Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Breakdown in Damascus?

by Elliott Abrams
August 9, 2011

The use of deadly force against peaceful demonstrators has been the hallmark of the Assad reaction to protests, and yesterday the King of Saudi Arabia referred to this practice as Assad’s “killing machine.” A key question is whether and when the armed forces will resist–will begin to wonder what kind of future Syria has, and they have in Syria, as the killing escalates.

The survival of the regime is at stake, for it is surviving now on brute force alone.

It is in that context that the death of the man who was an Assad intimate and his Defense Minister, Ali Habib, is so striking. There were reports that he had objected to the use of the military in Hama. And according to news reports, after being fired Monday Habib was found dead in his home Tuesday. The official news agency noted that he had been suffering from a deterioration in his health. As we are talking about Assad’s Syria, that deterioration may have been very rapid indeed: it may have occurred immediately after he was shot.

Habib rose through the ranks, had been an important military figure for nearly twenty years, and had been defense minister for two. He was a regime stalwart. That Assad felt the need not only to sideline him but–if the reports are accurate–to have him killed shows a regime truly falling apart. The decision to kill Habib would have been meant as a warning to other generals to stick with the Assads or face a similar fate, but may have the opposite effect: it might persuade some of them that Assad is leading them, the army, and the country to disaster. This is the kind of thing that leads to defections and coups, and if the army cracks the regime won’t last long.

Update: The latest reports suggest that Habib was indeed removed from office but is alive. His removal continues to raise questions about dissonance within the military. It may not be until the fall of the regime that the full truth about this incident, including the false reports of his death, comes out.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Haytham Tabesh

    Isn’t it a coincidence? firing Habib from his post and finding him dead the next day?
    Well, in Syria there is no place for such conincidences this reminds me much of Ghazi Kanaan ex interior minister and one the regime’s iron men, as well as many others who were found dead in Syria because of health conditions or committing suicide as the formal story always says.
    Personally, i think the regime in Syria is moving fast to its fate>
    It is worth questioning the reason of putting Habib, Alawite, aside and asigning the defense ministry to Rajha, a Christian.
    We shall always look for who’s comming next.

  • Posted by Denise Rend

    It is surprising that what is going on in Syria and the nonresponsiveness of the West come as a shock to most. It shouldn’t.
    This is the moment of truth for the Syrian regime and they know it. But the fact is they have been preparing for this moment from the get go. And I don’t mean since beginning of the Arab Spring but since the consolidation of the regime in the early 1970s.

    The Syrian regime has been engineered in such a way that its only litmus test is whether or not the vital interests of the regime are challenged or threatened at a given time and how much in fact these challenges present risks or opportunities for the regime. Change in regime behavior on certain issues will only come if the interests of the regime are challenged on a given issue. The response, however, has always been the same: adaptation if it presents opportunities, putting it down if it presents risks. But the ultimate goal is to maintain grip on power. And, that is exactly how the regime is behaving today.

    The fact is the regime has been calculating for this moment for a long time. This is survival. This is live or die. Assad knows it, the opposition knows it, the rest of the world knows it. So, why the surprise? Is it because President Assad and the people around him have made their move without hesitation or the West, primarily the US, has been in a state of limbo on how to react or respond?

    The answers is the latter. The calculation is simple. The choices are limited. You can’t go to war with the regime. You’re already at war with Libya and we have seen how that has turned out. Sanctions won’t work for two reasons. Syria’s economy has already been sealed off to global dynamics, and there is Iran for Syria to rely on. Whether Russia and China will follow suit is unclear at best. Second, this whole thing boils down to survival, and the regime will not go away without putting up a fight.

    So, the West is faced with a simple dilemma of whether or not they should push Assad out of power by force. The US is not willing. It is economically and financially stretched thin. The EU simply doesn’t have the capabilities. Even such an effort were to be undertaken, there will always be Iranian support. So, no wonder why “all quiet in the Western front.” What should not be surprising is that, maybe and just maybe, people in the West are sort of thinking that “the opposition should blink first, the regime should announce more reforms to pay lip service, and we can deal with Syria at a later time.”

  • Posted by Dan Friedman

    It’s odd but the Arab states are ahead of Obama on this. Or maybe it’s not so odd after all.

  • Posted by Farah

    To Friedman,
    Remember Obama likes to lead from behind! And he is succeeding, at least, at that

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    It would appear that a lot more people are going to die of “lead poisoning” before this mess is over .

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