News / Middle East

Experts Skeptical Syria's Assad Will Resign

A demonstrator poses with an effigy of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a protest in Istanbul June 24, 2011. Due to restricted foreign media access, few images of anti-government protests within Syria have made it out of that country.
A demonstrator poses with an effigy of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a protest in Istanbul June 24, 2011. Due to restricted foreign media access, few images of anti-government protests within Syria have made it out of that country.
Cecily Hilleary

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.

Disparate Players

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.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More