Friday, Apr 19, 2024

With Gadhaffi Gone, How Long Can Assad Last?

As the Libyan rebels continue to mop up the remaining pockets of Gadhaffi supporters, and press their search to bring the dictator and his family to justice, attention is turning to the fate of the next most despised dictator in the region, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Ignoring Gadhaffi's fate, Assad is continuing his efforts to crush the Syrian opposition, in much the same brute force way that his father did in Hama almost 30 years ago. However, much like Gadhaffi, Assad in recent weeks has found his options narrowing. The US, Europe, and former regional allies, such as Turkey, are now openly calling for Assad to step down, or to at least make some meaningful moves to meet the legitimate demands of the opposition and begin to move Syria towards more representative government.

Both calls are, in fact, unrealistic. The Assad family has always ruled Syria through force and terror, and the members of the Assad family, as well as other highly placed members of their Alawite minority, and the few Sunni Muslim businessmen who are willing to collaborate with them, will not voluntarily give up their power. Like Gadhaffi and the members of his family in Libya, Assad and his inner circle seem ready to fight to the end to retain their power, regardless of the cost.


There are other similarities between the two despots. Like Gadhaffi, Bashar Assad is dependent on an alliance made up of specific segments of the population, in this case, the members of the Alawite Islamic sect who are closely allied to his regime, and powerful members of


his extended family who control powerful militia forces and key sectors of the economy.


Assad does not enjoy the oil riches which Gadhaffi used to finance his extended war of resistance against the rebels who were aided by the tremendous firepower and military capabilities of NATO. The amazing thing was that Gadhaffi was able to hold off most of the rest of the world for five months, battling the rebels to a standstill, before his paid mercenaries and tribal allies finally crumbled under the relentless military pressure.


The Libyan leader was careful to protect himself to the end, keeping his location a secret even as he urged his forces on to battle against his enemies.




After the fall of his personal compound in Tripoli, the rebels discovered it to be honeycombed with a maze of tunnels running for miles to give him multiple escape routes from danger when the end came.


The underground complex was built like a bomb shelter. It included a well-equipped communications complex and professional quality TV studio. It also bore signs of damage from months of NATO bombing. Some of the tunnels were believed to run all the way to Tripoli’s airport, and other neighborhoods populated with the dictator’s supporters.


Even as Gadhaffi’s last strong points in the city fell last week one by one, the fighting continued. Three dozen foreign journalists were held captive by Gadhaffi’s gunmen in the central Rixos Hotel, once the city’s most modern and luxurious resort. They were finally freed after being held hostage by pro-Gadhaffi forces for six days as they prepared to flee the city.


The hotel had served as a propaganda center for the Gadhaffi regime throughout the months of fighting with the rebels. The journalists who worked from the hotel were under the close supervision of Gadhaffi’s public relations representatives. As rebel forces closed in on Tripoli, the government propaganda officials who had also been living at the Rixos began drifting away, along with the hotel staff.




Soon, the journalists from the Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, BBC, Fox News, and other media outlets found themselves trapped in what had become one of the last fortresses of the pro-Gadhaffi forces in the city, and were afraid that in the final showdown with the rebels, they would be used as human shields.


As the fighting neared the hotel, the journalists donned flak jackets and helmets, and huddled together in a second-floor corridor waiting for the chance to escape. Unfortunately, they were unaware of what was going on in the rest of Tripoli around them. They hung banners outside the upper windows of the hotel with the words “TV” and “Press” in English and “News, do not shoot” in Arabic. But stray bullets from the fighting outside whizzed dangerously through the windows regardless.


When some of the journalists tried to leave the hotel, armed Gadhaffi gunmen ordered them back inside. When the rebels fought to within 150 yards of the hotel, the remaining Gadhaffi fighters fled, leaving just two men behind to keep an eye on the journalists, who then released them to the Red Cross.


Meanwhile, Gadhaffi’s allies have kept up their resistance in other parts of the country. Towns ruled by tribes still friendly to Gadhaffi launched missiles at the rebels, while military units led by his sons and diehard loyalists fought a rear guard action to protect the retreat of the leader and his family as Tripoli fell to the rebels.


On Monday, the Algerian government reported that Gadhaffi’s wife, along with one of his daughters as well as two more of his sons and their children had crossed the Libyan border into Algeria, which took them in on “humanitarian grounds.” A spokesman for the rebel National Transitional Council announced that it intends to lodge a diplomatic protest and demand the return of Gadhaffi’s family members to stand trial for their crimes..




On Monday, the vice chairman of the rebel military leadership announced that Gadhaffi’s son, Khamis, who led the 32nd brigade which served as his father’s Praetorian guard, had been killed in a battle in the northwest of the country. Khamis was accused by the rebel leadership and human rights groups of committing atrocities against unarmed civilians, including the murder of rebel captives as Gadhaffi’s followers prepared to retreat from Tripoli.


The claim that Kamis had been wounded in battle and later died in a hospital could not be confirmed and remains suspect, because other recent claims by the rebels that they had captured or killed other sons of the Libyan dictator were proven false.


The same day, Western reporters were invited by rebels to tour a warehouse building in the former compound of the Khamis brigade in Tripoli where the bodies of more than 100 captured rebels were reportedly executed on August 22 before the troops retreated. One survivor of the massacre told CNN that the guards had promised the prisoners that they would be set free, but in the end, the guards tossed hand grenades into the warehouse and opened fire on the defenseless prisoners.


Near the same compound, a mass grave was uncovered containing the bodies of at least 22 rebels.




After a week of celebration of their victory, the rebels have moved into Tripoli to claim the spoils of war. Rebels searching the lavish palaces and villas of the Gadhaffi family, uncovered tremendous opulence and luxury, and evidence of the ruling family’s barbaric cruelty to its house servants. At least one Ethiopian nanny for Gadhaffi’s grandchildren was tortured by one of Gadhaffi’s daughters-in-law for a minor act of defiance.


But the two million residents of Tripoli have been suffering since Gadhaffi and his remaining fighters fled the city. Electricity has been cut off, food is in short supply, and the city’s fresh water system is no longer functioning. The city’s residents must rely on inadequate supplies of fresh water delivered daily by convoys of tanker trucks from wells outside the city.


Britain and France moved to reopen their embassies in Tripoli last week, but in other parts of the country the fighting around the remaining pro-Gadhaffi strongholds continued.




A meeting in Qatar this week of the military chiefs of staff and the NATO countries and the other allies fighting in support of the rebels emphasized that, “the war in Libya is not over. There is still a need for the continuation of cooperation in order to help the Libyan people get rid of the remnants of the Gadhaffi regime.”


A rebel spokesman reported that Gadhafi’s mercenaries based in the southwestern Libyan city of Sabha have been reinforced by pro-Gadhaffi brigades from nearby towns, and had launched a counterattack after refusing calls by rebel leaders to lay down their arms. Another holdout is the town of Sirte, east of Tripoli, which is Gadhaffi’s birthplace.




The fighting in Libya has had a wider effect on the region. According to Israeli officials, anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets from Libyan stockpiles have already made their way to terrorists in Gaza.


The Israelis say that these weapons, including Soviet-era SA-7 shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles, and rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s) have been flowing into Gaza “by the thousands” in recent months, although its is not clear that all of them have been coming from Libya. Syria and Iran have been using Bedouins in the Sinai desert to smuggle such weapons to the terrorist in Gaza for years, using land convoys traveling through Sudan, or ships in the Mediterranean. However, the flow of arms has increased substantially since the fighting started in Libya.


Since the terror attacks originating in the Sinai two weeks ago, the Egyptian border police have stepped up their surveillance. Egyptian state television reported this week that the border police had discovered “a large quantity” of weapons at the border with Libya. There have been reports in the Israeli media that the Egyptian military government has asked Israel to allow it to send more troops into the Sinai, which was demilitarized under the terms of the 1979 Camp David peace treaty. After some public debate, the Israeli government announced that it had not yet received any such request from the Egyptian government, and would consult with the cabinet, or possibly the Knesset, before responding to such a request, if it were to be made.


The Israeli military is not terribly concerned so far because the Gaza terrorists already have such weapons in their arsenals. However, there is fear that some of the other heavy weapons which had been in Gadhaffi’s arsenal could also make their way into terrorist hands, including some old chemical weapons stockpiles.


The US is also concerned about the proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles, in particular. That is because terrorists could easily use them to shoot down commercial airliners as they take off or land at any major airport in the world. The US has volunteered to send its own arms control experts to take charge of Gadhaffi’s arsenals, but since the fall of Tripoli two weeks ago, many of those arsenals have already been looted, putting these weapons in the hands of individuals likely to sell them to the many gun runners and smugglers in the region.




The White House has sought to claim political credit for the rebel victory in Libya, even though Britain and France had been the ones who initiated the international effort to prevent Gadhaffi from wiping out the rebels in the early days of the uprising. Obama agreed to involve the US military in the NATO effort to rescue the rebels in Benghazi only after the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya.


French warplanes actually initiated the attacks on Gadhaffi’s forces, while Obama “led from behind,” turning over direct control of the air war to the NATO commanders, while continuing to provide advanced weaponry and logistical support, through the use of Predator drones.




Nevertheless, White House officials claimed that the US strategy in Libya is the basis for what they now call the “Obama Doctrine,” based upon a speech Obama made on March 28 at George Washington University.


Obama said that the US did have a responsibility to stop the impending genocide in Benghazi, but that because the situation there did not directly threaten the safety of Americans or national security, the US would only agree to join in military action in concert with other nations, and in this case, as part of a coalition including Britain, France, some Arab nations and other European states.


White House officials sought to contrast the Obama doctrine, as carried out in Libya, with George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” who joined under his leadership in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The White House claims that its Libyan strategy was successful because it was perceived as an “international rescue effort” for the rebels rather than a US-led assault.


But Obama’s critics believe that his “doctrine” means the beginning of the end of US leadership in the international community, by holding US strategic interests hostage to the approval of the UN Security Council, and forfeiting its independence of action.


Certainly, the conditions set by the Obama Doctrine would seem to rule out a Libya-type international military effort to come to the rescue of the Syrian protestors. Since April, they have been systematically hunted down and suppressed by Assad’s thugs and units loyal to him personally in the Syrian Army. According to human rights groups, the death toll of Syrian protesters has now reached 2200. Thousands more have been arrested by Assad’s security forces and are being held in prisons throughout the country.




Assad’s brute force tactics have finally outraged the international community to the point that Syria has become a pariah state. For months, the US and European powers held out hope that they could use diplomatic pressure to persuade Assad to stop the violence.


But in recent weeks, the US and its European allies, including France, Britain and Germany, have given up on trying to influence Assad. They have finally begun issuing public calls for his ouster, and endorsing the demands of the Syrian pro-democracy protesters. Even Syria’s neighbor and long-time ally Turkey has become disgusted with Assad’s violent tactics and has joined in calling for him to stop the violent repression and meet the demands of the protesters.


Turkey has not yet publicly called for Assad to step down, but it has suspended all further dialogue with the Syrian government, and says it is waiting for it to fulfill the promises, regarding the protests, which Assad previously made to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.


Privately, Turkish diplomats are now telling reporters that they have “given up hope” for the Assad regime. However, because the exact composition of the Syrian opposition remains unclear, they are unwilling to give it their full support. Turkey is also concerned about the possibility that the ouster of Assad could lead to a civil war which would break up the country. This could encourage Syrian Kurds to seek independence, which would then encourage the Kurdish guerillas groups who have been fighting for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for many years.




For this and other reasons, the US and its allies are still a long way from being willing to engage in the same kind of military intervention which has finally rid Libya of Gadhaffi.


Assad has been careful to keep certain limits on the violent suppression of dissent in his country. While his most loyal military units have occupied some of the cities which have risen up against him, he has not ordered the kind of mass murder of defenseless civilians that Gadhaffi threatened against Benghazi which finally moved Obama to agree to take military action to stop him.


Instead of using military force, the US and its allies are now trying to orchestrate what Secretary of State Clinton last week called an “international chorus of condemnation” of Assad’s violent crackdown on dissenters. Western diplomats say that this would lay the foundation for more aggressive action if the Syrians do not change course. But what form that further action might take, short of military force, remains unclear.


“How much we translate to Syria remains to be seen,” a senior US official said of the lessons learned from the allied air power campaign in Libya. He also pointed out that, for the time being, “the Syrian opposition doesn’t want foreign military forces but does want more countries to cut off trade with the Assad regime and break with it politically.”


There has also been a gradual tightening of US and European economic sanctions on the Syrian regime. The latest American sanctions have rendered Visa and MasterCard credit cards no longer usable in Syria. The Treasury Department has also added the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary to its sanctions list.




The US and the European powers had little to fear from applying military force against Gadhaffi. He was not in a position to retaliate by threatening their national security interests.


By contrast, Assad is well positioned to stir up trouble throughout the region, by destabilizing Lebanon, launching attacks into northern Israel, or instigating its client terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, to do the dirty work for them. Furthermore, Assad could expect help from his ally in the region, Iran, against any organized Western intervention against him, and, to a lesser extent, from Russia, which has long considered Syria to be one of its client states in the region.


In addition, unlike the Libyan rebels, the dissidents in Syria do not have military control over any part of the country, which the US and its allies could assist in defending, as they did for Benghazi in Libya.


Another difference is that the Arab League specifically requested international intervention in support of the Libyan rebels, and the UN Security Council approved a no-fly zone. By contrast, there is no such consensus in the Arab world today against Assad and his brutal tactics of suppression.




Assad’s latest attempts to suppress the protests which keep springing up in towns, large and small, in all corners of Syria, have killed at least fifteen people and wounded dozens more, according to Syrian human rights groups who have been trying to monitor and encourage the demonstrations.


Soldiers backed by tanks and armored vehicles, surrounded Rastan, a Sunni town near Homs in central Syria early Monday morning and began firing heavy machine guns, according to the Local Coordination Committees. Troops also entered the nearby town of Qara to arrest protesters in a series of house raids.


A woman in Rastan, said in a telephone report on Monday that, “Gunfire and explosion rang across the town early this morning, and we heard that tanks are surrounding the town. We are so scared, too scared to leave the house. We don’t know what they are preparing for us.”


Rastan was the subject of an army assault three months ago in which dozens were killed and hundreds were arrested following an outbreak of demonstrations against Assad’s rule. Since that time, there have been a number of reports of desertions by Syrian soldiers who come from that town.


Also on Monday, the army raided Heet, a town near the Lebanese border in and attempt to crush the opposition there. “People were running in the fields toward Lebanon trying to escape the gunfire,” said Youssef, who lives in a town on the Lebanese side of the border. “They stormed the village burning houses and crops and we heard that several people were wounded.”


Further north, there was a report that five people were killed in Sarmin, when Syrian security forces opened fire at residents during a search operation.




Recent reports also speak of the desertion of dozens of Syrian soldiers shortly after the capture of Tripoli by Libyan rebels. The desertions took place in a village near Homs, the country’s third-largest city, and in the Damascus suburb of Al Ghouta, after soldiers refused to obey orders to fire at protesters who were trying to march into the city. That touched off a gun battle between the deserters and those troops who remained loyal to Assad.


The Free Officers of Syria, a group of soldiers and officers who recently left the army in protest against the crackdown on protesters reported “large” defections in Harasta, another suburb of Damascus.


Reports of such defections remain scattered. So far, the Syrian resistance has failed to organize any credible military force inside or outside Syria. Since a Libyan-style military intervention by the US and its European allies to protect Syrian protesters remains unlikely, the opposition will have to find ways to protect itself, because Assad has shown that he is unwilling to compromise, and determined to stay in power at all costs.


Some analysts say that the only real hope for the Syrian opposition to succeed in deposing Assad is to spark a widespread mutiny among Syrian army units with large numbers of Sunni troops. In recent months, Assad has been careful to use army units led by loyal Alawite officers to put down the protests in the larger cities. But even in those units, most of the lower ranking soldiers are Sunnis, and there are growing signs that many of them are resentful of the army crackdowns against friends and family members in their home towns. However, until that resentment becomes better organized, Assad is likely to remain firmly in power.




Assad is also doing his best to suppress criticism of his regime within his country’s intelligentsia and opinion makers. Last week, masked gunmen severely beat Syria’s best-known political cartoonist, Ali Farzat, days after he published a cartoon showing Assad hitching a ride out of town with Gadhaffi. Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March, Farzat’s cartoons have become famous throughout the Arab world for their criticism of Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters.


Farzat was attacked at 4:30 a.m. in Umayyad Square in Damascus, as he was heading home from his studio. They broke two fingers of his left hand, fractured his right arm and threw him out of a car on the airport road, where passers-by found him.


While recuperating in a hospital, Farzat told a friend that his attackers said as they were beating him, “We’ll see what you will draw from now on. How dare you disobey your masters!”




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