Middle East

Is Syria slipping out of the grasp of its rulers?

Syrian opposition demonstrators living in Turkey wave a huge Syrian national flag during a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in central Istanbul on 28 August 2011
Image caption New pressures are taking the country one step closer to the tipping point

I argued in May that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would probably survive, but new pressures, from within and without, are taking the country one step closer to the tipping point.

The initial judgement hinged on three factors: the regime's loyal and powerful army; the limited spread of protests; and outside powers' uncertainty in confronting the regime - out of fear for some, and interest for others.

The army is loyal because it is dominated by Alawi officers belonging to the same syncretic sect of Islam as the ruling dynasty.

TE Lawrence - the British World War I officer dubbed Lawrence of Arabia - wrote of the Alawi that "the sect, vital in itself, was clannish in feeling and politics. One... would not betray another".

Orientalist musings aside, Syria's army will not lightly dump Mr Assad.

Unlike Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, civil and military fates are more closely bound together.

Syria's military might is also greater - four times the size of the Libyan army, protected by 100 more active surface-to-air missile sites, and materially helped by Iran.

Elite divisions of the army crushed protests sequentially, moving from one city to the other with gruesome efficiency.

The good, the bad and the confused

Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, remained quiet, allowing forces to concentrate their firepower where it was needed.

It helped that large parts of the population did not join the protests, either out of a direct stake in the regime - Sunni business elites, for instance - or simply out of fear of Lebanon-style civil war resulting from Syria's kaleidoscopic ethnic and sectarian diversity.

That fear also paralysed the international community.

Syria's foes (Israel), friends (Iran) and the confused (Turkey) saw nothing good coming from Syria's implosion.

Others - like the US - had pulled most coercive levers over the past years, resulting in a sort of sanctions liquidity trap.

That is why Mr Assad had every chance of repeating the trick his father pulled in 1982 when, in an audacious bit of counterrevolution, he simply levelled the rebellious city of Hama and murdered up to 40,000 citizens. It worked.

'Magic' words

The Syrian revolution of 2011 could also have been one more of those many abortive uprisings whose blood flecks the history of the modern Middle East, yet could not change its course.

Things are no longer so clear.

The outside world is slowly getting its act together. The US finally issued its "magic democracy words" (a term coined by US Middle East scholar Marc Lynch) and called for President Assad to go.

No-one expects that the words will wound themselves, but they tie American hands and thereby force the machinery of US foreign policy to churn out fresh ways of hounding Damascus.

Image caption President Assad blames armed criminal gangs for the unrest

They also send a powerful signal - not to Mr Assad, but to US allies and partners who now know that there may be a cost to hedging their bets. For example, their firms may be caught up in sanctions, as has occurred in the course of US policy towards Iran.

Turkey has grown frustrated with refugee flows, and is facing domestic pressure to act on the massacre of co-religionists.

It is treading carefully to avoid wrecking hard-won ties, but cannot hold out for long. Saudi Arabia, a state not known for its squeamishness about crushing dissent through force, withdrew its ambassador.

Last week, the world's largest oil companies and traders quietly decided to stop dealing with the regime in anticipation of EU sanctions - oil exports are a third of the Syrian budget, and almost all go to Europe.

This makes it likelier that the largely Sunni trading classes of Damascus and Aleppo, pillars of the regime, desert with their financial and political capital once the cost of the status quo begins to bite.

Libyan factor

The fall of Tripoli is important in this regard. Only now have protests in the suburbs of Damascus begun to seep into the heart of the capital, forcing more checkpoints and helicopter patrols.

That has not happened in Aleppo. If it does, then that still leaves just one piece of the revolutionary jigsaw left to fall in place: the army.

There has been a trickle of defections in the eastern tribal area of Deir al-Zour adjacent to Iraq, in the north-western province of Idlib, and in towns around Damascus and Homs.

But core units - more powerful than Gaddafi's own special brigades - will not melt away or agree to a democratic transition.

So then what? The army might hold together, shed Mr Assad, and reconstitute itself around new elites - emergency surgery to save the regime, of the sort that the Egyptian generals tried and failed to perform.

Or key loyalists could peel away to set in motion a civil war, fought against parts of the uprising fortified with departing army units.

Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel would be the first to experience the fallout, with others not far behind.

Neither looks an appealing outcome, but it is increasingly hard to see how Syria can now travel down any other roads.

Shashank Joshi is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence think tank, and a doctoral student of international relations at Harvard University.