Monday, June 20, 2011

Is Syria's Assad Cracking?

In the pantheon of Arab autocrat speeches made in response to uprisings in his country -- Hosni Mubarak's "I'll die on the soil of Egypt," Muammar Qaddafi's warnings that protesters were drug-fueled al-Qaeda insurgents, Ali Abdullah Saleh's bizarre audio-only statement issued after suffering a mortar attack -- today's address by besieged Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad does not particularly stand out in content or form. He made vague pledges of a "national dialogue," condemned the pro-democracy protesters his security forces have been killing by the hundreds, and warned, "no development without stability, no reform in the face of sabotage and chaos." As one of Syria's many Twitter-based activists noted, Assad used the word "freedom" once, "conspiracy" eight times, and "vandals" -- his favorite expressions for the protesters -- 18 times. 

But what is significant about Assad's speech is that it happened at all. After two months of silence from the Syrian president-for-life, during which his regime has launched a campaign of violence so brutal that Human Rights Watch issued a report on it titled
"We've Never Seen Such Horror," Assad's speech may be, like the other Arab dictator speeches that came before his, a desperate last-ditch effort to save an ailing regime.

Syria's economy has come under such incredible duress in recent weeks that financial analysts say the government could run out of money entirely. Syria is struggling due to a combination of international sanctions, drying-up foreign investment, a devastated tourism industry (hotels in Aleppo and Damascus are empty at a time of year when they're usually pumping much-needed money into the economy), and Assad's costly civil service pay raises made in a last ditch effort to assuage protesters. This sudden and severe economic downturn will bring real pain to the Syrian people, but it will exacerbate protests, and ultimately limit Assad's ability to pay military and security forces. 

Syria's foreign policy, a tool Assad has long used to stay in power, may also be faltering. The country's relationship with northern neighbor and crucial ally Turkey is at near-total collapse, depriving Syria of its richest and most important ally. The response from Iran -- Syria's second-most important ally -- is still uncertain. Protesters have begun burning Iranian flags, understanding how important the eastern neighbor is in bolstering Assad's rule (impossible-to-verify reports suggest Iranian security forces are assisting in the crackdown; whether or not they're true, they are believed within Syria). Iran now faces a dilemma between offering even greater aid to Assad in a big to keep him in power, or scaling down their involvement so as not to risk a popular backlash, as they did in Iraq once it appeared major Shia militias might turn against them.

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