TEL AVIV - Syria's uprising has reached a
critical juncture, though it looks more like a
break moment than like a make moment for the
opposition. In the long run, analysts speculate,
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power
may loosen or break, but for now he is showing
signs of renewed confidence.
force projected by his security apparatus,
allegedly augmented by Iranian and Hezbollah
operatives, has silenced many and forced others to
flee. Lack of unity seems to plague his opponents.
While the international community has been making
noises, nothing decisive has come out of these,
and Assad for now feels secure enough to embark on
a public relations offensive of his own.
To be sure, the situation in the country
continues to be grim. As of Tuesday, the
Associated Press reported, insurgents armed
with rifles and
rocket-propelled grenades battled government
forces in the Homs province in central Syria.
Human-rights organizations have counted at least
1,100 people killed since the start of the unrest,
over 10,000 arrested, and countless more wounded
or displaced. The Syrian government claims that
more than 120 soldiers and police officers were
killed by "gangs" and "terrorists".
reports of armed resistance suggest, the
opposition is still putting up a fight. Similar
accounts have been circulating for quite some
time; in theory, the violence on the part of the
protesters could intensify, and the conflict could
enter into a new stage, reminiscent of what
happened earlier this year in Libya.
protest leaders seem to be trying to replicate the
insurgence against Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi on
the political level as well. On Tuesday, around
300 opposition leaders gathered for a three-day
conference in the southern Turkish city of Antalya
with hopes of consolidating their positions and
establishing a parallel government structure down
According to the Guardian, "Key
business figures in Syria are aligning themselves
with opposition groups before [the] conference ...
in a sign that Syria's traditionally pro-regime
business elite may be beginning to break ranks
with the government of President Bashar al-Assad".
The protest movement arguably has some
potential, but how much exactly is uncertain.
According to early accounts from the conference,
"logistics were very poor", even though the
delegates managed to unite behind the agenda of
toppling Assad. "While one can accuse the
attendees of being politically immature, it would
be a huge mistake to underestimate them," writes
Syria expert Joshua Landis, citing a source. 
The Libyan rebellion is no model for
success, and the situation in Syria is a far cry
even from it. The Syrian opposition members are
divided about most things beyond removing the
dictator (as, indeed, are their Libyan
counterparts). "It is clear sharp divisions exist
among the fledgling opposition [in Syria]," the
Guardian report states.
the Libyan rebels captured large swathes of
territory in the first weeks of the unrest, and
established an autonomous entity separated
geographically from the main Gaddafi-controlled
areas by a large strip of desert that presents
challenges to the movement of large armored
Even that would have proved futile
had it not been for the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization air campaign against Gaddafi. By
contrast, the Syrian opposition only has control
over a few towns in the center of the country, and
is struggling to maintain a foothold in other
Assad has a much more powerful
security apparatus than Gaddafi; the former sought
to co-opt and strengthen the military, while the
latter kept his armed forces weak for fear of a
coup. Moreover, the Syrian leader can draw on
powerful foreign support. American officials,
cited by the Washington Post, accuse Iran of
sending trainers, advisers, forces, and
surveillance equipment to help its ally .
Rumors of Hezbollah involvement in the suppression
of dissent are also growing louder, attested to by
the burning of pictures of Hezbollah secretary
general Hassan Nasrallah by the protesters .
Despite a few defections, Assad seems to
have preserved a firm grip on the military, and
indeed on all four pillars of his rule outlined by
influential American think-tank Stratfor .
Reports that he is being abandoned by his Alawite
power base will likely prove to be false , and
the Assad clan is firmly behind him. "I can assure
you that none of these people [at the conference
in Antalya] represents the Syrian opposition," his
exiled nephew Ribal Assad told the Guardian. "They
are individuals that only represent themselves."
Also the Ba'ath party control of the
political system in the country - arguably the
shakiest leg of Assad's rule - seems to have a
chance for now. Earlier this week, the government
declined once again to remove Article 8 from the
constitution, which establishes it as the ruling
Assad is even believed to be able
to project power in neighboring Lebanon, where
thousands of refugees and some army deserters have
fled from the conflict, and where the opposition
has reportedly established re-supply bases. "There
is a fear that Syrian forces will attempt to
kidnap refugees who fled to Lebanon to escape
violence from the Syrian government," a Lebanese
parliamentarian told a Lebanese radio station .
More speculative reports have also suggested that
helicopter raids by Syrian special forces against
opposition bases in Lebanon might be in the works.
The rebels enjoy some international
support, including, reportedly, less-than-public
support by American interventionist circles .
Assad is under some pressure; he and a number of
his close associates were subjected to
international sanctions, while American and
European officials have stated that "all options
are on the table". (See also my article "Syrian
violence continues to spiral", Asia Times
Online, May 18 2011).
In the past few
days, Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said
that Assad should be tried by the International
Criminal Court, while US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton said, "Every day that goes by, the
position of the government becomes less tenable
and the demands of the Syrian people for change
only grow stronger." Pressure mounted on Assad
also from the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA), which recently accused him of building a
nuclear reactor in 2007 and called for
However, the few actual moves
that the international community has undertaken
against the Syrian president hardly amount to
unbearable pressure. Beyond Iran and Hezbollah,
Assad has a number of powerful international
Turkey is vacillating somewhat -
the fact that it hosted the opposition conference
is proof of that - but Russia remains adamant that
it would not support sanctions against Syria at
the United Nations Security Council. Speculation
is circulating about a possible American-Russian
deal swapping Russian pressure on Libya's Gaddafi
for America's silent complicity in Assad's
Given Syria's powerful arsenal
of missiles and chemical weapons, and given the
uncertain future of the country should Assad's
regime fall, few in the region and beyond are
interested in destabilizing further the country.
Thus, for now the Syrian president seems slated to
enjoy relative impunity for his repressions.
His confidence manifested itself in a new
charm offensive of sorts. On Monday, he reversed
his previous policy and promised to cooperate
fully with the IAEA . On Tuesday, he announced
a "full amnesty" covering "all members of
political movements, including the Muslim
Brotherhood". As Reuters explains, membership in
the Brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria
While these could be signs of either
weakness or strength, Assad does not appear
desperate. By contrast, embattled rulers such as
Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak, who also
offered sweeping concessions under pressure, did
so only when the pressure on them became
unbearable. It remains to be seen whether the
concessions will be implemented, or if the Syrian
regime is bluffing.
A lot of details about
the situation in Syria remain shrouded in mystery,
but a tell-tale indicator of how Assad perceives
his position is his behavior vis-a-vis his
neighbors, and specifically towards Israel.
A couple of weeks ago, when he was still
feeling the intense heat of the protests, he
sought a diversion by sending hundreds of
Palestinians to breach the Syrian-Israeli border
on "Nakba day" - an annual commemoration of the
displacement that accompanied the creation of
Israel in 1948.
In an interview with The
New York Times, his powerful cousin Rami Makhlouf
confirmed the link between of escalation against
Israel and increasing weakness of the Syrian
regime . (This logic is somewhat reversed in
Lebanon, which Syria has long seen as part of its
sphere of influence, and where Assad has
traditionally interfered more boldly when he has
been in a position of strength.)
In a few
days, a new round of demonstrations against Israel
is expected to commemorate "Naksa day" - the
defeat of Arab armies during the Six-Day War of
1967. Israel issued "harsh" warnings against any
Syrian or Lebanese infiltrations , and it is
unclear how Assad behaves this time around.
The long-term future of the regime,
however, looks shaky. The economic situation,
particularly in the face of growing international
isolation, is grim, and is slated to only turn
worse. People have been radicalized. Weapons are
reportedly flowing in from both Iraq and Lebanon.
Iran's and Hezbollah's support is also a
mixed blessing for the Syrian president. His
dependence on both is growing, as is their
foothold in his security services, and his ability
to keep an independent course after the uprising
(assuming he puts it down) would be questionable.
For now, nevertheless, survival trumps all.