The Fate of Bashar Assad: Will He Be the Next Gaddafi or the Next Milosevic?

To be sure, the speech echoed some of the themes of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s valedictory rants in the months before his ouster and murder. And the Syrian regime’s ongoing violence against demonstrators, even in the presence of Arab League monitors to whose organization Assad had pledged to halt repression, underscored the unlikelihood of the crisis being resolved through reform and dialogue. Almost a year later, the rebellion remains resilient, and it is increasingly turning to arms, as deserters from the regime’s forces mount an insurgency.  But despite the mounting carnage and diminishing hopes for a political solution, the foreign military intervention that tipped the balance against Gaddafi is not likely to be repeated in Syria, and Assad may yet remain in power for quite some time. His strategy? Militarizing the conflict and framing it in sectarian terms, while casting himself as the protector standing between important segments of Syrian society and the things they fear most.

The relevant playbook, then, may be less Gaddafi than Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman who managed to remain in power by manipulating ethnic-sectarian tensions, orchestrating periodic waves of bloodletting despite Western interventions, always making himself indispensable to securing the peace. (And Russia, which backed both Milosevic and Assad, is far more assertive and willing to challenge Western powers now than it was during the 1990s.)

Assad has engineered a situation where the civil protest movement against his authoritarian regime is being eclipsed by a dynamic of insurgency and civil war, with a strongly sectarian character. And that gives pause to those countries with the capability to intervene.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once a friend and ally of Assad but now one of his harshest critics, warned on Tuesday that Syria “is heading to a religious, sectarian and a racist civil war”, and that would oblige Turkey to play a role because such a conflagration “also poses a threat for us.”

As the second largest army in NATO and a predominantly Muslim neighbor, Turkey would be the natural candidate for any boots-on-the-ground intervention. Turkish officials have previously raised the possibility of their forces creating a “buffer zone” inside northern Syria as a safe haven for those facing persecution by the regime—and, inevitably, a platform for the insurgent challenge to Assad. (Turkey already plays host to the Free Syrian Army, an organization of defectors from Assad’s forces mounting a guerrilla campaign inside Syria, although it’s not clear that the group is allowed to use Turkish territory for operational purposes.) But Turkish officials insist that they would not act in Syria without United Nations authorization, and the prospects of obtaining such authorization remain remote in the face of determined Russian and Chinese opposition. Moscow has, in fact, stepped up its direct military support to the Assad regime, which provides the Russian navy with its only deep-water port in the Mediterranean at Tarsus.

Security Council opposition is hardly the only factor restraining Turkey and others from intervening. As concerned as Erdogan is over the conflict that has, over nine months, seen thousands of Syrians killed by their regime, his more pressing  security concern may be Turkey’s own, restive Kurdish population. Damascus has previously backed Turkey’s sworn enemy, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is once again locked in a campaign of escalating violence and counter-violence with the Turkish authorities. Syria’s own Kurdish minority has largely stayed out of the uprising, and may be more inclined to side with Assad than to support his violent ouster by a predominantly Sunni insurgency.

The above article was published in time.com on January 12th, 2012.

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