Syria: It's all over, but it could be messy

Posted in Broader Middle East | 05-Oct-05 | Author: Volker Perthes| Source: International Herald Tribune

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
BERLIN Bashar Assad's regime in Syria has reached its end phase, even if it manages to hang on to power for months or years. This is so almost irrespective of what Detlev Mehlis, the UN prosecutor charged with the probe into the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon, will say in his report about the alleged role of Syria in that crime.

An indictment of high-ranking Syrian officials could precipitate things, of course - for the worse as much as for the better. But even if Mehlis finds no proof of direct Syrian involvement in Hariri's assassination, the regime will find it almost impossible to overcome its international isolation and its loss of domestic legitimacy.

Syria is accused by the U.S. administration of actively supporting the insurgency in Iraq. It has also offended its main European friend, France, and consumed the patience of other EU states which have long tried to maintain a constructive dialogue on both regional and domestic issues. In addition, it has ruined its relationship with Saudi Arabia, its most important Arab ally, over its handling of Lebanon.

Most important, Assad's regime has lost the confidence and support of many of Syria's people and elites. Its mismanagement of Lebanon led to a humiliating withdrawal and opened Syria to an international investigation that deeply infringes upon its sovereignty. Assad has misread major regional and international developments, thereby isolating Syria internationally, and has failed to deliver any political reform.

So how will change eventually occur in Syria? Given the absence of a strong and organized civil movement that could lead a Ukrainian or Georgian type of revolution, there are 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 scenario would demand strong leadership, so unfortunately it is not likely to come about. Neither Assad nor most of his associates 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.

Many Syrians fear, therefore, a totally different scenario: If the regime exacerbates its isolation as well as its loss of domestic legitimacy by simply trying to sit it out, the Syrian state could progressively disintegrate. Syrians, regardless of sect or class, are not likely to accept a regime that manoeuvres the country into a Belarus-type closure against the world.

Given the lack of political space that would allow political alternatives to develop, opposition against the regime may take unpleasant forms. Already, within in the last weeks and months, petty local disagreements and political uneasiness has developed into ethno-sectarian disturbances. Apparently, the state is losing authority.

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.

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. Change, moreover, should come from within. Fantasies to the effect that Syrians would welcome regime change from abroad underestimate Syrian nationalism at least as much as Iraqi nationalism was underestimated before the Iraq war.

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.

(Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, is the author of 'Syria under Bashar al-Assad.')