Experts: Despite cohesion, Syria regime could fall

AFP , Sunday 19 Jun 2011

Unlike other Arab autocratic regimes which have cracked under a wave of uprisings Syria's leadership has remained intact but analysts differ on whether it can weather the storm and survive

Bashar Assad
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, center top, greets lawmakers before his speech at the Parliament in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, March 30, 2011. (Photo: AP)

Whereas in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya divisions surfaced only weeks after popular unrest, there have been no known defections or cracks in the top-tier of President Bashar Al-Assad's regime or inside the security forces, despite a brutal crackdown on protesters and international condemnation.

Analysts say that is because of the clan structure of Assad's inner circle. "President Bashar Al-Assad does not rule Syria single-handedly," according to Exclusive Analysis, a London-based firm specialising in risk analysis.

"Certainly, such major decisions such as how to handle the ongoing unrest in the country are taken after some consultation between members of this inner circle, which is not limited to the Al-Assad family but also includes key allies in the military-security apparatus," it said in a written response to AFP.

Hafez Al-Assad, who seized power in 1970, managed to rule for 30 years, before handing over to his son Bashar, with backing from the family, clan and the Alawite minority to which he belonged.

"Thus far, there has been general agreement over the fundamental issues in Syrian politics: That the Alawite minority should dominate the state and economy through the Baath party and the military security apparatus," according to Exclusive Analysis.

"There is most likely no major disagreement within the elite over the necessity of using lethal force on a large scale to quell unrest," it said.

Thomas Pierret, who starts teaching a course on Syria this September at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, agrees. "All members of the clan in power know that the regime cannot be reformed, precisely because of its clan nature. You can reform an authoritarian regime if it is based on strong institutions, but not if it is based on a patrimonial system," he added.

The website of the Syrian Observatory, a rights group, said the violence has claimed the lives of 1,309 civilians and 341 security force members since it erupted in mid-March.

Some 10,000 people have reportedly been arrested, and about 15,000 sought refuge in neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon.

But experts disagree on whether the ruling clique can stay united.

"The state appears to have retained its control of the country thus far. The armed forces have not seen mass or high-level defections or desertions," according to Exclusive Analysis.

The regime "cannot maintain the status quo indefinitely," it said. "Eventually the unrest will have to die down, or the state will collapse."

It noted that Sunni reservists were currently being used alongside the more loyal Alawite troops, but said that if the trouble lasts much longer the regime will also have to rely on the Sunni forces.

Sending them into Sunni areas for punitive measures could lead to desertions, defections and fragmentation of the armed forces, it said.

Syria is majority Sunni, but with a large Alawite minority in power and also a minority community of Christians.

"The regime could still remain in power for some time, but I think it is losing control of the country because the security forces cannot be everywhere at once," said Basma Kodmani, director of the Arab Reform Initiative.

"They are losing ground because they are dealing with the uprisings piecemeal, trying to crush them one by one.

That is why the opposition is trying to ignite as many uprisings as possible," she said.

"In theory, the determination of the demonstrators can defeat the regime if they manage to extend the military beyond its limits," said Pierret, adding that would mean sending the whole military out of barracks, even the Sunni elements.

"But for that to happen, the movement would have to get much, much bigger, and it is not certain that will happen," he said.

It "seems that the regime wants to make this end last long, [it] will not give up easily," said Professor Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

"It is certainly not 'finished' -- it has a lot of supporters -- whereas the opposition is weak and only beginning to organise nationally and internationally," he added.

"At the same time, a point of no return seems to have been passed -- too much blood has been spilt," said Volkers, author of the book Syria under Bashar Al-Assad.

"Even if his [Assad's] forces crush the rebellion, he will not win. Syria will be isolated and suffer," he said.

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