Al-Assad facing growing internal and international pressure

23 November 2011

Impending Arab League sanctions will further increase Syria’s isolation

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

After the Arab League rejected Syria’s proposed amendments to the terms of the ultimatum, it looks likely that the sanctions will be enforced. The threat of sanctions followed on from the Arab League’s vote on 13 November to suspend Syria from its seat at Arab League meetings. The organisation’s decision to turn against Al-Assad may signal the beginning of the end for the Syrian 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 London-based Chatham House.

“Once these sanctions happen, and Syria is isolated from the Arab League, this means that everyone has cut off the 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 army 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 Syrian unrest will not end until there is a change in leadership.

International pressure

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 regional and international sanctions will increase the pressure on President Al-Assad.

“Collectively the Arab League sanctions are important symbolically, but in terms of practical application it is maybe the withdrawal of Saudi money that may be particularly important, “says David Hartwell, Middle East political analyst at London-based 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,” says Hartwell.

Syria is also expected to feel the impact of the EU oil embargo in the coming months, with Syria exporting approximately 90 per cent of its oil to the EU.

“The EU oil embargo is going to hit home quite hard, and this should have a political effect as to how far the Ba’ath party is able to placate its middle class supporters,” says Hartwell.

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

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

Limited support

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 Security measure that contained a weak reference to the possibility of sanctions against Damascus. However, it appears both superpowers, China in particular, are becoming increasingly wary of Assad’s continuing violent crackdown.

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

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

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

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

Moreover, Western states are unlikely to support 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.

But the attack on the military base in Damascus shows that the opposition are growing in strength and are 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 it in the long term is too late for Al-Assad to win back the support of many disaffected Syrians and stabilise the country.

“It’s too late for that now. I don’t think even supporters of Assad think that Syria can go back to the way it was before, and get the army off the streets and turn over a new page, there has been too much blood and too many lies for that,” says Allaf.

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 Arab spring has proven that popular revolts can overthrow long term authoritarian regimes, Syria is increasingly looking like it may be next.

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