With the tide of the Syrian Civil War shifting decidedly in favor of President Bashar al-Assad and his Shiite and Russian allies, it is time to reflect on the blindness of Western leaders and media pundits that have for so long either predicted Assad’s impending doom or called on him to relinquish power as a prerequisite for a peace deal in Syria.
Never mind the fact that military leaders and politicians, including former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, have pronounced Assad dead so many times that not a single atom should have remained of his corpse, but the notion that Assad would ever give up his position as president of Syria indicates a myopia that is disconcerting. If our leaders and “smart people” are this blind and stupid, what else aren’t they seeing clearly? And will their shortsightedness cause them to lead us to a catastrophe?
The simple truth is that Assad will never quit his position. He cannot. This is despite the fact that he has been given assurances that he and his family will be given safe passage out of Syria, a luxurious sanctuary in some other country, and that neither he nor his henchmen would be prosecuted for war crimes.
All this doesn’t matter for a number of reasons:
First, what guarantee does Assad has that Western powers would keep their word? After all, Muammar Gaddafi dismantled his WMD program following America’s invasion of Iraq with the understanding that he would be spared a similar intervention. But when rebellion broke out in Lybia, and as Gaddafi was close to annihilating his opponents, American bombers brought him down, and he ended up lynched by a mob of his former subjects.
Sure, Gaddafi deserved his dismal end, but just as a teacher disciplines an unruly pupil not just to educate the miscreant but also to edify the rest of the class, so Obama’s bombing of Lybia did not go unnoticed by other tyrants.
Second, Assad is not a dictator of the likes of Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Erdogan. He derives his power and is the representative of an ethnic clan, the Alawites.
Before the Syrian Civil War broke out, the Alawites comprised but 12% of Syria’s population, yet they held virtually all positions of power. This has not always been the case. The Alawites used to be a persecuted minority, and they remember those days very well. They can expect a return to those days if Assad gives up power, or worse. Following years of repression and the atrocities committed by Assad’s forces, the Alawites can expect to be repaid in kind by the rebels, should they win. We’re talking about massacres, ethnic cleansing, perhaps genocide.
If Assad leaves, he can’t just take two million or so Alawites with him in his pocket. Leaving them behind might mean the end of his clan, his tribe, his people. This is unthinkable.
In the hyper-tribal Arab world, your clan comes first. It precedes loyalty to your country (especially if that country was created artificially by France and Britain) and your countrymen. That is why those fighting Assad are mostly Sunnis and those who support him are mostly Alawites and Shiites, the latter of which hate Sunnis with a vengeance.
This is not a struggle between democracy and tyranny, but a fight to the death between multiple clans, each vying for supremacy. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Surrender is unthinkable because it would mean that your clan is at the mercy of another, and that mercy might be nonexistent.
Western leaders who expect Assad to just decide to call it quits one day are delusional, which may explain, in part, why the West’s Syria strategy is in shambles.
If the West wants Assad out, it will have to remove him by force. If not, it can either hope that the rebels will do it, which seems unlikely at the moment, or resign themselves to the possibility that either the war in Syria will last for a long time, and/or that Assad will emerge from it triumphant.