By LINDA S. HEARD
Assad should choose patriotism over power
Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have lost his reason.
He's no feudal warlord. He's a highly intelligent, personable individual whose ambition was to become an eye doctor until his brother Basil who has groomed to take over from his father died due to a car accident in 1994. People who know him describe him as a mild mannered moderate thinker who lives a comparatively modest lifestyle with his former investment banker wife Asma and three children.
At one time, he was believed to be a modernizer keen to bring his country's autocratic political system into the 21st century. Yet for all his intellectual prowess, he is hanging on to power with tooth and claw and making the same mistakes as Tunisia's Ben Ali, Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Qaddafi, men who willfully blinded themselves to the writing on the wall.
Syria is being drenched with the tidal wave of change but instead of going with the flow, Assad is behaving like King Canute with his futile attempt to hold it back. If he had responded to his people's demands from the get-go, things could have been very different. All he had to do was relax his fist and institute reforms but now that 3,000 have been killed, including 187 children, there is probably only one road left open to him - and that's out.
Nevertheless, the Arab League has little appetite to see Assad go the way of Qaddafi and is attempting to persuade his regime to institute a dialogue with the opposition within a two-week deadline. "More important than a dialogue is action," said the Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani. But Assad is sending out mixed messages sounding cooperative at times and at others angry that outside entities are interfering in Syria's internal affairs.
During a recent Daily Telegraph interview, the president said that he wouldn't waste his time talking with the Syrian National Council - a coalition of opposition parties and activists. "I don't know them," he said. "It's better to investigate whether they really represent Syrians." And just like the toppled presidents of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, he accuses protestors of being armed thugs, paid by outsiders to cause trouble.
While admitting that his government made mistakes dealing with dissent early on, he maintains the core dispute rests in a "struggle between Islamism and Pan-Arabism" supporting his argument with "We've been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them." This may be a pretext for allowing his security forces to continue exercising brutality but there are precedents.
Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian secularists fear the rise of Islamism and in Tunisia an Islamist party has recently triumphed in the country's first elections since President Ben Ali was sent packing. Moreover, the head of Tripoli's Military Council Abdel Hakim Belhaj has warned that Libyan Islamist groups will not be marginalized and are demanding their share of political power in the new Libya.
In the meantime, Assad is coming under heavy criticism from the international community. US President Barack Obama has called upon him to step down, a demand that was echoed by the EU. The UN's human rights body is preparing to call for the International Criminal Court to investigate the Syrian crackdown. Some anti-government Syrians are going as far as to request Western military intervention although the Syrian National Council has hotly rejected that idea.
In any case, cash-strapped Western powers are not inclined to get involved partly because, unlike Libya, Syria is not awash with oil but mainly because Damascus has powerful friends, namely Russia, Iran and Hezbollah which complicates matters. Those allies offer Assad a sense of security not enjoyed by Qaddafi and it's probable that were Syria to be attacked or invaded Iran and Hezbollah would not only join the fray but would also turn their guns on Israel. It should be remembered too that Russia is constructing a naval base in a Syrian port and there exists a Syrian-Iranian defense pact against "Foreign Agression."
"Syria is the hub now in this region," President Assad told the Daily Telegraph warning that foreign intervention would "cause a trembler that could burn the entire Middle East... It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake. Do you want to see another Afghanistan or tens of Afghanistans?" His critics have called this statement an empty threat or mere posturing, but analysts say it does hold some truth. Certainly, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah wouldn't stand by doing nothing watching his weapons supply route being cut off.
The "what to do about Syria" conundrum is further complicated by the fact that Assad does enjoy a substantial following among the Syrian population; the problem is that with foreign reporters barred from the country it's difficult to ascertain how much support he actually has.
We do know that cracks are appearing within the Syrian military. The number of defections is increasing as individual soldiers rail against orders to shoot at protesters with live bullets. There are believed to be sectarian divisions within the rank and file and disagreements among the military elite. Defectors are crossing the border into Turkey where they are being hosted and given free rein to build a "Free Syrian Army." This opens up the question of whether either a military coup or civil war may be on the cards.
If Assad thinks the problem is just going to go away on its own, he's deluded. There will come a tipping point from where there is no return that will translate into either foreign intervention with an apocalyptic result, a bloody civil war or an army takeover.
Such misery could be avoided if he goes into voluntary exile, while there is still a country that will take him, leaving the Syrian people free to pursue their dreams of democracy and freedom.
That would not only be an act of true patriotism but would also give him the opportunity to live out the rest of his life in security and comfort. Power may be addictive but as Qaddafi learned to his cost, it's no friend to a man who lies in a cold, unmarked grave, hated by all.