Despite outcry over Syria crackdown, few call for Assad to go

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 9, 2011 

CAIRO — Despite the growing number of condemnations of Syria's five-month campaign against anti-government protesters, no foreign government has called for President Bashar Assad's removal from power.

The United States, European and Latin American nations, Turkey, and Arab states all have criticized the offensive that's turned nightly news from Syria into a montage of dead protesters at an especially sensitive time, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Still, none of those players — and not even Israel _has called for Assad's ouster, apparently out of fear over who would replace him.

Analysts say the reason for the hesitance lies in Syria's touchy sectarian demographics and the lack of a cohesive opposition that could result in a protracted civil war were Assad to be toppled suddenly.

There's also skepticism in the West and throughout the region that Assad can be defeated — at least anytime soon — by a protest movement with no identified leader and whose participants come with a range of competing ideologies, especially amid reports that the number of demonstrators has dwindled since the government's fierce Ramadan offensive began last week.

The influential business class has yet to abandon Assad, and, so far, there's no wave of high-level defections from the military or government.

On Tuesday, commentators were discussing the dismissal of Syrian Defense Minister Ali Habib, reportedly over his balking at the government crackdown that's now estimated to have killed up to 2,000 people. Supporters of the Syrian opposition interpreted the episode as a sign of dissent within the defense apparatus, but still cautioned that unseating Assad would take more fissures in his inner circle, a much more unified opposition front and several more months, if not longer, of sustained protests.

"We do expect further cracks in the army but, to be realistic, it would have to happen at a late stage in the collapse of this regime," said Najib Ghadbian, a Syria expert at the University of Arkansas and an opposition activist. He added that it was incumbent upon Syrians to build a credible transitional body if they want foreign powers to move past the anxiety over succession and demand Assad's ouster.

Despite criticism of the crackdown, there are a range of fears over a collapse of the 40-year-old Assad dynasty.

The United States and other Western powers worry that Islamists could fill the power vacuum. Turkey's Islamist-led government is upset with the bloodshed next door, but also fearful of an emboldened Kurdish minority whose push for greater rights could spread across the border to Turkey's own disgruntled population of Kurds. Israel, meanwhile, isn't keen on a new Syrian government that could push more aggressively for the return of the Golan Heights.

"The United States is afraid of a political void in the area that might affect Israel," said Gamal Zayda, managing editor of Al Ahram, Egypt's most widely circulated newspaper. "And, I must remind you, neither Assad nor his father shot one bullet toward Israel. He didn't push to restore the Golan Heights. He's guaranteed, and they're not sure who would come after him."

Only this weekend, Arab states broke their silence to issue statements denouncing the use of state weapons against civilian protesters. A few Gulf kingdoms, including Saudi Arabia, also withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus — a diplomatic hand-slap, but hardly a severing of ties.

Saudi King Abdullah, who earlier this year crushed his own nation's fledgling protest movement and was instrumental in putting down Bahrain's uprising, issued a statement calling on Assad to "enact reforms that are not merely promises, but actual reforms."

Few regional commentators, however, missed the irony of an absolute monarch whose kingdom doesn't allow women to drive lecturing a fellow authoritarian on power-sharing reforms.

Syria's close ally Turkey is a better gauge of the regional pressure against Assad, analysts said. Turkey has accepted thousands of Syrians fleeing the violence in border towns, has issued several sternly worded statements against the crackdown and on Tuesday dispatched Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for a closely watched meeting with Assad in Damascus.

But none of those moves softened the Syrian government's resolve to continue its bloody campaign against the protesters. The Davutoglu visit ended with a defiant Assad vowing to keep apace with reform pledges but also planning to forge ahead with the crackdown. SANA, the Syrian government news agency, reported that Assad told the foreign minister his administration "would not waver" in the pursuit of the "terrorists" behind the recent upheaval.

With even Turkey's considerable leverage dismissed, foreign powers with a stake in Syria face a dilemma: whether to call for Assad's removal and try to speed up the regime's collapse, or back off and give space for the indigenous opposition to coalesce and fight Assad without relying on foreign interference. Military intervention is unlikely at a time when the U.S. military is struggling to exit Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the NATO-led campaign in Libya grinds on with Muammar Gadhafi defiantly in power.

Independence from Western, particularly American, influence would be one measure of the credibility of any post-Assad government, several analysts said.

"The U.S. administration has a double standard when it comes to the Middle East. They were decisive on Gadhafi and quickly built up this NATO alliance,'" said Zayda, the Ahram editor. "But there is a reluctance in Syria. And it happened in Egypt, too, before Mubarak fell, this hesitation of the State Department."

Andrew Tabler, a longtime Syria observer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the lack of voices calling for Assad's ouster doesn't mean that his departure is not the ultimate goal for Western powers. Tabler, who lived in Syria for several years, said the United States and Israel would benefit from Assad's removal for a number of reasons — it would strip Iran of a valuable ally, erode Hezbollah's support network, and show ordinary Syrians that Washington is interested in their aspirations and not just the regime's stability.

"They are not preferring the devil they know," said Tabler, author of the new book, In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria. "In order to judge the Assad regime as anything preferable, you have to set the bar on the floor."

Joshua Landis, the director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, argued in a column Tuesday on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, that outsiders must remain patient while the fractured Syrian opposition works through its divisions, identifies leaders and becomes capable of challenging the Assad regime.

Rushing the process invites the same result as happened in Iraq — tens of thousands of dead and a country wracked by violent sectarian conflict for years.

"By helping to 'fast forward' the Syrian revolution," Landis wrote, "the U.S. could be creating a Frankenstein. If the opposition doesn't have time to produce a leadership that emerges organically out of struggle, Syria may never unite. The U.S. may cause more destruction and death, not less. To be truly successful, the opposition must come together under one set of leaders who win the confidence of the people by their intelligence, canniness, and most importantly, by their success."

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