Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Time To Send Money, Guns, and Lawyers?

Has Assad made the decision to go in big and kill a lot of Syrians to crush the spirit of resistance? Or is this just a calculated escalation to see if something less than that can cow the protesters and halt the momentum of protests that ratchets up every Friday before they become too big to contain? Hard to say, so far:

Gunfire and artillery echoed early on Tuesday around the besieged city of Deraa, the heart of Syria's month-long uprising, as civilians sought refuge indoors from tanks and snipers on the streets, a resident said.

President Bashar al-Assad, facing a nationwide challenge to his 11-year autocratic rule, sent the army into Deraa and two restive suburbs of Damascus on Monday to crush protesters, killing 20 people according to a prominent Syrian rights group.

Is it really "artillery," as in indirect fire which would indiscriminately kill civilians? Or is it direct tank fire? Which is bad enough, but not an indication of Hama-level brutality.

Of course, the Syrian government can't brutalize in secret as it did three decades ago. Can the largely Sunni lower ranks in the army kill on a large scale for their Alawite ruling class? I've read that the military is absolutely loyal, but I have my doubts. Are there enough loyal Alawite units to brutalize a geographically broad uprising?

It may be that the Assad regime feels stuck between having the capabilities with their largely Sunni army to contain and suppress a geographically widespread unrest--but only at a fairly low level of violence--and, with their much smaller loyal Alawite forces, the capability to brutally put down an uprising in a small area.

If the army can use enough force on a broad front to demoralize the bulk of the protesters without using so much that the army breaks or defects, Assad avoids the dilemma of having an uprising too widely dispersed for his small number of loyal forces to murder their way through or an uprising too focused on regime change for his Sunni soldiers to suppress at low levels of violence.

Put another way, the Assad regime can handle a localized revolt by using maximum force or mass protests nation-wide by using intimidation and small amount of force. The problem comes when a nation-wide movement evolves into a revolt. Then, Assad might decide that the only way to smother the embers of revolt is to get the army and people focused on a foreign enemy.

Given that Assad believes that anti-Israel policies unite the rulers and people, Assad may try to provoke a war with Israel to save his regime. Losing a war in order to save his regime would be a good trade if only potentially rebellious Sunni soldiers pay the price in blood. Assad would have to make it a limited war to avoid giving Israel reason to destroy the Assad regime anyway by driving all the way to Damascus in a counter-attack. If Israel falls short of that step, even if they bomb Damascus, Assad would find that a price he'd pay to stay in power.

So it may be time for Assad to call in any chits he has with Iran to convince Iran that failure to act means Iran loses a key client state. Not that Iran should get involved, since that alone might be provocation enough for Israel to go to total war against the Assad regime (although Iran might join the fight anyway, believing they have opportunity rather than danger).

Lebanon is the obvious choice for a battlefield in a war against Israel. If Syria marched a mechanized division into southern Lebanon "to show solidarity with" Hezbollah and the Lebanese people--and under the excuse that this is the source of all that foreign (Israeli) meddling that Assad claims is enflaming the unrest--he could generate a crisis that would compel Israel to decide whether to strike first to evict the Syrians. If Israel holds back, just the crisis might mute the budding revolt inside Syria. And if Israel strikes first at the Syrian expedition, it would be tough for protesters to stay in the streets without appearing to be allies of Israel. Assad could hope that Israel would be willing to keep the scope of the war limited to Lebanon and that the eventual loss of one of his divisions (assuming the UN doesn't demand a ceasefire to save the division) is well worth the price.

Of course, seeking a foreign enemy could backfire. Once the war ends, Assad would face a people angry at Assad for his repression and for losing a war. Assad wouldn't be the first dictator to miscalculate the rally around the flag ploy.

But Assad only has to think it would work for it to happen. Heck, all he has to have is the hope that it might work as opposed to the near certainty of defeat if he does nothing. He may believe he must do something to cope with the current crisis and worry about future crises later.

But for all the potential problems of losing the devil we know should Assad's "stability" break, at least this is a crisis in an enemy state rather than in an allied state. And if we can avoid the worst bad things that could happen in Assad's fall, we'd have opportunities as all the bad things we know (and are strangely comfortable with) end or are greatly reduced. Remember, if this crisis had taken place in 2005, the near-civil war in Iraq might never have taken place (at least not on the same scale) with a Syria too much in chaos to facilitate the jihad in Iraq.

UPDATE: It's bad enough for our State Department to tell Americans to get out:

The U.S. Department of State urges U.S. citizens to depart immediately while commercial transportation is readily available. Given the uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, U.S. citizens who must remain in Syria are advised to limit nonessential travel within the country. U.S. citizens not in Syria should defer all travel to Syria at this time. The Department of State has ordered all eligible family members of U.S. government employees as well as certain non-emergency personnel to depart Syria.

Uh oh. I hope our amphibious warfare platforms are still in the Mediterranean Sea. Evacuations by non-commercial means could become necessary.