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Unseating Assad no stroll in the park

Syria's president may be hanging onto office by his fingernails but his grip is tenacious. From his perspective, walking off into the sunset isn’t feasible because not only would his regime’s old guard and his Allawite supporters be vulnerable to payback, he would also be at risk of being hunted down and packed off to the International Criminal Court in The Hague as former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton indicated once. With few exceptions, dictators with mega-egos stay put until the nth-minute preferring what they perceive to be a noble death to exile. That’s their greatest mistake.
Saddam Hussein was offered safe passage out of Iraq in 2003 which would have preempted war. A million deaths later, he turned up in an underground bolt-hole and was hanged to the snickers and taunts of his executioners. Muammar Qaddafi insisted he would die in his country but, prodded, poked and dragged before being shot, his end was less than dignified. When Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down two years ago, he would have been welcomed almost anywhere in the world but rather than accept safe haven, he stayed where he wasn’t wanted and ended up with life behind bars. What could account for such foolish disregard for their personal safety and that of their families? It may be that decades of living within a presidential cocoon surrounded by admiring sycophants instilled a belief that they were bordering on superhuman and were the only ones able to save their countries.
Someone should write a book about the weirdly warped personalities of dictators if they haven’t already. Why is it that they’re the only ones unable to see the writing on the wall? Even though the world and its wife are witnessing Syria’s collapse on their screens — half-demolished buildings, rubble-strewn streets, bodies of executed men and boys fished out of rivers, maimed children, fleeing populations — the president is pictured looking jolly and self-satisfied, he and his elegant wife more interested in socializing and high-end shopping than mourning the death of more than 60,000 of their countrymen and women. They’re either Oscar-meriting actors or seriously in denial when Western military intervention isn’t off the table.
Alternatively, and more likely, Assad is confident his closest allies — Iran, Hezbollah and Russia — aren’t about to let him down. Tehran has said more than once that any attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran. Moscow has deployed warships off Syria’s Mediterranean coast and benefits from a naval base in the port of Tartus. Russian officials have made it patently clear that Moscow will not brook the US and its allies muscling-in on one of its last bastions of regional influence.
Hezbollah’s military wing consisting of highly trained, well-armed guerillas has grown in size since its conflict with Israel in 2006 and Hezbollah is known to possess over 60,000 missiles capable of reaching Israeli cities and Western interests in the Gulf. It’s more than probable, too, that Hamas which is partially funded and armed by Iran would be eager to join the fray.
President Obama has been criticized by some quarters for his reluctance to interfere in any meaningful fashion. For instance, in his final public appearance prior to his retirement as Pentagon chief, Leon Panetta admitted that Obama vetoed his own national security’s team plan to arm the Syrian opposition. On the face of it, providing weapons to those on the ground struggling to oust the Assad regime, sounds like the least the US president could do. After all, he did assist in imposing a no-fly zone over Libya and ultimately lent his enthusiastic support to the so-called — and, in retrospect, grossly misnamed — Arab Spring. However, Syria is a completely different kettle of fish given geographical, geopolitical and sectarian complexities, not to mention its proximity to America’s sacred cow Israel.
President Obama has no love for Assad but he must be concerned about the day after his departure. He only has to look at Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to see how their drive toward democracy has turned out. In every case, moderates have been pushed aside by religious extremists, terrorist organizations or secessionist groups and militias, whose ingrained ideologies leave little room for personal freedoms or economic growth. The only thing they all have in common is their hatred for the US and Israel. Will Syria sans Assad be the exception? Doubtful when one of the most popular rebel groups is the militant Jabhat Al-Nusra with loose links with Al-Qaeda that’s managed to woo the citizens of Aleppo with regular distribution of bread and welfare programs.
On the other side of the ideological spectrum are Iranian and Hezbollah militias, thought to number in the region of 50,000, currently fighting alongside Assad’s armies. Tehran won’t relinquish its grip on Syria easily and if and when Assad’s rule ends, those militias will remain to protect Syrian Shiites from reprisals and will have access to the regime’s stock of chemical weapons. A miracle would be needed to rescue the country from a protracted civil war with an unpredictable outcome.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Israel would prefer the devil they know to remain in power rather than facing the prospect of having a fundamentalist state as its neighbor or one that is without a federal authority, carved up by feuding extremists into enclaves — and if that’s the case, the message will have been sent to Washington. It’s notable that the recognized opposition now complains that its funding from Western powers is drying-up which could be why some elements are holding their nose calling for dialogue with the government.
Director of the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Paul Salem isn’t optimistic. “Syria is basically disintegrating as a nation, similar to how Lebanon disintegrated in the 1970s to ethnic components, and as Iraq did,” he recently said. If he’s right then talking to Al-Assad about a peace plan based on a national unity government — as proposed by Kofi Annan and backed by Moscow — may be the lesser of two evils, as bitter as that pill would be for most Syrians to swallow.