Is Syria's Assad Cracking?

The besieged president gave his first address in two months this morning, another sign that the situation in his country could be turning against him



In the pantheon of Arab autocrat speeches made in response to uprisings in his country -- Hosni Mubarak's "I'll die on the soil of Egypt," Muammar Qaddafi's warnings that protesters were drug-fueled al-Qaeda insurgents, Ali Abdullah Saleh's bizarre audio-only statement issued after suffering a mortar attack -- today's address by besieged Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad does not particularly stand out in content or form. He made vague pledges of a "national dialogue," condemned the pro-democracy protesters his security forces have been killing by the hundreds, and warned, "no development without stability, no reform in the face of sabotage and chaos." As one of Syria's many Twitter-based activists noted, Assad used the word "freedom" once, "conspiracy" eight times, and "vandals" -- his favorite expressions for the protesters -- 18 times.

But what is significant about Assad's speech is that it happened at all. After two months of silence from the Syrian president-for-life, during which his regime has launched a campaign of violence so brutal that Human Rights Watch issued a report on it titled "We've Never Seen Such Horror," Assad's speech may be, like the other Arab dictator speeches that came before his, a desperate last-ditch effort to save an ailing regime.

The Democracy ReportSyria's economy has come under such incredible duress in recent weeks that financial analysts say the government could run out of money entirely. Syria is struggling due to a combination of international sanctions, drying-up foreign investment, a devastated tourism industry (hotels in Aleppo and Damascus are empty at a time of year when they're usually pumping much-needed money into the economy), and Assad's costly civil service pay raises made in a last ditch effort to assuage protesters. This sudden and severe economic downturn will bring real pain to the Syrian people, but it will exacerbate protests, and ultimately limit Assad's ability to pay military and security forces.

This economic dynamic played a major role in the fall of Côte d'Ivoire illegitimate president Laurent Gbagbo earlier this year. Crippling sanctions made it impossible for him to pay all but the most loyal forces, and his control over the country dissipated within a few weeks. He retained firm control only over his own compound in the country's capital. However, this alone was not enough to unseat him from power. It ultimately took several frontal assaults by opposition militias -- backed by French special forces troops -- to overrun the compound and finally end Gbago's rule.

Assad's military is stretched increasingly thing, with troops recently deploying to a fourth border, in the east near Iraq. Syria is not an especially large country, but it is heavily urban. Its 22 million residents -- about four times as many as in Libya -- are packed twice as densely as Yemen's 23 million. As the military attempts to lay siege to one town after another, it must send less and less forces to each new urban uprising, and will thus be less able to respond. When Syrian refugees recently fled by the thousands from the town of Jisr al-Shoughour into Turkey, many carried reports that protesters had burned out security buildings in a fight to hold their city. Eventually, there may be a town in revolt that Assad simply lacks the forces to put down, and that would be the beginning of the end of his grip on the country.

Syria's foreign policy, a tool Assad has long used to stay in power, may also be faltering. The country's relationship with northern neighbor and crucial ally Turkey is at near-total collapse, depriving Syria of its richest and most important ally. The response from Iran -- Syria's second-most important ally -- is still uncertain. Protesters have begun burning Iranian flags, understanding how important the eastern neighbor is in bolstering Assad's rule (impossible-to-verify reports suggest Iranian security forces are assisting in the crackdown; whether or not they're true, they are believed within Syria). Iran now faces a dilemma between offering even greater aid to Assad in a big to keep him in power, or scaling down their involvement so as not to risk a popular backlash, as they did in Iraq once it appeared major Shia militias might turn against them.

Cracks are beginning to show in Assad's regime, perhaps the most significant indication that it is under incredible new pressure. Rami Makhlouf, Assad's cousin and an oligarch whose tight control over much of the national economy has made him one of the country's most hated figures, has announced he will leave his government roles. The leader's wife, Asma al-Assad, is rumored to have fled to London. Whether or not she is still in Syria, the glamor-prone first lady is well known for her expensive shopping jaunts across Europe. If the U.S. or another Western country ends up pursuing war crime charges, as they've suggested they might, an indictment by the International Criminal Court or other body would forever bar the Assad family from traveling to Europe. That might not sound like much of incentive for him to step down, but Assad is only human. The ability for his wife, with whom he is reportedly close, to lead her beloved lifestyle could help guide him away from the strategy of violence he is currently pursuing. The wife of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has a similar reputation for travel and shopping, and some Tunisia-watchers speculate this may have informed Ben Ali's sudden decision to step down.

It's possible that none of these factors, either alone or together, will be enough to lead Assad out of office. But the pressures on his rule are growing both in number and in severity. That Assad felt compelled to make this morning's address -- something his fellow Arab leaders have done only at their lowest points in the battles against popular protests -- should be a sign that the situation in Syria, though still bleak, could be rapidly turning.