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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How Will Assad Fall?

by Elliott Abrams
August 29, 2011

It is easy to say that with Qaddafi gone, the next vicious regime to fall is that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, but realists and pessimists have rightly asked “how exactly does that happen?”

That’s a fair question, because the Assad regime has yet to crack and none of the previous models—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—can work the same way in Syria. In my view, there are two possibilities that head the list.

One possibility is that the army will split, largely on sectarian lines. The New York Times reports today as follows:

There were reports that dozens of soldiers, possibly encouraged by the rout in Libya of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, had deserted their positions in a village near Homs, the country’s third-largest city, and also on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, to join the five-month-old popular uprising against Mr. Assad and his Baath Party. Activists said that since the uprising started in mid-March, most such desertions have taken place in the eastern tribal area of Deir al-Zour, bordering Iraq; in the northwestern province of Idlib; and in towns around Homs and Damascus….The Free Officers of Syria, a group of soldiers and officers who left the army last month in protest of the crackdown and say that they now represent defectors, published an online statement saying that “large” defections were reported in Harasta, another suburb of Damascus and that armed troops loyal to the government were chasing those defectors.

There have been numerous other reports about defections in the Army (from Reuters, for example) but it is difficult to assess whether they have yet reached a significant size. If the demonstrations grow, I assume the numbers of defectors will grow as Sunni troops refuse to shoot peaceful and unarmed Sunni demonstrators.

But there is another possibility, that the Alawite “Establishment,” civilian and military, will remove Bashar from power in a kind of “palace coup.” This would only happen, I believe, if the economic and financial sanctions grow stronger and stronger and demonstrations continue. Removing Bashar might then appear to the Alawite generals and “business leaders” (i.e., Assad cronies) as the only way to settle things down and end the rebellion. They could call for some sort of government of national salvation, schedule elections, denounce Bashar, and send a new foreign minister to negotiate an end to the sanctions.

I doubt the demonstrators would accept such a cosmetic change, and we should reject it as well. It would mean the regime is beginning to collapse, and it would be very much in the interest of the United States for it to collapse entirely. We should not rescue it, nor any remnant of it.

There are other possibilities: perhaps the Sunni and Christian business community will turn against Assad if sanctions are tough enough, and will help bring him down. Perhaps over time hundreds of thousands will flee to Turkey, giving the Turks the incentive they need to bring Bashar down. All these possibilities make it clear that the pressure should be increased: more sanctions, more isolation, more denunciations of regime violence. Meanwhile we should be reaching out privately to the business community, Sunni, Christian, and Alawi, and to the generals to say it is time to switch sides and prepare for the post-Assad future. Change in Syria never had a chance of being a “velvet revolution” because of the brutality of the Assad clan, but anything the United States, the EU, and Arab allies can do to shorten the period of violence and bring change faster will be a great favor to the people of Syria.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by canadiansyrian

    Q ,how could we help topple the Assad`s alawi ?
    A ,start arming the sunnis ( hush hush ).

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    In the end the various Arab factions have always acted out of self-interest . They may have finally come to the understanding that supporting Assad is not in their interest . Continued , unremitting pressure from the West both economic and diplomatic may finally provide the tipping point . What type of government will come out of it is anyone’s guess .

  • Posted by sentinella

    With the coming UN vote for palestine state, and the disorders that will appear in israel, the regime is hopping to have a breathing.
    The situation in Israel, and the possible demonstrations, act of terrorism and their inevitable responses are what Assad is hoping.
    international pressure will be realese for a bit.
    They keep less than 20 dead a day, knowing that media and international institutions “tolerate” it.
    It’s amazing how Assad regime is conscious of this fact.
    A regime like his could kill less then 20 demonstrators a day and go like that for months without serious problems…

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