Syria hits point of no return amid broad isolation

August 21, 2011 - 5:45 AM

BEIRUT (AP) — When Bashar Assad inherited power in Syria in 2000, many saw him as a youthful new president in a region of aging dictators — a fresh face who could transform his father's stagnant dictatorship into a modern state ready to engage with the world.

Now, the bloody government backlash has extinguished the once-popular image of Assad as a reformer struggling against members of his late father's old guard.

With calls for his resignation last week from Washington to Tokyo, the Arab Spring has forced Assad to face the most severe isolation of his family's four-decade rule. And the events of the past five months have dashed any lingering hopes that he would change one of the most repressive states in the world.

There is little sign that the 45-year-old Assad will manage to crush the protests that are shaking his regime. But even if he does, his newfound status as a global pariah stands to devastate his country of 22 million people, undermine stability in the Middle East and affect the role of Iran, Syria's ally, on the world stage.

"Power is an aphrodisiac, and as the old saying goes, it corrupts absolutely," said David W. Lesch, an American expert on Syria who wrote a 2005 biography of Bashar Assad. "In the end, he became more of a product of his environment rather than a transformational figure who could change that environment."

The United States and several of its major allies called Thursday for Assad to give up power, a crescendo to months of mounting reproach. The messages from Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels coincided with a U.N. report recommending that Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court for investigation of possible crimes against humanity in the crackdown, including summary executions, torturing prisoners and targeting children.

Even Japan added its voice to the chorus calling for Assad to leave.

Human rights groups said Assad's forces have killed nearly 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in mid-March, touched off by the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.

There is no sign that the global calls for Assad's ouster will have any immediate effect, although analysts say they could ultimately help turn the tide. The growing isolation could compel Syrians who have supported the regime to move toward the opposition, especially if the economy continues to deteriorate.

Longtime ally Iran has offered unwavering support for Damascus, but it cannot prop up the regime indefinitely.

Still, many observers predict at least several more months of bloodshed, perhaps even more brutality to prevent further attempts to replace Assad.

Both sides of the conflict remain energized. Protesters pour into the streets every Friday, defying the near-certain barrage of shelling and sniper fire. But the regime is strong as well and in no imminent danger of collapse, setting the stage for what could be a drawn-out and bloody stalemate.

The opposition has yet to bring out the middle- and upper-middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the two economic powerhouses, although protests have been building.

Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect, ensuring loyalty by melding the fate of the army and the regime. That loyalty is the Assad regime's most potent weapon.

Economic sanctions can chip away at the regime, although the new U.S. ban on Syrian oil is not a significant blow on its own. But EU officials said Friday the bloc's 27 member states were considering an embargo on oil, which could significantly slash the Damascus government's revenues.

Syria's oil exports — most of them heading to Europe — generate $7-8 million per day, said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Without that revenue, Syria will quickly burn through the $17 billion in foreign reserves that the government had at the start of the uprising.

"But it could still take a year to deplete, collapsing the economy," Schenker cautioned.

It remains to be seen if Turkey, a former close ally of Syria, will also impose sanctions. Turkey is Syria's neighbor and important trade partner, and its leaders have grown increasingly frustrated with Damascus.

Although Washington has little direct influence on Syria, President Barack Obama's call for Assad to leave decisively ends the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus.

There were early signs that the attempt would end badly: A secret U.S. diplomatic cable from June 2009 portrays Assad as vain and inexperienced, and government officials in Damascus as inveterate liars.

Assad sees himself "as a sort of philosopher-king, the Pericles of Damascus," Maura Connelly, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Damascus at the time, says in the cable, which was released by WikiLeaks.

She suggests flattering Assad may be a good way to manipulate him: "Playing to Bashar's intellectual pretensions is one stratagem for gaining his confidence and acquiescence; it may be time-consuming but could well produce results."

Syria has long been viewed by the West as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East because of its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Damascus also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

In recent years, however, the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation, raising hopes that Washington could peel the country away from Tehran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

But two years of U.S. overtures to Damascus yielded few results. Now, an isolated Assad is as close to Iran as ever. Iraq is sticking by Assad as well — a move that some see as a sign of how the Iraqi government is shifting toward an alliance led by Iran as American forces get ready to leave at the end of the year.

It's a marked change in the relationship between Iran and Syria, which were deeply estranged all through the Saddam era and the insurgency.

Assad's isolation stands in stark contrast to the hopes many pinned on his leadership.

He gave up an ophthalmology career in Britain to enter Syrian politics when his brother Basil, widely regarded as his father's chosen heir, died in a 1994 car crash.

Assad, who was 34 when he took power, slowly lifted Soviet-style economic restrictions, letting in foreign banks, throwing the doors open to imports and empowering the private sector. His youth and quiet demeanor endeared him to Syrians. The tall, lanky leader with a mild disposition is said to detest being surrounded by bodyguards.

He and his wife, Asma, and their three young children, live in an apartment in the upscale Abu Rummaneh district of Damascus, as opposed to a palatial mansion like other Arab leaders.

But the "Damascus Spring" turned out to be short-lived, and Assad slipped into the autocratic ways of his father.

"I have personally seen Assad's evolution from someone who became president by accident and wanted to reform the country to someone who was battle-tested, in power, and appears to have been convinced by sycophantic praise and regime propaganda as to his own indispensable position in the country," Lesch said.

For now, though, Assad enjoys a measure of support in Syria. His main base at home includes Syrians who have benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who feel they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over, and others who see no clear and safe alternative to Assad.

The Syrian opposition movement is disparate and largely disorganized, without a strong leadership.

Sectarian warfare is a real, terrifying possibility in Syria, a fragile jigsaw puzzle of Middle Eastern backgrounds including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druse, Circassians, Armenians and more. The worst-case scenario is a descent into a Lebanese-style civil war — and Assad has exploited those fears.

The Syrian government insists the unrest is being driven by terrorists and foreign extremists looking to stir up sectarian strife. On Saturday, a government-owned newspaper said the U.S. and European calls for Assad to step down finally have revealed the "face of the conspiracy" against Damascus.