The Middle East Channel

Assad's continued defiance in the face of growing isolation

Another month and another delusionary speech by an Arab autocrat hanging on for power. If recent history is anything to go by, surely Bashar al-Assad's end is now at hand? The Syrian president's unwillingness to concede any of the legitimate demands of protesters, his continued reference to terrorist infiltrators, and his stated willingness to maintain an "iron-fist" incurred broad condemnation and a widening consensus that his days are numbered. And, yet, to dismiss his speech and subsequent hard-line address to crowds gathered in Damascus yesterday, as the ravings of a madman and suggest that Assad is all out of ideas may also be mistaken. Is the president really facing a fight against the clock?

Despite some analysis to the contrary, Assad did not come off as wooden or uneasy during his most recent public appearances. If anything, the physical strain visible in a previous June speech was less apparent, and he spoke with the confidence of a man still in control of some of his rational powers, and perhaps even enjoying a quiet self-belief in his assessment of the regime's strength. While Assad showed apparent delusion in failing to acknowledge what is unfolding around him, the regime's brutal security response to date suggests otherwise: Assad knows what he is facing, but may not be on the back foot as much as people would like to think.

If Assad is indeed maintaining a certain confidence, this is likely to derive as much as anything from the facts on the ground. While the regime is facing an unprecedented challenge and despite the steady drumbeat of opposition activities for ten months now -- including an increase in the number of daily protest over recent weeks (perhaps a positive side-effect of the much-maligned Arab League observer mission) -- the balance of power on the ground has not fundamentally shifted in the opposition's favor. Most pointedly, despite growing defections among army conscripts and the burgeoning emergence of the Free Syria Army (FSA), there have been next to no defections among the regime's inner core or the key security apparatuses upon which it depends. Much of the population, despite likely sympathy with opposition aims, has remained on the sidelines; meanwhile, the political opposition continues to squabble among itself, weakening its ability to project credible leadership.

In large part Assad's speeches were aimed at shoring up this base and cementing the narrative that he has fostered since his emergence in power in 2000: without him, so goes the story, the country will descend into instability and communal violence as occurred in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. The fear that Syria could also fall into a similar form of hell -- a scenario that is already unfolding in some measure -- cautions many Syrians against radical change. Yes, this is a narrative that Assad is himself cynically creating through the violence of his security forces; yet to deny that it has some semblance of truth would also be mistaken. Syria's many societal and opposition divisions and its political stagnation under decades of Assad dictatorship hint at the potential for a messy transition. In his speeches, then, Assad presented himself as the vehicle of an orderly reform transition. His offer of some political change and a new constitution, counterpoised with fear-mongering references to the spread of terrorism, will strike a chord -- however delusional it may appear to outside observers -- with some elements of the population, including religious minorities, who have to date not joined the hundreds of thousands of brave protesters.

Meanwhile, his criticism of the Arab League suggests a man who has already recognized the inevitability of his international isolation, and to a certain degree may be feeling slightly liberated for having done so. Syria still gives great importance to its international position -- particularly on the economic front as the impact of sanctions begin to bite -- but his speech suggests that Assad may not be overly concerned. In part this may reflect his view that foreign intervention remains an unlikely prospect -- an outcome Assad tried to cement in the address; by making it clear that he will battle on, Assad sent a pointed message that any intervention will come at great cost for those attempting it.

Thus, on the back of Assad's pronouncements, the options for moving forward remain as hazy as ever. Assad faces international condemnation and a widening chorus of calls to step down, but it remains uncertain just how this end can be achieved. In truth, without the prospect of some form of Libya-style military intervention, it is hard to see what the international community can feasibly do to loosen the regime's short-term grip on power. Economic sanctions will inflict pain, and may succeed in forcing the regime aside in the medium term, but the suffering they impose on the population at large is also likely to increase exponentially in the months ahead. Meanwhile, without more significant defections from the regime's core base -- including a quiet chunk of the population that continue to back him -- the fundamental pillars of the regime will not be quickly overturned. The regime is also likely to believe that in the prospect of a civil war -- a scenario that may only serve to cement its fear-mongering narrative among the silent majority -- it would maintain the military upper hand.

The principle Syrian opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC), now appears to have acknowledged this truth, calling for Syria to be referred to the United Nations Security Council and for foreign intervention, a scenario that was anathema to them only a few months ago. However, it is hard not to deduce from this transformation that the SNC, despite its growing position as the primary voice of the opposition, is increasingly out of ideas and that without foreign intervention, change -- at least it the short term -- is unlikely.

Despite this reality, the likelihood of military involvement by external actors remains slim at best on the basis of well-versed arguments regarding the complexities of Syrian society and the potential for devastating regional spill-over. While the international community should continue to pressure the regime with as many levers as possible, most notably by seeking some international consensus that includes Russia -- which has hitherto blocked U.N. action and which is allegedly now supplying arms to Assad -- it holds precious little leverage. This will have to be a Syrian struggle -- and one that may ultimately have to involve negotiation with the regime if a devastating conflict is to be averted.

Assad's eventual demise is therefore by no means assured. The growing groundswell of popular opposition, widening violence, and the grim state of an economy quickly heading for collapse makes it hard to envisage how he can maintain his grip on power in the long term: while the regime has remained united thus far, it will surely eventually crack under such sustained pressure. Yet, other similarly odious rulers have survived in similar circumstance, and if Assad's recent appearances are anything to go by he may feel he can hang on for longer that many people imagine.

Julien Barnes-Dacey is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and was based in Damascus as a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor and Wall Street Journal from 2007 to 2010. Follow on twitter at @jbdacey.

AFP/Getty images

Marc Lynch

Obama's bold move out of Iraq

The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it. Critics of the withdrawal have blasted Obama for putting politics over policy, risking the alleged gains of the "surge" in order to meet a campaign promise. Many of those who played a role in the desperate attempt to reverse Iraq's 2006 descent into civil war have entirely legitimate and justifiable fears for Iraq's future. But in fact, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics -- and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.

In many ways, it would have been safer politically for Obama to keep the residual force in Iraq which hawks demanded to insulate himself against charges of having "lost Iraq". But it would have been wrong on policy. It's not just that the U.S. was obligated by the SOFA to withdraw its forces, once it proved unable to negotiate the terms of an extended troop presence with the immunity provisions which the Pentagon demanded. It's that the remaining U.S. troops could do little for Iraqi security, had little positive effect on Iraqi politics, and would have soon become an active liability. This is the lesson of the last two years, when U.S. troops were reduced in number and largely withdrew to the bases under the terms of the SOFA. The American troop presence didn't prevent bombings and murders, didn't force political reconciliation, didn't usher in real democracy, and didn't significantly increase American diplomatic influence in the region. But nor did Iraq fall apart. Obama's gamble is that the same sequence will play out in 2012 and that he will have successfully left behind an Iraq which isn't perfect but which has avoided yet another catastrophe.

Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal has been widely presented by critics as politically motivated, made in order to satisfy his political base at the expense of the national interest. It's true that Obama made the promise to withdraw from Iraq central to his campaign narrative, and that this commitment was widely popular (with Iraqis as well as with Americans). And it's true that Obama should be able to present the withdrawal as a promise kept during the election campaign.

But for all that, the political gains are too minimal and the political risks too high for such considerations to really be driving such a major policy decision. Iraq dominated the foreign policy debate for years, but at this point very few people care. It barely shows up in public opinion surveys as a concern of voters, and stories about Iraq rarely even make it into the media anymore. For the most part, it seems, Americans just want to forget about it.  Even the formal end of the war which consumed American politics for nearly a decade barely caused a blip on the national radar.  On the left, people seem more agitated by the security contractors who will remain in Iraq than by the more than 160,000 troops which have been withdrawn, and have not been inclined to give the administration much credit. On the right, the withdrawal has been a gift, an opportunity to now hold Obama responsible for anything which goes wrong in Iraq over the next year and to frame him as weak on national security.

The real benefits of completing the Iraqi withdrawal are in the realm of policy, not politics. This isn't because Iraq has somehow solved its problems, or that we should not worry about its fate. The emerging Iraq doesn't look much like a well-functioning, institutionalized democracy governed by the rule of law. It isn't likely see serious political reconciliation, particularly at the level of its contentious and dysfunctional political elite, any time soon. It's likely to have continuing violence, bombings, murders, sectarian fears, and the potential for serious conflict in disputed territories.

But the fact is that it has had all of those things with the U.S. troop presence. The American presence over the last two years has not prevented the low-level violence, has not blocked Maliki's efforts to centralize power, has not helped build an effective Iraqi Parliament, and has not advanced political reconciliation. Staying for another few years wouldn't have done any more on these scores, because such things are largely out of America's hands.  Iraqis are the main players in Iraq, not Americans, and the best the U.S. could do was to try to facilitate their political bargains. That was true before the withdrawal, and it's still true today.

I argued years ago that only an American withdrawal would force Iraqi politicians to find a sustainable political equilibrium. I never expected it to be a pretty one, or to be an easy process. But I would say that this is exactly what has been happening and what we will see unfold over the coming years. Prime Minister Maliki was deeply reckless and misguided to try to arrest Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi -- and yes, it is extremely worrying to watch Hashemi flee for refuge in the Kurdish areas. Insurgents have carried out some horrific bombings to try and destabilize the situation. While a lot of people see this as the opening stage of the coming collapse, I saw it as their testing the new political arena to see what they can get away with and how far they can go. That's not a surprise. All Iraqi political actors, from the Sadrists to Iraqiyya, will do the same. The test is whether the new Iraq can absorb those provocations and settle down. I hope and pray that it can. But this was going to happen no matter when the U.S. withdrew -- and this was the time to do it.

Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops might not have been his first preference. He tried to negotiate an extension of the SOFA, and I don't think he would have had much trouble defending a residual presence of 15,000 troops to an American public which barely cared anymore. I'm glad that the effort failed. Those troops would have accomplished little. They would not have prevented the ongoing low-level violence, the murders and bombings which continue to plague Iraq. They would not have fostered political reconciliation or checked Maliki's power grab, any more than they did for the last two years. They would not have made Iraq a pro-American, anti-Iranian foreign policy player, any more than they did before. Their main effect would have been to serve as a lightning rod for Iraqi political criticism, a mobilizing factor for the Sadrists, and a target for those hoping to strike at Americans.

Withdrawing the last troops from Iraq was a risk, to be sure -- but it was exactly the kind of bold choice which needed to be taken.*  It was bold in the best way: not militaristic bluster or bombing things to demonstrate resolve, but having the courage to take a risky but correct decision. I hope and believe that Iraq will hold together, and avoid a renewed sectarian bloodbath or state collapse.  That is, if the U.S. can avoid bombing Iran. But that's an issue for another day.

* last paragraph expanded, 2:20pm - ml.