A weakening regime in Syria

21 November 2011

The Syrian leadership is not in danger of imminent collapse, but Arab League sanctions, the increasing wariness of its allies and a possible middle-class revolt may topple it in the long term

On 16 November, the Cairo-based Arab League gave Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad an ultimatum: end the violence or face sanctions.

Now that the Arab League has rejected Syria’s proposed amendments to the terms of the ultimatum, it looks likely the sanctions will be enforced. The organisation’s decision to turn against Al-Assad and its vote on 13 November to suspend Syria as a member may signal the beginning of the end for the regime.

“The Arab League’s sanctions are very important symbolically, politically and economically,” says Rime Allaf, associate fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the UK’s Chatham House.

International pressure on Al-Assad

“Once these sanctions happen and Syria is isolated from the Arab League, this means that everyone has cut off the Al-Assad regime: the US; EU; Turkey; and the Arab states,” says Allaf.

Internal pressure on Al-Assad has also been growing, with an increasing number of the military defecting and joining the Free Syrian Army. The Arab League’s decision to take action against Syria was followed by defectors attacking military establishments on the outskirts of Damascus. This is the first attack on a major state security base since the uprising began and may signal that the unrest will not end until there is a change in leadership.

The Syrian regime’s stubborn refusal to halt the brutal crackdown on civilians and implement reform has resulted in Arab and international states losing patience with Al-Assad.

“The Arab League sanctions are important symbolically, but practically, it could be the withdrawal of Saudi money that may be particularly important, “says David Hartwell, Middle East political analyst at the UK’s IHS.

“Saudi Arabia has put quite a lot of money into Syria in the last few years, in the hope that it would draw it away from the Iranians, but with very little success.”

Syria is also expected to feel the impact of the EU oil embargo in the coming months. The country exports about 90 per cent of its oil to the EU. “The EU oil embargo is going to hit hard and this should affect the ability of the Baath party to placate its middle-class supporters,” says Hartwell.

To date, there has been little protest from Syria’s merchant and business classes in Damascus and Aleppo, with most of the unrest occurring in the industrial and manufacturing cities of Homs and Latakia. But if sanctions start to impact the economy, the middle classes may turn against their leader.

The continued crackdown on civilian protesters has also resulted in neighbouring Turkey condemning Al-Assad’s regime. On 21 November, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul, a former ally of Al-Assad, said that Syria was now at a dead end and that change was inevitable.

Throughout most of the unrest, Syria has been able to rely on the diplomatic support of Russia and China. In October, China and Russia vetoed a UN measure that contained a weak reference to the possibility of sanctions against Damascus. However, it appears that both, particularly China, are becoming increasingly wary of Al-Assad’s crackdown.

On 17 October, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said the country was highly concerned about the growing violence in Syria and that it was hopeful that the crisis could be resolved by political means.

Iran is the only ally from which Syria continues to receive full backing. There are varying accounts of Iran’s current role in Syria, ranging from actual involvement in the crackdown to supporting the Syrian currency.

“There appears to be a lot of back channel support from Iran at the moment, but it is unlikely to become fully involved,” says a UK-based political analyst. “It is facing international pressure on its nuclear programme and has parliamentary elections coming up next year.”

Despite growing internal and international pressure on Al-Assad, his regime is in no danger of imminent collapse. He still enjoys strong support from and control of the powerful military apparatus put in place by his father. An estimated 70 per cent of the Syrian army is from the Alawite sect, the same as Al-Assad, and the elite Republican Guard, led by the president’s younger brother Maher al-Assad, is entirely Alawite and remains loyal to the president.

Moreover, Western states are unlikely to push for military intervention after the unpopular response to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Chinese and Russian veto powers in the UN will continue to prevent any strong international action against Syria.

Middle-class rebellion in Syria

But the attack on the military base in Damascus shows that the opposition is growing in strength and is willing to use force. A rising death toll and increasing international isolation may soon turn the traditionally loyal middle classes against their leader.

Analysts believe that, in the long term, it is too late for Al-Assad to win back the support of the disaffected Syrians and stabilise the country. “It’s too late now,” says Allaf. “I don’t think even his supporters believe that Syria can go back to the way it was before, get the army off the streets and turn over a new page. There has been too much blood spilt and too many lies for that.”

The control of the military and international disunity will keep Al-Assad in control in the short term, but the long-term prospects for the Syrian president look bleak. The 2011 Arab uprisings have proven that popular revolts can overthrow long-standing authoritarian regimes and Syria now looks like it may be next on the list.

A MEED Subscription...

Subscribe or upgrade your current MEED.com package to support your strategic planning with the MENA region’s best source of business information. Proceed to our online shop below to find out more about the features in each package.

Get Notifications