Courtesy Reuters

How Assad Stayed In Power—And How He'll Try to Keep It

Iran, Russia, Turkey and the Syrian Spring

On November 12, the Arab League suspended Bashar al-Assad's Syria. After that, King Abdullah II of Jordan publicly called on the Syrian President to go -- the first such demand by an Arab leader. Turkish officials have been even more vocal: Ten days after the Arab League's decision, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan explicitly called on Assad to "remove [himself] from that seat," accusing him of "cowardice." And just this week, the Arab League imposed sanctions on the regime, including freezing its assets, ending all dealings with the Central Bank of Syria, and halting financial interaction with the Syrian government. Iraq abstained, and Lebanon "dissociated" itself from the decision.

For now, however, Assad is hanging on -- and has been for the better part of a year. He has relied on allied countries, especially Iran and Russia, to block international action, hoping to buy time to put down the protesters himself. Although his hand is proving weaker by the day, he will continue to play it. It is all he's got.

Iran has been the regime's strategic ally since 1979. For more than three decades, the two have worked together with Tehran's proxy, Hezbollah, to counterbalance the pro-American Arab states. Syria, meanwhile, has been indispensable to Iran, serving as its bridgehead in the eastern Mediterranean and main supply line to Hezbollah. Accordingly, both have come out in strong support of Assad during the current crisis, and neither will likely turn on him in the future.

If "Lebanon and Iran are our economic lungs," as one Syrian official recently put it, then "Russia is our political shield." Indeed, Russia blocked a resolution at the UN Security Council in early October that would have condemned Syria's "grave and systematic human rights violations" and proposed possible actions -- namely, sanctions -- to be considered against the Assad regime. The United States and France are hoping to revisit the issue soon (France has even advocated building a "secure zone to protect civilians," although the European Union has not endorsed this position) and might try to leverage the Arab League's newfound activism to do so. But there are no signs of change in Moscow's position. In fact, Russia condemned the Arab League's decision and accused the United States of inciting violence and blocking dialogue.

For Russia, the Western and Turkish pressure on Syria is an encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. In fact, Moscow's long-established military ties to Damascus have allowed it to project power into the Middle East and beyond. For example, the Russians often threaten to offer advanced weapons to Syria in order to extract concessions from the United States and Israel. Syria also affords Russia a foothold in the Mediterranean through a shared naval maintenance facility at the Syrian port city of Tartus. In 2008, there was even talk of renovating and enlarging the port to accommodate a permanent Russian naval presence, although nothing has since materialized. So it should have been no surprise that after the Arab League moved against Assad, Moscow announced that it would continue to honor all arms contracts with the Syrian government and would be sending warships to make port calls in Syria this summer (as well as in Beirut, Genoa, and Cyprus). Syrian propagandists tried to spin the news as Russia drawing a "red line" around Syria. The Russians, however, have been subtler: Military sources in Moscow told Izvestia that the move had been planned a year ago and had no connection with the ongoing crisis in Syria.

Until the Kremlin loses faith in Assad, he need not fear the United Nations. But must he fear NATO?

The answer depends on Turkey and the United States. At the start of the crisis, Ankara delayed the United States from officially adopting a policy of regime change in Syria. Erdoğan was a personal friend of Assad and is fearful of turmoil on his country's border. Throughout the spring and summer, the Turkish prime minister attempted to broker a political resolution to the crisis, but Assad continually brushed him off. Now, Ankara realizes that Assad has no future and has -- a bit hesitantly -- put its weight behind the uprising.

To be sure, Erdoğan has adopted a strong declaratory anti-Assad policy. Turkey also agreed to go along with some of the Arab League's sanctions and offered a haven to the commander and several officers of the Free Syrian Army, the group of defectors from Assad's forces that have prevented his security forces from retaking, among other areas, the vital city of Homs. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu even indicated that should the killings continue, Ankara would not rule out limited humanitarian intervention. The most likely form would be carving out a safe zone along the border -- what publicists for the Syrian regime refer to as a kind of Syrian Benghazi, after the rebel base in Libya earlier this year.

Nevertheless, the Turks have stopped short of putting boots on the ground. And Assad would like to keep things this way. The Syrian regime believes it still has two cards to play to keep Ankara from active intervention: the Turkish government's ongoing war against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its reluctance to enter into conflict with Iran.

Assad is reestablishing relations with the PKK, allowing the group to set up bases on Syrian territory, something he had prohibited as part of a 1998 peace agreement with Turkey. Iran has also been using the PKK against Turkey. In August, it reportedly arrested, and then released, the acting leader of the group during operations in the Qandil mountains. The Turks read the move as a message to lay off Damascus. Moreover, according to Le Figaro, Assad even allowed Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union Party, a PKK affiliate, to operate in Syria's Kurdish areas. In return, the party allegedly agreed not to join in the protests with the Syrian Arab opposition.

But the Kurdish card is not a strong one, mainly because Syrian Kurds themselves are not invested in Assad's survival. Meanwhile, during a visit to Qatar in October, Davutoğlu warned that Syria should remember the past, referring to Turkey's 1998 threat of invading Syria over its support for the PKK. Ankara sent reinforcements to the border, which was enough to convince Damascus to quickly sign an agreement to cease all support to the PKK.

Explaining the circumstances under which Turkey might decide to actively intervene, Erdoğan's chief foreign policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalın, noted that it would not happen before "hundreds of thousands of people...start migrating into Turkey." And if the Turks did in fact decide on a more hawkish policy, they would want to first ensure an international mandate and strong NATO backing, because Ankara would not want to face possible Syrian and Iranian retaliation on its own.

Yet even though France has come out in favor of creating "humanitarian corridors," the rest of NATO has not. The most important player, the United States, has shied away from direct intervention. Instead, Washington calls for dispatching international monitors and deepening economic and political pressure. The only notable statement about what might precipitate an intervention came from the U.S. representative at NATO, Ivo Daalder. During a November 7 talk at the Atlantic Council, he laid out three conditions for considering action in Syria: "a demonstrable need, regional support, and sound legal basis for action." None of these, he quickly added, applied to Syria. It is unclear what qualifies as "demonstrable need," although perhaps Kalın's scenario of hundreds of thousands of refugees offers a hint. Mentioning a "legal basis for action" implies getting a UN mandate, which, given Russia's veto, is unlikely to happen soon. The result is that each player is passing around a hot potato, with the United States looking to the Arab League and Turkey for leadership, and the latter, predictably, waiting for things to get bad enough for the other to jump in.

Now, more than any looming international intervention, Assad's biggest problem is his inability to use the time his allies bought and his skittish enemies paid for to pacify and retake full control of the street without using so much violence as to finally trigger an external intervention. With efforts to play domestic factions off one another having failed, Assad has been playing a nationwide game of Whac-a-Mole with protesters and a growing number of defectors from the army. The ever bloodier strategy has tightened Assad's circle of friends -- abroad and at home. He has fewer allies left within Syria by the day, and even Russia's reliability and the United States' hesitance might eventually be put to the test if Syrian deaths mount. And they almost certainly will.

Even so, Assad has no other option but to continue running patterns from the old playbook. In late September, Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, was quoted as acknowledging that the regime will face a stifling international isolation. However, Mustapha reportedly added that Syria will turn eastward to Russia, China, and India, for the next decade until the world forgets the regime's brutal crackdown. Then, maybe ten years down the road, all world capitals will seek a rapprochement with Damascus. The problem with this scenario is that most world capitals no longer see Assad surviving the crisis anywhere near that long.

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