The end is nigh for Syria’s Assad – and the Middle East as we know it

By Khadija Patel 22 September 2011

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted by the state-run Anatolia news agency on Wednesday saying he was no longer in contact with Syria's leadership. Following Erdogan’s tête-à-tête with US President Barack Obama, Turkey is now also considering slapping sanctions against its neighbour and one-time friend. By KHADIJA PATEL.

“We never wanted things to arrive at this point, but unfortunately, the Syrian administration has forced us to take such a decision,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reported to have said. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has been left with just one friend in the region – Iran. The US knows better than to goad Iran into a fight, but in Syria the beginnings of a war loaded with Iranian interests is ready to erupt. 

Turkey is Syria’s neighbour and an important trade partner, and Erdogan has enjoyed a close friendship with Assad. When Syrian security forces turned their guns against anti-government protesters, it was left to Turkey to work hard to search for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The Turkish foreign minister visited Damascus, imploring Assad to lay down his weapons, engage in open and honest dialogue with the opposition and speed up democratic reforms. Despite numerous assurances from Assad that he would indeed end the violence and begin to reform the Syrian government, reports of violence have continued unabated. 

Assad insists he is battling an armed insurrection, and while Turkey has conceded that security forces are indeed coming under fire, Assad has continued the brutal crackdown against anti-government demonstrations. On Wednesday the UN announced that the death toll now exceeds 2,700. This figure translates to an addition of 100 in just one week.  For its part, the Syrian government refutes these figures. According to the Syrian government, it is the security forces that have sustained the greatest casualties.  Turkish government officials, playing mediator between Assad and horrified Western governments, have been forced to abandon Assad. In the Turkish view, Assad has lost any claim to credibility.

US President Barack Obama has called repeatedly for Assad to step down in the last two months. So far, Assad has defied Obama, clinging onto power and according to reports, shooting his way through Syria to keep him there. For now, Assad appears to have won the diplomatic tussle through sheer tenacity, but the US is now certain that Assad is on his way out of power. Assad now has very few friends to call on for help.

In addition to Turkey, Saudi Arabia has also parted ways with Assad. The European Union has also imposed sanctions against Syria, leaving Assad in the onerous position of having to look for a new customer for 90% of his oil exports. Syria has been backed into a dark, lonely diplomatic corner.

With few friends to count on, Assad’s woes are compounded by his own army. Syrian armed forces are said to be exhausted by the ongoing crackdown. It also remains to be seen whether the entire army will indeed remain loyal to Assad. The army’s middle and lower ranks are drawn from the country’s Sunni majority which make up 75% of the population. Should these forces begin to defect and turn their guns instead on their superiors in the army that are drawn from the Alawite minority from which Assad hails, Syria will be embroiled in a civil war. With it, the entire region may dramatically implode.

Western governments have been cautious in calling for Assad’s resignation, knowing well that a disruption to the status quo in Syria could have ramifications for Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.  Assad however has proved tough to back. He is now faced with a very real threat of UN sanctions.

The draft Security Council resolution against Syria has been circulated for some time now but Russia has so far stood in the way of its implementation. Syrian activists in exile report that in the restive regions of Syria, anger has now turned towards Russia which is seen as an impediment towards international intervention in the country’s crisis. Like China, Russia abstained from voting on Resolution 1976 that opened up Libyan skies to foreign intervention. But is Russia really a friend of Syria?

Russia and Syria are reported to boast trade ties that are worth approximately $20 billion. This is certainly no small change. Russia has financial interests tied into the survival of Assad. Russia will seek first to secure its interests, much like China does, but Russia is also a staunch critic of Western meddling in the domestic affairs of others.

On the same footing with Russia and China is South Africa – any Syrian related action in the UN Security Council may face a three-pronged opposition. South Africa, however, has most recently demonstrated a curious fickleness in its policies, and may well be persuaded to take a firmer stance against Assad. China and Russia may choose to abstain from voting as they did on Libya, but if sanctions against Assad are approved by the UN, it may still be some time before its effects are felt in the streets of Damascus. As long as Assad can still count on Iran, he will feel emboldened. Iran is widely believed to be providing financial and material support in recent months but even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has increased his calls on Syria to end the violence and implement political reforms.

Early last month, Ahmedinejad is reported to have said, “Regional nations can assist the Syrian people and government in the implementation of essential reforms and the resolution of their problems. A military solution is never the right solution”. Iran seems to understand well the implications of a war in Syria – implications it may not have the appetite for right now. DM

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