Back in August, I made a bet with John Quiggin of Crooked Timber. He thought the troubles in Syria meant that Bashir Assad was going down soon. I disagreed. So we bet on whether the Syrian President would make it through a year. The bet has about four months left to run, but I have to say it’s looking like Assad will cover the spread. If you’ve been paying a bit of attention to matters Syrian, you’ll know that there’s a UN ceasefire in place; if you’ve been paying closer attention, you’ll know that this is mostly gravy for Assad, since it gives him breathing space and provides the possibility of muddying the waters by waiting for the demonstrators (or a conveniently placed provocateur) to shoot first.
I could be wrong! I’d be happy to be wrong. Well, happy-ish, since I don’t think that whatever follows Assad is going to be all that pleasant either. But really, this is a bet I’d be perfectly content to lose.
John Quiggin and I exchanged e-mails recently, and he said that while August may be looking sketchy, he still thinks that Assad’s departure is “virtually certain” and is “confident that he will go sooner or later.” Well, perhaps. But, you know, in the long run we are all dead.
Anyway. We also agreed to add a new bet on top of the existing one. It has precisely the same terms — $50 to the charity of the winner’s choice, bet is annulled if Assad dies or is killed while still in office — except that it will begin on September 1 of this year, and run until COB February 28, 2013. Basically we’re betting on the six months after the first bet expires.
And why am I so confident that Assad will stay in power? Well, pretty much what I said back in December:
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.
So, none of that has changed. Syria’s economy has tanked; that hasn’t actually done Assad much harm. Russia has backed off a bit since the Russian presidential election, but it obviously still considers Assad a client, and will probably continue to support him as long as it can be done on the cheap. Iran is still a firm and reliable ally. NATO is not going to do anything. Israel has no desire to replace the hostile but predictable Assad regime with chaos or a bunch of Islamists. Turkey is unhappy, but has reached the limits of what it’s willing to do, at least for now. Yadda yadda, und so weiter, bla bla bla. As I’ve said, I’ll be happy enough to be wrong.