As Muammar Gaddafi’s death was announced across the Arab world, no one took more solace in the dictator’s demise than Syria’s protesters. Eight months on, the Syrian “spring” faces a long winter of discontent locked in a bitter and bloody struggle with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Feeling a kindred spirit with Syria’s protest movement, Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) recognized the Syrian National Council “as the sole legitimate government in Syria,” and SNC members have publically acknowledged that the TNC is considering giving control of Syria’s embassy in Tripoli over to them. Nonetheless, the opportune time to have increased international pressure and supported the internal opposition was back in midsummer, when the city of Hama was under the control of the peaceful protest movement and momentum was firmly in the hands of the opposition. Now, with much blood spilled, only some form of international intervention can possibly topple the regime and help keep the protest movement peaceful, which would prevent a potentially disastrous civil war from occurring.
Unlike other dictators past and present who have fallen from power, Gaddafi’s demise was both brutal and symbolic in terms of the anger, hopelessness, and despair that he provoked in so many Libyans. Even Saddam Hussein had the benefit of a trial when he was pulled from his “hole” looking just as disheveled and unkempt as Gaddafi did in his last moments. What happened to Gaddafi is reminiscent of the fate of Mussolini and serves as a potent reminder to Assad and his family that should he choose to attempt retaining power at all costs, it is a fate he could share.
Currently, two successful revolutions in the Middle East have given the region’s dictators two parallel paths to ponder. First, Tunisia: A largely peaceful revolution that resulted in the exile of their dictator Ben Ali. Second, Libya: An armed revolution in which its dictator clung to power and turned his weapons on his own people only to wind up dead. Right now, Syria’s revolution is somewhere in between these two paths; mostly peaceful but partially armed and ever in danger of being further militarized as the regime’s brutality against the Syrian people worsens.
Several events over the past few months should give us some hints regarding Assad’s thinking on how the protests will affect his strangle hold on Syria. Clearly, the Assad family has given thought to the possibility of being thrown out of power and is preparing various strategies should this occur. This includes, according to opposition activist sources from inside Syria, sending members of the Assad family out of the country to Iran, and it is said that Assad’s wife and children may be in London, not Syria; expelling Sunnis by force from Tartous and Lattakia provinces which are heavily Alawite and Christian; and selling much of its overseas property holdings and turning it into hard cash to prevent their assets from being frozen by sanctions or seized by national governments who have already decided to withdraw their support from the regime.
Despite speculation regarding the Assad family’s preparations, one of the most unsettling parallels between the Gaddafi and Assad regimes is the conflation between a leader’s personality and national identity. This same phenomenon exists in both Libya and Syria. The Gaddafi “cult of personality” was also constructed by Syria’s former President, Hafez al-Assad, and continues under his son, Bashar. This is reflected in the pro-regime chants that state that Syria and Bashar are one and the same. An activist once told me that the Assad family, “views Syria as their farm, and its people as their cattle.” This points to the same psychological delusions that prevented Gaddafi from voluntarily giving up power in Libya. Should this prove to be true, it is unlikely that Assad and his family will ever offer any sort of serious reforms, just as a farmer would not consider negotiating with his “cattle.” The regime’s inability to stop killing protestors for even one day per their agreement with the Arab League is proof of this.
In the beginning of the protests in March, the regime offered reforms that never materialized, while simultaneously attempting to crush the opposition by force. The demands of the protesters in the beginning were very moderate: internal reform and greater personal and economic freedoms. Now, after some 4,000 dead, tens of thousands detained, and many tortured, the time of rapprochement has long passed. Both the regime and the opposition see themselves locked in a life-or-death struggle in which one side must prevail and the other must lose. The protesters call daily for the execution of the president and the fall of the regime. The regime responds with machinegun fire, bombing runs, and arbitrary detention.
The question at this point is not whether Assad will have some grand epiphany as a result of Gaddafi’s demise, but whether he will continue to cling to power as Gaddafi did. If yes, the international community needs to come to terms with the fact that it is unlikely anything but an intervention will dislodge him and his family from power. The real question is whether the world will continue to give license to the Assad regime by remaining silent to slaughter the Syrian people.
Photo Credit: watchsmart