Martin McCauley writes from Tampa: The Syrian army has retaken some of the Damascus suburbs held by the rebels. Activists report that 2,000 soldiers and 50 tanks have moved into Kfar Batna, Saqba, Deraa and elsewhere. House to house arrests followed. The Free Syrian army engaged in a tactical withdrawal in the face of such military force.
Does this mean that President Bashar Al-Assad has decided to carry out his threat to destroy opponents of the regime? His detractors grimly comment that he is not called Bashar for nothing. He is hell bent on grinding the protesters into the dust. He has initiated urban warfare in the capital. This destroys parts of one of the most beautiful cities in the Middle East. It is a heavy economic price to pay, Assad is willing to reduce the country to penury to stay in power. Why will he not agree to the Arab League’s demand to step down and hand over to the Vice-President? His task would be to arrange elections after two months.
President Assad will not leave power because it would be the end of the Alawite sect’s dominance of Syria. A minority Shia sect, it is closely allied to Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hence it would not satisfy the protesters if he took a plane to Tehran. His whole family, clan and supporters would face a wipe out.
The Arab League has given up and handed the problem over to the UN Security Council. Russia and China are against military intervention and even oppose more severe sanctions. The Arab lobby has to convince the Chinese and Russians to soften their stance. It can be pointed out to the Chinese that they risk turning the Arab world against them. A sweetener could even be offered: oil at a reduced price, for instance. Beijing is still smarting from its huge losses in Libya. It backed Gaddafi until the end and will not be allowed back into the country in the near future. Commerce matters to the Chinese. It is the most effective way of influencing them.
About three quarters of the Syrian army have remained in barracks. No one knows what young conscripts will do when ordered to shoot civilians, perhaps from their home town. If they rebel, the regime is finished. The Free Syrian army is made up mainly of deserters. It is difficult to desert as the secret police have orders to shoot anyone suspected to trying to quit. Snipers from Iran and Hezbollah have been brought in to kill protesters. The number of military being killed is increasing but is nowhere near crisis point. The regime comforts itself in the belief that the opposition is a conspiracy backed by the Israelis, Americans, Salafists, Al Jazeera and England. All patriotic Syrians are behind Bashar.
There will be no UN resolution to intervene militarily. Syria is not Libya. There is nothing of value in Syria to die for. If it were swimming in oil there would be activity. The Syrian army is better trained and equipped than the Libyan army. Turkey has told Bashar to go but left it at that. So what is going to happen? Every dictator throughout the world is hoping Bashar can hang on. He can militarily but there is one factor which will defeat him in the end: the economy. It is slowly being strangled. Iran is in no position to bail Damascus out with billions of dollars. The slow drip drip – Chinese torture – will continue until enough people decide that they have no future under Assad. How long will this take? Months, possibly a year, but the laws of economics cannot be bent to the will of any dictator.