As new limitations on Syria’s economic and diplomatic capabilities arise with each passing day, it seems less and less likely that the Assad government is going to be able to pull away from this with many friends or a leg to stand on. Not to say they have reason to believe otherwise. After all, his father seemed to face any real, lasting consequences for laying waste to much of the city of Hama in 1982, as captured in a particularly chilling chapter of Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem. Freidman touched on the similarities between the experiences of father and son earlier this year. Assad’s father was able to act with impunity so it’s hardly surprising to think that he would think things would be the same. But today is not 1982, nor is it really even 2009.
The region is different and the consequences of suppressing one’s own people as if the world was not watching are increasingly real. Sure China, Russia and Iraq have balked at foreign intervention and refused to embrace the wave of sanctions now crippling the Syrian economy. However, a substantial majority has mobilized against the Assad government and their actions – after all, they have seen what happens when movements are dismissed on a basis of history or military strength. They’ve seen what is now possible. Wait long enough and you just might end up on the wrong side of history, not to mention access to the country’s economy under new leadership. Just ask Russian energy firms attempting to re-enter Libya. This new reality, complete with off-the-street updates courtesy of shaky cell phone videos, does not appear to have done much to persuade Assad to pursue a new path towards dealing with protest movements. Its worked for dad and it worked for me up until now, the reasoning seems to go, so why not continue. Assad’s interview this week sought to downplay the coverage of events in the streets, suggesting that the news had been overblown and while mistakes had been made, things were generally under control or getting there.
Still, simply saying so does little to combat the increasingly organized opposition outside Syria’s borders, with countries converging behind stricter sanctions and threats of further economic isolation. Its only a matter of time before Assad will start having trouble paying the bills, regardless of how much his remaining allies step up to help. Further complicating Assad’s remaining options are the demands from a newly revitalized Arab League to allow outside monitors into the country to observe the government’s actions and attempts to quell the violence. Would opening the doors show a sign of weakness for the head of state or will it really calm calls for his ouster inside the country and out? Only time will tell but the ways things are looking, time is not something Assad has much of.