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    Middle East
     Aug 25, 2011

Does Gaddafi's fate await Assad?
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

NEW YORK - After Libya it is Syria's turn, or is it? In the end game of the campaign to cause regime change in Libya, the question has gained momentum in policy circles East and West. The answer depends on whether Syria's political crisis leads to more civilian deaths, thus warranting an United Nations Security Council "humanitarian intervention" that would authorize another military gambit from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the volatile Middle East.

In the wake of last week's momentous call by the United States and a number of other Western governments for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the government faces unprecedented international pressure. This is likely to intensify in the coming weeks if the cycle of violence in the country does not end.

The fall of Libya's ossified dictator, Muammar Gaddafi - and the

potent symbol of rebel fighters stamping on a gilded bronze of his head after raiding his compound in Tripoli - will most likely embolden the (rather amorphous) political opposition in Syria, backed by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab states. In all likelihood, this will also make it easier for the neighboring Turkey to use the threat of NATO intervention to dictate policy to Damascus.

For now, however, a combination of factors actually make it less likely that Syria will become another Libya, where a home-grown armed opposition backed by Western military powers is on the verge of success after a pitched, half-year long battle to dislodge the despot who managed to rule over Libya for decades with Western support.

These factors range from the absence of consensus in the international community, in light of Russia's decision to distance itself from US President Barack Obama's "step down" order and call instead for more time for peaceful reform in Syria, to Iran's solid backing for Damascus, NATO's own financial burden, and the risks to Turkey posed by the ordeal of a "Syrian nightmare" across its border.

Indeed, the down side of NATO's Libya campaign is that it has depleted the available resources for another campaign in the immediate future, particularly since Syria will definitely prove a much more formidable opponent than Gaddafi's rag-tag mostly militia army. A NATO campaign in Syria will cause a much bigger flood of refugees to Turkey, damage Turkey's relations with both Iran and Russia and turn upside down its cherished foreign policy approach of "zero problems with neighbors."

On the other hand, if NATO makes a habit of it by going into Syria next, then the pressure on the Western alliance to target US-friendly regimes in Bahrain and Yemen will undoubtedly grow as well, hardly a bright prospect for Saudi leaders who are so keen to cause a regime change in Damascus.

Not only that, a NATO intervention in Syria will without a shred of doubt lead to Iran's direct military support for Damascus, another big difference with Libya, which lacked an external ally. Perhaps equally important is the existence of an external enemy - namely, Israel - which serves to unite Syria in a strong nationalist current which Libya under Gaddafi lacked. Confronted with an intransigent Israel unwilling to negotiate away the prized strategic Golan Heights, Syria is locked-in, geostrategically speaking, and no matter what future variations in its form of government, the constant variable of external threats will prevent a wholesale foreign policy reorientation in Syria irrespective of who is in power.
But, in addition to purely military-strategic calculations pointing at the vast dissimilarities of Libya and Syria, the political milieu in the two countries differs in another important respect: the Syrian regime is far more complex and more capable of self-reform, within set limits. (See Making Sense of the Syrian Crisis, Stratfor, May 5, 2011) As a result, Assad's promise of meaningful constitutional change, free elections come next March, and allowing a multi-party political environment to flourish, together with his decision to allow a UN inspection of his country's political situation, may prove to be a step just in time to avert a full-scale civil war akin to Libya.

An important factor is the speed of political reconciliation and near-term elections; March may be seven months away but to placate the impatient political opposition Assad may want to accelerate the process by holding the elections in December or January and, equally important, making good on his promise in a televised interview with Syrian TV regarding the rights of political parties to function without fear of a clamp down.

In light of these factors, political reform rather than violent revolution coupled with external intervention appears to be the most likely scenario awaiting Syria, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious post-colonial nation that plays a crucial role in the "axis of resistance" to Western hegemony in the Middle East.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press). For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.

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