The US and Europe have levied sanctions against Syria this past August. Although the US sanctions will not be a difference maker with Syria due to the limited amount of commerce between the two countries, the European sanctions could hurt Syria deeply if the Europeans follow through. Especially if they make it difficult for Syria to sell its oil.
Syria still has Iran in its corner. But the Iranians have recently taken a step back and urged the Syrians to listen to the “legitimate desires of the Syrian people.” Translation: Iran has enough economic problems of its own without being forced to support a country of 22 million under sanctions.
Although the Europeans have made a strong statement against Syria, joining the US in a strict sanction regime … why is Europe hesitating for a moment to implement its sanctions? Well, for one thing, Italy needs to replace Syrian oil with Libyan oil before the EU can refuse to purchase any more Syrian oil.
The larger question: military action. The Europeans are aware that strict sanctions against Syria, like those against Iraq prior to the 2003 war, will kill Syrian children and Syrian elderly first and will affect the Syrian regime and its security apparatus little at all.
The Europeans know that a Syria where humanity is suffering will trigger a military response. So, to Europe, the actual implementation of sanctions is a promise to engage in military action …five or ten years down the road.
The Europeans, like the Iranians, are asking themselves, “Is there another way?”
In the meantime, observers such as the commentator Sami Moubayed who is close to the regime in Damascus report that the Baath leadership feels that they have turned the corner on the opposition and that life should now return to normal. Sanctions? One Syrian who advises the government on economics says that Syrians can now expect to be eating brown bread instead of white.
The Baath party in Syria does not grasp the point that its days are numbered. They see no reason to negotiate a dignified and constructive exit from power. Yet this is exactly what Syria needs.
That's because the Syrian opposition, despite the recent naming of Sorbonne professor Berhand Ghalion as leader of the opposition council and organizational meetings in Turkey featuring earnest and competent Syrian expats such as Wael Merzak, is weak and divided.
Yes, there is a secular opposition in Syria. There are the young who want to connect their lives and their careers to global culture and the global economy.
What no one in the West and especially in the US wants to think about is places such as the Lebanese city of Tripoli, which Lebanese Shiites tell me has turned into a staging area for Sunni extremist incursions into Syria. Here the Saudi-inspired are talking about turning Syria into a Wahabist or Salafist state. It is hard to say how much weight to give to this threat. Certainly the regime is kidding itself when it attributes the opposition largely to armed Isamist thugs. Yet . . . these elements do exist.
So, it's not right to think that an opposition overthrow of the Assad government would automatically usher in Western-style democracy. We could be looking at a Sunni theocracy.
What's needed is five or ten years where actual politics . . . with the development of secular political parties . . . can exist.
At this moment the only viable political alternative to the regime . . . within the country . . . is Sunni-religious or perhaps Kurdish. The regime can't prevent people from attending the mosque. So, religious association has had many years to grow. And the regime can't prevent Kurds from talking to one another. Ditto. In contrast, the civil society crowd has been exposed and vulnerable. They have been held in check since 1963. And their political organizations are weak, if they can be said to exist at all. The current opposition is officially leaderless. When individuals become recognized by the regime, they leave the country. To avoid prison or worse, the secular opposition is forced to organize abroad.
There is always a problem creating a party outside the country. That's because the expats have not shared the same experience as those who have stayed at home. No matter how well the secular parties organize, they will always be at a disadvantage compared to the religious or Kurdish parties within the country.
All of Bashar's reforms since 2000 have been good in principle. It's just that most of them have been announced but never implemented. Or they have been implemented and then rolled back or gutted. The only reforms to take root are those that make money for the small circle close to power.
What does this say about power in Syria? To me this means infighting within the regime. There are the reformers and then there are the hard-liners. Presumably, Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, a noted feminist scholar who has risen as a principal adviser to Bashar, is a reformer. Bashar's wife Asma is a prototypical European human rights / arts / civil society persona who, if she has say, will be pushing reform.
On the other side, Bashar's brother Maher administers the army and commands its most elite units. Certainly, he is a hard liner. Shawcut, the husband of Bashar's sister, runs the security services amidst periodic rumors of his exclusion from power. There was that incident, a few years back, where he was rumored to have shot Maher in the stomach. Shawcut certainly is a hard liner. And Rami Makhlouf, the cousin who runs the most lucrative enterprises in the country and has been called the “collector” for the regime, is a self-described hardliner.
Makhlouf announced with cheerful demeanor to New York Times last spring his support for a hardline approach. Aghast at Makhlouf's foot-in-mouth display, the regime forced Makhlouf to announce that he was retiring from business and was giving his wealth to charity. Since no one knows what Makhlouf owns, no one can say what this statement means . . . or if it will be implemented. But the point is that Makhlouf, like Shawcut, may not always be at the table when decisions are made.
It could be that the conflict between the reformers, Shaaban and wife Asma, and the three hardliners, Maher, Shawcut, and Makhlouf, is actually a conflict inside the mind of Bashar.
And what of this mind? Bashar is fond of saying that the international community has no right to dictate to a leader such as himself who was “elected by the people.” Bashar did win reelection with 97% of the vote. But he was the only candidate on the ticket. Does he really believe he has the electoral endorsement of the Syrian people?
One wishes that the protests would cease for six months, Bashar would implement the oft-announced constitutional changes that would remove the Baath from primacy, hold a presidential election under international supervision, and welcome a newly elected Parliament with limits, for now, on the seats allotted to religious or Kurdish parties.
The problem is that the Syrian government, since Bashar's rise to power in July 2000, has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The Baath leadership is smug and complacent. Even now when:
a. They are under siege from an internal opposition that continues peaceful protest.
b. An armed guerilla underground is currently taking root.
c. They face European-American sanctions . . . with the certainty of an eventual military follow up.
d. Iran is expressing reservations.
e. The Russians are urging reconciliation.
Thus a six-month hiatus would certainly see, yet again, the hard line tendency of this government stymie the reforms that are needed to ensure the well being of the Syrian people.