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Arab Winter in Syria

15 Ekim 2012 Pazartesi

Winter is coming, and with it the near certainty that the lot of
millions of suffering Syrians will get substantially worse. Some 335,000
and counting find themselves in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan, the
majority huddled in tents. But for millions more back home, the brutal
ravages of an 18-month civil war that has claimed as many as 30,000
lives must now be endured under the growing privations of a siege
economy imposed by war and sanctions, the winter chill and shortages of
everything fuel to medicines and foodstuffs raising the specter of
disease and hunger along with the threat of instant death rockets
and bombs.

But one group of Syrians may be greeting the oncoming winter with a grim
sense of satisfaction: As bad as things may be, President Bashar
al-Assad and his entourage and those who are willing to fight and die
to keep in power know that for them, things could be a whole lot
worse. Sure, the regime has lost control of vast swathes of territory
that appear to be intractably under the control of insurgents. But if
the rebels are able to control much of the countryside, they remain
hopelessly outgunned in the head-to-head fight for the major cities,
with no sign of any heavy weapons deliveries their allies abroad,
much less a NATO cavalry riding to the rescue as it had done in Libya. 

The expected collapse of Assad's armed forces has failed to materialize,
and defections to the rebel side have slowed to a trickle. The two sides
are locked in a strategic stalemate, in which neither side is capable of
delivering the other a knockout blow and recent events on Syria's
borders with Turkey and Jordan are symptoms of that stalemate. The fact
that Syrian forces continued firing shells into Turkey for six days
despite retaliatory fire and warnings Turkey, and NATO's vow to
protect its member state, suggests that Assad is calling Ankara's bluff,
knowing that Turkey lacks the appetite for a messy solo intervention
Syria and even the means to do so effectively.

Turkey knows that no Libya-style NATO intervention is likely, right now,
and faces the alarming prospect of a U.S. strategy that envisages a
protracted war to bring down Assad, in which the role of outside players
is simply to empower the rebels and contain the fallout. Easier done for
the Western powers than for those who border Turkey, and on whose
economy and society the war has already imposed tremendous burdens. 

The bipartisan political consensus in Washington opposes direct military
intervention in Syria, even if there are differences over the question
of facilitating arms transfers to the rebels. Beyond that, the U.S. is
sending small groups of advisers to Jordan, but their purposes is
primarily to "insulate" that country the civil war next door. 

Things are hardly looking good for Assad, of course.  He's unlikely to
defeat the rebellion and restore control over all of Syria, and governs
a shrinking domain by means of naked force and fear. Still, he's far
beaten, and if anything, Syria itself is in danger of breaking up
into warring fiefdoms along the lines seen in neighboring Lebanon
the 1970s until 1992.

Assad's opponents, of course, had hoped that he would, by now, have been
removed the scene, either by exile, imprisonment or death.  But
the regime itself appears to have either chosen, or stumbled onto,  the
terrain of sectarian civil war a Milosevic option stirring fears
of an extremist-led Sunni rebellion to rally his own Alawite sect and
other minorities, and even the urban Sunni bourgeoisie, and then making
that a self-fulfilling prophecy by violently suppressing peaceful
protests. Assad also coolly assessed the regional and international
strategic balance and concluded that he could count on strong backing
Iran and Russia against any attempt to dispatch him a la Gaddafi.

Milosevic, of course,  eventually got his comeuppance at the hands of
his own people, and died in a prison cell at the International Criminal
Court in The Hague. It may well be that a similar fate eventually awaits
Assad. But Milosevic was ousted eight years after the ning of the
wars that ended Yugoslavia, and in the interim, the Serbian strongman
had succeeded in making himself indispensable to the process ending the
very wars he'd played a major role in starting. That moment came when
ending the war became a greater priority in the minds of the global
power brokers than changing the power arrangements. Assad if far
achieving that goal, and he may never do so. But with the second
anniversary of the Syrian rebellion just over four months away, he may
have more reason for satisfaction over the course of events, at this
point,  than do his adversaries.