Adrian Hamilton: Only the drip-drip effect of desertions will do for Assad

World View


It would be nice to think that the latest enthusiasm for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian situation stemmed from a concern to avoid civil war and the horrors that this would bring on the country's benighted people. But the simple truth is that the mood on Syria is changing: first because President Assad seems to be succeeding in putting down the uprising and, second, because the outside world has become concerned as to what might succeed him. But what did anyone think would happen once the regime unleashed the full force of its security forces? And what else did the outside world expect of an uprising that was fragmented, localised and poorly armed?

In that sense it is all too apposite that the latest meeting of the Arab League to discuss the peace plan should take place in Iraq. For Syria now resembles nothing so much as that country in the final years of Saddam Hussein. Then, as now, the West tried repeatedly to orchestrate a unified and democratic opposition only for it to break down in squabbling and ineffectiveness.

What broke the stalemate was not the pressure of sanctions or diplomacy or civil uprising, but invasion, with the results which we all now know: more deaths, the breakdown of order and the replacement of a minority tyranny by a corrupt rule by the religious majority.

That may be a little harsh (but not too much so) on the present state of Iraq. Of course, you can never draw exact parallels. But the West should have learnt from the Iraqi experience when responding to Syria.

Longstanding autocracies which have the backing of well-armed security forces and extensive internal intelligence are extremely difficult to unseat except through violence. Force of arms usually wins the day, as the Shia of southern Iraq learnt to their cost when they rose up in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's defeat in Kuwait.

Sanctions only have the effect of increasing the regime's hold on the economy and hence on the livelihoods of the population. Diplomacy doesn't work because it concerns the internal control of society which the ruling clique fear to relinquish.

This is not a counsel of despair but it is a reason for realism. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt worked because there were powerful armed forces involved who withdrew support from the regime. That is not the case in Syria, where (as in Libya) the conventional armed services have been kept deliberately weak and the security forces kept well-paid.

The Assad family and their Alawite group are not going to be toppled from power in the current state of armed play. Nor are they going to give up voluntarily under outside pressure. All the current efforts to get them to the negotiating table are so much hot air.

Assad will make promises to get the international community off his back but, as far as he is concerned, he is winning through force. The ceasefires and negotiations with the opposition that Kofi Annan is presssing on him would be to his enemies' advantage. It is not in his interests to comply, whatever he says to the representatives of the Arab League, the UN or anyone else who comes to pay court.

What will do for him eventually is the drip-drip effect of growing desertions and hatreds as more and more families are affected by the bloody clampdown. That and the increasing militarisation of the opposition as arms and funds flow in from the Sunni regimes of the Gulf via Iraq and Lebanon.

How quickly it will happen, no one can predict. None of us knows just how many troops are already confined to barracks, what is going on in the inner circle of the regime, and how many are defecting.

The example of Saddam Hussein should make us cautious of hoping for a quick and peaceful overthrow of the regime. The one thing that the experience of others does suggest, however, is that when the regime collapses, it will do so quickly and absolutely.

The Syrian population may remain cowed, but there's no real support left for Assad and his corrupt and vicious family.

Patronised by Merkel

It was with a roll of drums that the BBC's Today programme this week announced a "rare" interview with Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom the Corporation persists in calling the "one of the most powerful leaders in the West".

Important she undoubtedly is. Whether she's a "leader" in more than domestic terms has yet to be proved.

What was fascinating about the interview, however, was not the answers. They were pretty anodyne beyond the oddly nationalistic insistence that questions be put in German not English. It was the tone she adopted in saying that of course the British were pursuing a determined policy of cutting their deficit, and that, yes, she regarded us as an important country in Europe. Both true.

But it was distinctly patronising in the way she put it. No wonder David Cameron seems ill-at-ease with the German Chancellor. After his warming visit to Washington, we are witnessing a right-of-centre British politician all friends with a left-of-centre politician in Washington and not with his natural political ally in Europe. It's quite like old times with Tony Blair.

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