Syrian protesters, backed by US, hunker down for long battle to oust Assad

Syrian protesters hold up a banner against President Bashar Al Assad during a demonstration near the province of Edlib, northwest Syria. (AP Photo)

Syrian protesters hold up a banner against President Bashar Al Assad during a demonstration near the province of Edlib, northwest Syria. (AP Photo)
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s main interlocutors, the leaders of mass anti-government protests that have racked his country for four months, were conspicuously absent at Sunday’s opening of a two-day national dialogue.

On the record, opposition leaders are demanding evidence that Mr. Assad is serious about relinquishing some of his power by moving Syria, in the words of Vice President Faruq al-Shara at the opening of the dialogue, toward a multi-party democratic state before they engage in discussions that would take some of the heat off the Syrian president.
To do so, the opposition says, Mr. Assad has to first halt his brutal crackdown on the protesters that has already killed an estimated 1,500 people, withdraw his security forces from decimated towns and cities, and release thousands arrested in recent months.

So far, Mr. Assad has given no indication that he is prepared to comply with those demands.

The result is that Syria seems locked into a stalemate between Mr. Assad’s intransigence and brutality and the unprecedented resilience and bravery of unarmed protesters who refuse to be intimidated by heavy weaponry and torture.

Less visible however is an apparent strategy to wear the Assad regime down in the conviction that it cannot survive the continuously demonstrated will of a determined and fearless citizenry. It is a strategy that relies first and foremost on Syrians taking the lead and Western powers playing the role of backseat supporter.

It is also a strategy that allows the United States and Europe to play to their strengths in a world in which power is shifting and failure to recognize that makes Western powers look weak and impotent.

The strategy has no timeline and assumes that the struggle to topple Mr. Assad could be long and bloody.

In an indication that protesters realize that there is no quick fix, activists in the capital Damascus and Aleppo, strongholds of support for Mr. Assad, have begun compiling and distributing lists of goods and companies to be boycotted because they are distributed or owned by cohorts of the Syrian president. The activists hope that a mushrooming boycott will hit the business community, many of whom are believed to be straddling the fence to see who gains the upper hand, where it hurts most: in their pockets.

The United States and Europe, unable to convince China and Russia to join them in taking a firm stand against Mr. Assad’s brutality, have so far confined themselves to imposing economic sanctions, condemning regime brutality, calling on the president to create space for dialogue and protests, and enhancing the capability of Syrians to communicate with the outside world through the Internet.

In all this, the United States and Europe have stopped short of calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster. The reluctance to do so reflects uncertainty of who might succeed him and a gut instinct to stick to the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t.

That instinct is reinforced by the fact that no clearly identifiable leadership has emerged in the four months of anti-government protests, in part because the opposition does not want to produce targets for government assassination.

Stopping short of calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster has prompted criticism from human rights groups and others who believe the United States and Europe should be doing more to call a halt to death and destruction. Yet, it allows them to stymie expectations that the United States and Europe might be willing to intervene militarily and shields them from issuing a statement that would simply be brushed aside by Mr. Assad.

In perhaps, the most practical step the Obama administration and have France have taken beyond strengthening the opposition by helping it maintain access to the Internet and providing moral support, they dispatched their ambassadors late last week to Hama. It was a symbolic gesture that on the one hand allowed Syria to exploit the visit as evidence of foreign instigation of the protests but also stopped security forces from attacking participants in the largest demonstration in Syria to date. Most of the casualties in Friday’s protests occurred elsewhere in Syria, not in Hama.

Syria’s protesters are in it for the long haul with no indication of their resolve being diminished. They realize that the Assad regime is likely to unravel gradually rather than collapse from one day to other as did the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia who stepped down within weeks of the eruption of protests.

The United States and Europe have positioned themselves to assist the protesters from the sidelines. It is an approach that suits their purpose of hedging their bets and allows them to adjust to a world in which power has shifted and China and Russia can at times run roughshod through their calculations not only inside but also outside of the United Nations Security Council.

Their position is strengthened however by the fact that China and Russia have no influence on the protesters and at best at some point will have to pressure Mr. Assad to seek alternatives to violence. That can only play into the hands of the opposition and its Western backers.


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