Thursday, December 20, 2012

Syria: Assad's Playbook Is Now Empty

The Atlantic

by ROBIN WRIGHT   DEC. 14, 2012

The last of the three conditions keeping Syria's dictator in power finally collapsed this week.
The Assad dynasty, which has ruled the most strategic chunk of land in the Arab world for more than 40 years, may now face insurmountable odds. The three fundamental rules in a dictator's playbook of power have changed over the past two weeks.
Although modern autocrats rarely rally a majority, my experience is that they need at least 30 percent support at home to survive serious opposition challenges. They also need powerful foreign allies to prevent international isolation or invasion. And they also need to prevent viable, credible, or recognized alternatives to their leadership so they remain the only source of order.
President Bashar al-Assad is now closer -- much closer -- than at any point in the 20-month conflict to losing out on all three. And his use of imprecise but deadly Scud missiles against his own people this month demonstrates that he has no backup game plan.
That doesn't mean that he will be forced out quickly or easily. In many historic last-gasps, the final battle is the bloodiest. But the odds are now decisively against the Assad regime's open-ended survival.
First, every indicator suggests the despot of Damascus no longer has one-third of the population behind him. The Assad father and son had relied on an unusual collection of minorities with interconnected political and economic self-interests. The political math added up large chunks of Alawites (12 percent), Christians (10 percent), Kurds (9 percent,) plus business elites, the corrupt who were bought, and civil servants in a bloated bureaucracy who were loyal (or apolitical) in exchange for jobs.
The numbers were important as much for security as for politics in a country without any real rights. They ensured Assad could recruit security forces with motives worth putting their lives on the line for him.
But the critical quota has been dwindling since the summer, as the regime's crackdown has grown ever more bloodthirsty and rebels have seized territory. A growing number of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam to which the Assad family belongs, are alarmed enough to distance themselves from the ruling clan.
Assad's army -- on paper -- was about 300,000 strong when the first protest erupted in remote Daraa, after teenagers were arrested for scribbling anti-government graffiti on public walls in March 2011. Today, the number of reliable troops may be as low as 70,000 to 80,000 in a country of 22.5 million, according to Arab and Western officials.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh lasted 13 months because he still had significant political and military support. Libya's Moammar Qaddafi held on for eight months because he had a mix of the military, tribes or clans, and the oil-corrupted. Assad has lasted the longest, but also at the greatest cost to his base of support.
Second, autocrats also need powerful allies. Assad would not have lasted this long without Russia, China, and Iran. Tehran has aided and abetted Damascus with weaponry, intelligence capabilities, lessons from its experience in tactical repression from its own 2009 uprising, and indirect economic assistance, according to Western and Arab officials.
Russia has been even more important. With an assist from Beijing, Moscow has blocked credible international sanctions to squeeze Syria, which was vulnerable because its modest oil exports were already declining.
But on Thursday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov conceded Assad might not make it. "Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition," he said, according to Russian press reports. "We must look squarely at the facts, and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing more and more control and more and more territory."
Russia is also developing plans to evacuate thousands of Russians now in Syria, Bogdanov reportedly said. Moscow has longstanding military, diplomatic and commercial interests in Syria, its strongest Arab ally. The leaks are a major indication of the cracks in an alliance that blocked punitive U.N. measures against Syria.
And finally, Syria has a new(ish) opposition that claims more credibility as an alternative than the feckless group of exiles that squabbled away 20 months -- and in the process left Assad the only political game in town. Under intense U.S. pressure, the Syrian National Council was reconfigured and expanded to include insiders under an unwieldy title -- the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC).
The opposition is still fragile and fraught with infighting. It may still prove as hapless as the Iraqi National Council, which was also crafted by the United States. But the transformation was enough for President Obama this week to announce American recognition of the SOC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, with 100 other countries joining in.
The emergence of a recognized opposition changes the internal and international dynamics of the conflict and opens the way for many other forms of aid, too.
Predictions about anything in the Middle East are always dicey. Many of us who know Syria well -- and have had our own encounters with a very determined dictatorship -- have been stunned that Assad has lasted this long. I still owe lunch to a colleague who predicted a longer struggle than I did. But his target date for Assad's ouster has also long passed.
Assad's demise will require that his support ebbs further, that his allies move more decisively against him, and that the new government-in-exile prove itself. But the forces have never been so solidly arrayed against the Assad dynasty. Syria may have finally reached a long-illusive tipping point.

After the Arab Spring: Two Years Later

Los Angeles Times 

Revolutionary fervor has given way to the hard realities of running countries
By Robin Wright
Dec. 9, 2012
The most enduring image from my travels across the Middle East this year was a Libyan street lined with bridal boutiques. Mannequins in bouffant white dresses, with beaded bustiers and satin rosettes, evoked Cinderella transformed by her ball gown.
Outside, however, the street was lined with heaping piles of garbage wrapped in tatty plastic bags. Tripoli literally stank.
On the second anniversary of the Arab uprisings, millions across the Middle East still have dreams of makeovers. But revolutionary fairy tales have devolved into the reality of running countries that are still without fully functioning governments or basic laws. Providing fundamental public services, much less addressing economic woes that sparked the uprisings, is still a very long way off.
The old order has yet to be replaced by a new one.
"We are a stateless society today," lamented former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, a  rebel leader. "For 42 years, Moammar Qaddafi was the state. When he died, the state died too." In July, Jibril's coalition won the largest block of seats in the new national assembly. "We're starting from scratch," he told me last month.

Phase two of the Arab Spring is proving far harder than the first phase, as has become painfully evident in Egypt's turmoil. Despite a theoretical embrace of democracy, factions fear each other in practice. The latest flash point is the country's draft constitution, scheduled for a vote this week.

"I suffer from polarization in my own family," a senior Egyptian official told me. "Two of my kids blame me and [President Mohamed] Morsi for all Egypt's problems. They say you're robbing me of my future."
Egypt is consumed with a democracy of distrust. Young revolutionaries resent that the Muslim Brotherhood has been the primary beneficiary of an uprising it did not spark. The Morsi government made a power grab last month out of fear that a deep state cabal from the ancien regime was plotting to undo it. Secular and liberal activists suspect that the two religious parties, which won more than 70% of the seats in a parliament since disbanded by the courts, are scheming to create an Islamic state.
And, in the ultimate irony, the Islamist parties aren't crazy about each other either. The Brotherhood views the ultraconservative Salafis as backward and naive. Salafis criticize the Brotherhood for compromising the Islamist code.
Variations of the same issues are visible throughout the region.
In the spring, I went to Sidi Bouzid, where a young Tunisian fruit vendor triggered the Arab uprisings by setting himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, to protest government corruption and abuse. I asked other fruit vendors on his old corner what the Jasmine Revolution had done for them.
They had far more freedom, they said, but far fewer jobs. Nationwide unemployment was about 17%, but 40% among the young. By the fall, when I returned to Tunisia, new graffiti blasted the new government.
Emboldened and ambitious Salafis, who have entered politics after 14 centuries of rejecting participation, also now seek to re-create life as practiced by early Muslims, a central tenet of al Qaeda's ideology. Many but not all reject violence.
During my visit, six weeks after a Sept. 14 attack by Salafi radicals, the large windows at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis were still blackened and broken. Bulletproof glass at the entry was shattered and warped.
Among Mideast countries in transition, Libya has the most going for it, with vast resources and a small population. Oil production is back to about 90%.
Yet for six days in October, water sellers set up stands all over the capital because the city of 2.2 million was bone dry, and no one seemed to know how to fix broken pipes and pumps.
It wasn't entirely the fault of the country's new leaders. After international sanctions were lifted in 2008, Qaddafi initiated huge construction projects with foreign companies without provisions for maintenance.
Revolutionary rivalries, spurred by democratic openings, have intensified the trauma of transition in Libya. One basic clash is over who is a real revolutionary — and not a "post-revolution revolutionary" cashing in politically or financially after the fact.
In recent months, the Warriors Commission has registered 240,000 men from 300 militias. "Some pretend they were revolutionaries," commission spokesman Abdel Rahman Mansouri told me. "So we ask for proof. Some lie. Some fail. Some are pro-Qaddafi." Cellphone combat videos — I saw many, most of them quite bloody — are a hot item to prove bona fides.
Only a fraction probably fought, officials said. So not all may win benefits, which could have an impact on both politics and national security.
"There are at least four guns for every man, woman and child in Libya," former Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur told me.
Libya is far from lost, however. Like the bridal shop, some images reflected hope about the future — even around Bab Azizia, the sprawling fortress where I first interviewed Qaddafi in 1980. He had received visitors in a hokey tent of colorful quilts inside the compound's concrete walls.
Pummeled by NATO warplanes and finished off by rebels, Bab al Azizia is now a pile of rubble. But across the street is a more than 500-yard wall divvied into billboard-size sections. For the revolution's first anniversary in October, young artists, including teenage girls, painted their visions of a new Libya. Several featured promising symbols such as scales of justice or white doves.
In a country long associated with extremism, terrorism and the Mideast's most radical factions, the most eye-catching sign was emblazoned with a single word in big bright colors: Peace.