President Barack Obama has issued his strongest call to date for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power. In a statement released Thursday, the U.S. leader has said that "the future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way."
Meanwhile, even before Obama’s latest call, experts have been skeptical that of any voluntary departure on Assad’s part. They say that one doesn't have to look too far back into Middle East history to realize that there isn’t much of a future in being a fallen dictator. Most of them, analysts says, either end up jailed and tried for corruption, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak; dying an undignified death, as did Iraq’s Saddam Hussein; or, if they’re lucky, they will get to live out their last years in lonely exile abroad.
Dictators know this. That’s why most of them would do almost anything to hold onto power, at least until outside forces step in – whether it’s opposition factions or the international community.
Five months into the Syrian uprisings, Bashar Al-Assad may have lost credibility, but he has not lost his stranglehold over the country. “I think the main thing that is maintaining Bashar al Assad in power is the inability to see beyond him - from Western policy makers,” says Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House. In other words, Shehadi explains, “Assad creates smokescreens that prevent the world from seeing beyond him, by creating the circumstances whereby people would be afraid of what comes after he falls.”
What exactly are those smokescreens? To Shehadi they are a myriad of Western worries he says the Syrian President deliberately feeds: “Iran would come in, Al Qaeda would take over, the Muslim Brotherhood, there would be civil war like Iraq…chaos in Lebanon, chaos in the whole region."
Sectarian divisions in the future?
The international community also worries that if Assad were to fall, Syria would not be able to manage its ethnic, religious and political divides. The majority of Syria's population - about 74 percent - is Sunni Muslim. The Assad regime is Alawite, a Muslim sect with a historical relationship with Shi’a Islam, which represents about 12 percent of the population. Christians account for another 10 percent. The population also encompasses a variety of ethnic minorities, such as Kurds, Circassians and Armenians, among others.
But Shehadi argues that fears of sectarian strife are groundless. “A society like Syria will not go into chaos and civil war because the Syrian population has lived the Lebanese civil war. They’ve lived the Iraqi civil war. They had a million and a half Iraqi refugees. They know what’s at stake.”
Without a clear statement from the U.S. and international community calling for Assad’s ouster, there’s no chance, says Shehadi, of Assad going anywhere. “The message he is getting is that, ‘we cannot see beyond you, so we want you to stay.’ And he interprets this message as ‘do what it takes to stay in power,’” Shehadi told VOA before President Obama's statement.
For the U.S. and for the Syrian opposition, it’s a huge conundrum. The White House has previously demanded the immediate end to Syria’s crackdown on protesters and imposed additional sanctions against Damascus. It has also been working to increase pressure on countries that trade with Syria. But, say analysts, that appears to be as far as Washington is willing to go - at least until it sees a “roadmap” for a future Syria. So the U.S. is looking for signals from other players in Syria - protesters, the armed forces, political dissidents - anything that paints a semi-clear picture of what a post-Assad Syria might look like.
So far, those signals are few and far between.
Numerous political parties exist in Syria. Some are tolerated by the ruling Baath Party; others operate on a clandestine basis; and still others - mainly Kurdish or religious parties - are banned altogether. Historically, they have always been divided, either by political or religious differences, or simple competition.
The year 2005 saw the “Damascus Declaration,” a statement of unified opposition signed by some 250 individuals and political groups, including liberals, communists, Islamists, and Kurds. It criticized the Syrian government regime as “authoritarian and totalitarian,” and called for national dialogue and reform. For the most part, the traditional opposition to Assad’s Baath Party is made up of such groups as the Democratic National Grouping in Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Front and others.
The 2011 uprisings have spawned a wide spectrum of activist groups whose numbers seem to increase almost daily: The Syrian Creative Revolution, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union, the Syrian National Front for Change, and endless variations on the theme. Among the most prominent of these is the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a coalition of grassroots activists who coordinate protests from cities across Syria and who gather and disseminate information to the international media.
The most outspoken and organized critics of Assad’s regime reside outside Syria - in Europe, the U.S., or elsewhere in the Arab world. Among them are Radwan Ziadeh, founder of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies or Ausama Monajed of the London-based Movement for Justice and Development, who is also an organizer of the National Coalition to Support the Revolution.
So far, none of these groups – the political parties, the protesters or the expatriate dissidents - have managed to send a signal that resonates in the West.
“The opposition is very fragmented,” says Shehadi. “There is no leadership. That’s because this regime doesn’t allow for an opposition to be united, coherent and credible.”
Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Middle East Democracy, agrees. “A lot of the key people that will emerge as leaders,” he says, “are keeping a low profile, and a lot of people who are being active in this protest movement don’t want to be known at this point, because if they are prominently known as leaders of the opposition and the protest movement, they are more likely to be targeted, and their work more likely to be eliminated.”
At a recent press conference in Washington, D.C,, Radwan Ziadeh, who is also a Visiting Scholar at The Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, acknowledged the lack of unity among Assad’s opponents. “It’s not easy,” he said, “to come up with a united opposition after 47 years of dictatorship. But even though the Syrian opposition does not have a united leadership, they do have a united agenda: a free Syria, for all Syrians.”
Fears of Civil War
Ziadeh also addressed concerns about religious, ethnic and sectarian divisions. In a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and other diplomatic officials he stressed that the new Syria will be politically, ethnically and religiously inclusive. “We don’t want anybody to be excluded by the transition.”
Not even the Baath Party, he adds.
Still, Washington has publicly stated that it is looking for clearer signs from the opposition. The State Department said this week that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford continues to meet with the Syrian government and the opposition on a daily basis.
“I think where we are in our discussions with the opposition,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, “is to continue to encourage them to work together, to be unified in their message, and to come up with a clear roadmap of their own for a democratic future for Syria."
Even before Obama’s statement, the U.S. had been lobbying for the support of international allies in dealing with Syria, stressing the importance of acting collectively, rather than unilaterally. Appearing at a national security forum this week, Clinton even questioned whether any U.S. call for Assad to leave office would carry weight in the light of a history of strained relations. Responding to critics who had been saying the U.S. should have been speaking up more forcefully, she admitted that calls by other players might in fact carry more weight.
“It is not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go," she said. “Okay, fine, what's next? If other people say it, if Turkey says it, if [Saudi Arabia’s] King Abdullah says it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”
Yet for now, most experts agree that Assad will most likely tighten his grip to avoid the fate of fellow autocratic Arab rulers, at least until a tipping point is reached. And as Tunisia and Egypt have already shown – and Libya perhaps soon will - tipping points do eventually come.