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How to Save Syria

Posted June 27, 2011, at 8:51 p.m.
Last modified June 28, 2011, at 9:37 a.m.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, like Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, will weather the Arab Spring by brutality alone. But the Assad regime’s days are numbered.

Assad’s latest speech, on June 20, and his admission that the government may no longer control some cities suggest that even he foresees his eventual departure. The Syrian regime is a classic ‘ ‘police state” — its most essential and significant assets are its security forces. But these forces are more limited than is widely known: They are based on certain Alawite clans, a minority that  comprises about 10 percent of the population.

The regime is also hard-pressed to expand its forces beyond its own usual circles to keep up with the number of protesters. It can no longer rely on the Sunni majority, which makes up more than 70 percent of Syria’s population, so it is shuffling the same units around the country to suppress demonstrations — mostly the Fourth regiment, led by the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad, and the Republican Guard. In the absence of other trustworthy options, it has had to rely on Iranian Revolutionary Guards; Shabbiha (“troublemakers”), which are armed gangs numbering in the thousands  that deal and smuggle drugs; and Baath Party college students.

Those units will eventually collapse in exhaustion, especially in the north and the northeast, against Bedouins and Kurds. And if the regime deploys other army regiments, dissent is likely, as happened in Daraa in April, which resulted in major losses from the ranks of the Fourth regiment. Between overworked security forces and the approach of Ramadan — during the Muslim holy month peopl e will amass in mosques daily, not just on Fridays, giving more opportunities for demonstrations to break out — the writing is on the wall.

Those at the highest levels seem to realize this. Rami Makhlouf, the president’s cousin and Syria’s richest businessman, reportedly left the country with his family; the president’s wife, Asma, is said to be in London. Many regime figures are transferring assets to foreign banks, particularly in Latin America.

World governments seem unwilling to intervene militarily as they have in Libya. But they can still aid the Syrian people, in part by quietly working to stoke defections among Assad’s ranks rather than banking on Assad to bring about his own downfall by actually implementing reforms.

Over the past decade, U.S. envoys to the Middle East have established significant relations with members of the Syrian regime, particularly intelligence officers. The West should quietly make it known that in exchange for documented information that could result in International Criminal Court indictments, amnesty and political asylum will be granted to high-level informants — a desirabl e offer for those at the highest echelons who realize how shaky the regime is.

The Assad regime’s longtime focus was amassing wealth. Foot soldiers might be holding on for ideological or sectarian reasons, but many of those in charge are driven by greed. We are not dealing with jihadists; these are businessmen and economists. Defections would not be hard to achieve.

Additionally, Western leaders know that Syrians will not accept direct intervention and that imposing sanctions results in worsened conditions for populations while strengthening dictatorships. This course could lead, in the short term, to a bloodier crackdown on opposition figures and growth in anti-Western sentiments. Down the road, when the sanctioned regime faces off with the West, t he people, whose opposition leaders will have been eliminated, will side with whatever party is against the West.

If the West toughens its rhetoric without proactively seeking to topple the regime, Assad forces, along with Iran and their proxies in Iraq and Lebanon, will squeeze the region like a belt. Using security and political shakedowns — much as it has done with Lebanon and Iraq many times — the Assad regime would start destabilizing its borders with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, while i ntensifying support for terrorist activities in Iraq. This would eventually compromise Western energy interests in the Persian Gulf, security interests in the Levant and political interests in the  entire Middle East. Already, Assad forces ventured into Lebanese territories in May in pursuit of Syrian dissidents, while it commanded its “Palestine Regiment” to head to the Golan Heights to in filtrate Israel twice. And this month has brought a revival of anti-American attacks in Iraq.

The West has an opportunity in a critical region where it has lost allies in the past few years because of its inability to constrain Iran in the Levant and the Arab gulf region. From the start of the Arab Spring, the Assad regime has, through local media acting as propaganda machines, accused the West of providing financial and logistical support for demonstrators’ “terrorist” acts. T he West has no positive standing to lose with the Assad regime. But supporting the revolutionaries would help guarantee a state in the Levant that could cooperate with, rather than challenge, the W est and build a new relationship of trust with the people of Syria, not their oppressor.

Ausama Monajed is a leading Syrian dissident and publisher of the daily Syrian Revolution News Roundup.

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