Back in August, I made a bet with John Quiggin of Crooked Timber. Midway through a long comment thread, John said, “I’d be happy to take Assad as a test case. Doug sees him as a likely survivor, I don’t.”
I like Assad’s chances. He’s not the brightest bulb on the tree, at all. But he’s not the sort who’s going to flee the country just because things have gone a little hinky, either. And he’s got some good cards in his hand. The military and security forces are totally dominated by his fellow Alawites; NATO is never going to intervene; the Russians are running interference for him in the UNSC; Iran is firmly on side; the opposition is divided and lacks credible leadership; the Israelis are quietly rooting for him; and the anarchy and chaos of postwar Iraq is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Sure, Assad could fall. Stranger things have happened. I can easily imagine a couple of scenarios, especially if the West plays it smart. (Targeted economic sanctions for this one. No military intervention.) But I don’t think it’s the way to bet.
Come to think of it, why don’t we do just that? Side bet: if Assad loses power in the next six months — flees the country, overthrown in a coup, taken out and shot, what have you — you win. If he’s still in power on March 1, 2012, then I win. (If he dies or is killed without first losing power, or if he’s lost control of at least 1/3 of the country but is still clinging to power in the capital, we’ll call it a draw.)
Loser donates $50 to a charity of the winner’s choice. And if I lose, I’ll throw in a “Why I Was Wrong” post over at Noel Maurer’s blog, gratis.
John then said: “I’d want a year from now... the process is a protracted one.”
To which I responded: “[If] Assad does fall, I don’t think the process will be very protracted. He has all the top military and security commanders on side, and the dissidents have no guns and no hope of military intervention. So the most likely scenario would be an internal coup by his fellow Alawites — the generals and secret police deciding to throw him overboard. That’s going to happen fast if it happens at all. But anyway. Sure, I’ll go with a year. I’m betting Assad will still be in power at COB Syrian time on August 31, 2012. You’re betting he won’t.”
Over 100 days have passed since our bet. During that time, the uprising has continued without a break, and an estimated 2,000 additional people have been killed. In an unprecedented move, the Arab League has voted to sanction Syria. Even neighboring King Abdullah of Jordan — one of the least confrontational, most conservative of Arab leaders — has risen up to condemn Assad. The rebels have developed a rudimentary leadership structure, the Syrian National Council, with a command based in neighboring Turkey. The Syrian Army has seen a steady stream of defections. Syria’s economy is in deep trouble as trade has declined and tourism has vanished. Even Fareed Zakaria has changed his mind, writing, “I now think this regime is going to collapse after all.”
So what do I think now?
I think Assad will still be in power on August 31, 2012.
None of the things I mentioned in my original post have changed. Assad is not likely to flee the country; he’ll stand or die. The military and security forces are still completely dominated by his fellow Alawites. The Alawites are about an eighth of the population, and they’re absolutely certain that the fall of the current regime will lead to a genocidal bloodbath against them. Even if it doesn’t, they’re sure to lose their current privileged position. So the Alawites are not giving in, either. The reason the regime has not been able to crush the opposition yet is because there aren’t enough Alawites; they dominate the security services and the officer corps of the military, but the actual army is a bunch of poorly trained young draftees whose reliability is uncertain. So simply crushing the rebellion by brute force — as Assad pere did in Hama back in 1982, when he flattened the city to rubble and killed an estimated 20,000 civilians — is not as easy as it looks. But on the other hand, those conscripts can’t easily lead a rebellion either. It’s a recipe for stalemate: the rebels can’t easily be crushed, but neither will the Army turn against the regime.
Meanwhile, foreign intervention is right out. NATO is never going to intervene — see the reasons for that in this post — and the Russians are still loyal allies, running diplomatic interference for Assad while firmly vetoing any meaningful Security Council Resolution. In fact, the Russians just closed a major arms deal with the Syrian government, delivering a bunch of shore-launched antiship missiles. Which is not only a gesture of friendship but a quiet middle finger to NATO; if they do try intervening, they’ll have to deal with supersonic cruise missiles. (That thing where France parked the Charles de Gaulle a few miles off the Libyan coast so the big aircraft carrier could launch strikes all over the place? That would not happen in Syria.) Iran is still firmly on side. The Israelis are still quietly rooting for Assad. The only remotely plausible source of foreign intervention is Turkey — and while Erdogan is clearly very pissed, his country is not really in a position to launch a full-scale invasion of Syria. Support to rebels on the cheap, sure; and if the rebels were ever to gain serious traction, I could imagine a future where Turkey gave significant military assistance to them. But supporting the rebels is not without costs — Assad has made it clear that he’s going to counter tit-for-tat by supporting Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. Moreover, Turkish assistance alone is not nearly enough, until and unless the rebels can gain control of large chunks of Syria’s territory. And that’s not happening.
I’ll say again that nothing is certain and things could change. But I’m just not seeing how the rebels get to victory from here in the next nine months. If Assad does fall, the most likely outcome is that his generals or his inner circle take him out in a coup, blue-on-blue, hoping that they can save the regime by changing its face.
Incidentally, it appears that the folks at Intrade agree with me. They’re giving him a 90% chance to survive into 2012, a 67% chance to reach June 30, and a 55% chance to still be in power on December 31, 2012.
I’m not picking my charity yet. But I am saying that the deep dynamics of this struggle have hardly changed. I would give the rebels slightly better odds today than I would have in August — but “slightly better” here means I think their chances have risen from less than 5% to maybe more like 10%. It’s still long odds.
As noted before, I’d be tolerably happy to be wrong. But meanwhile, yeah, doubling down.