Bashar Assad must have felt a chill when he saw the pictures of Muamar GadHafi’s final moments and knowing that Syrian crowds were chanting, “Assad is next.”
There are differences between the uprisings in Libya and Syria, but the outcome will be the same: one more tyrant dumped on the dung heap of history. The only question facing Assad is whether Assad goes vertically or horizontally.
While he contemplates his fate and the death toll passes 3,000, Assad’s international isolation grows. International sanctions are taking a heavy toll, despite his Chinese and Russian enablers blocking stronger measures by the United Nations.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, the bête noire of the Assad regime, said, “There is not an armed opposition capable” of defeating Assad’s security forces, but that does not make him secure. Support is crumbling around the country, even in his army.
Ford had to be evacuated from Damascus this week in the face of “credible threats” against him by the regime, the State Department revealed. He had been the target of an incitement campaign and repeated incidents of intimidation as a result of his high profile visits to conflict sites and his harsh criticism of the regime’s violent attacks on unarmed protesters.
The vast majority of the protests are peaceful but the rising violence around the country coupled with the regime’s deliberate provocation of ethnic and religious friction could spark civil war, Ford told a group of journalists and foreign policy professionals at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy by Skype from Damascus shortly before he was forced to leave. Civil war is not inevitable, he added, but the possibility cannot be ignored.
Syria expert Andrew Tabler called for a two-pronged approach. International opponents of the regime should begin working with dissidents to train them in civil disobedience, particularly general strikes, while helping the opposition “develop a plan for post-Assad Syria.”
Tabler, who has spent years working in Syria and is now at the Washington Institute, said U.S. policy should focus on regime change and assemble a “Friends of Syria” group of international and regional countries to coordinate pressure on the regime outside of the United Nations framework because of Russian and Chinese support for Assad.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II told CNN no one has a clue what to do about Syria, and even if they did Assad is “not interested” in taking advice from anyone, including him.
Marc Ginsburg, former ambassador to Morocco, said the success of the U.S. and NATO in removing Gadhafi may bring pressure from Syrian demonstrators for similar help.
Some in the Syrian resistance have called for armed rebellion and NATO intervention in the wake of Gadhafi’s downfall, but the young activists who sparked the uprising have successfully maintained the largely non-violent nature of the demonstrations.
Ford said some armed gangs linked to Islamic militant groups may be contributing to the violence for their own ends. But no one is buying the regime’s consistent insistence that the unrest is caused by a “Western, American and Zionist conspiracy.”
The economy is in deep trouble and bound to get worse. Consumption is down, business is hurting and the economy is contracting.
A rapidly growing population facing rapidly shrinking opportunities for jobs while demanding greater freedom makes up the backbone of the protest movement, Tabler said.
The Syrian National Council was formed in Turkey last month an attempt to bring together opposition leaders and present an alternative to the Assad regime. There is widespread concern about the disproportionate influence of Islamists, particularly the Moslem Brotherhood, within the Council, at the expense of Kurds, Druze, Christians and other minorities. Another concern is influence of the Islamist government of Turkey, which seeks to spread its foothold across the old Ottoman Empire.
Meanwhile, Assad is spreading tentacles abroad into Lebanon, Turkey and even into the United States.
Syrian troops have crossed into Lebanon to capture or kill Syrian dissidents and defecting soldiers, according to the State Department, which called on the Lebanese government to do a better job policing its borders and protecting those fleeing Assad’s “violence and brutality.”
Similarly, Syrians fleeing across the Turkish border have been pursued by Assad’s soldiers, and the Turkish government has warned of reprisals.
A Virginia man was recently arrested by the FBI and charged with heading a network collecting information on peaceful anti-Assad protesters for use by the intelligence services to intimidate, arrest, torture and even kill family members in order to silence critics in exile.
The toll of tyrants, dictators and terror kingpins has grown dramatically during the Obama years, most notably Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Walaki and Muammar Gadhafi.
Is Bashar Assad next? Inshallah.
He won’t be missed, but what is most important is what will come next in a troubled, turbulent Syria.