his isolation will continue, until something workable emerges.