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Syria regime blunders toward self-destruction

By Christopher Phillips, Special to CNN
  • Syria analyst Christopher Phillips: The Assad regime is gradually self-destructing
  • Syria miscalculated the international response to attacks on its own civilians, he writes
  • Phillips: Regime's advantages include loyal security forces and no protests in Damascus
  • Fears regime will drag Syrian people into desperate struggle for survival, he adds

Editor's note: Christopher Phillips is Syria analyst in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Middle East team. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics specializing in identity politics in Syria and Jordan and has lived for several years in Syria. His first book, "Contemporary Arab Identity: The daily reproduction of the Arab World," will be published by Routledge in early 2012.

(CNN) -- The harsh criticism leveled at the Syrian regime by Saudi Arabia and Turkey last week could prove a turning point in the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Until now Western sanctions have been ineffective in preventing Assad's violent crackdown on protestors in the last six months. However, the influence of neighboring Turkey and Saudi Arabia is greater than the West, and opens the possibility of damaging diplomatic, economic and even military action.

Yet Assad's increasing international and regional isolation was far from inevitable, and is one of a growing list of miscalculations by his regime that is bringing about its own destruction.

For months Syria's security forces, under the command of Assad's relentless brother, Maher has cracked down with relative impunity while the Arab states and Turkey have said little or remained silent. Assad's strategy appeared to be to suppress demonstrations while cynically keeping casualties to a "manageable" level, rarely crossing 100 deaths on the worst days.

Ever since demonstrations broke out Assad has shown poor judgment and a lack of political skill
--Christopher Phillips

This has limited Western calls for the kind of urgent intervention seen in Libya, itself becoming a quagmire that few wished to replicate in Syria, and was grudgingly accepted by Syria's neighbors, who feared sectarian instability were Assad to fall. Assad, however, miscalculated and his heavy assault on the rebellious cities of Hama and Deir Ezzor at the beginning of Ramadan has proven too much to bear.

Such miscalculations have characterized Assad's response to a crisis that looks increasingly likely to end his decade-long rule over Syria. It need not have been. When the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, Syria appeared well placed to avoid unrest. Yet ever since demonstrations eventually broke out Assad has shown poor judgment and a lack of political skill, perhaps becoming someone who inherited power. One by one he and his regime have undone nearly all of their initial advantages.

Arguably the regime's greatest asset when unrest first broke out was Assad's personal popularity. Despite the security apparatus, the ruling Baath party and corrupt regime cronies being widely disliked, many Syrians placed their faith in Assad as a modernizing reformer. Yet his response to the unrest has shattered this carefully constructed image. He rambled in speeches about external conspiracies rather than delivering real change, and the few reforms he belatedly offered have been undermined by continuing regime violence.

(Assad) is either too weak, being overawed by hardliners such as Maher, or is himself actually as ruthless a dictator as his father, Hafez
--Christopher Phillips

Although some core supporters still hope he will deliver, most accept that in reality he is either too weak, being overawed by hardliners such as Maher, or is himself actually as ruthless a dictator as his father, Hafez.

A second factor in the regime's favor was the weakness of its opponents. Syria's opposition had been systematically crushed or forced into exile during 40 years of Baathist rule. The first protestors wanted reform rather than regime change. Yet the regime swelled opposition ranks by repeatedly overreacting with brutal force. From the arrest and alleged torture of 15 Deraa teenagers for writing anti-regime graffiti in March to the 1,600 civilians reportedly killed since then, regime brutality has galvanized the previously passive population against it.

Even after unrest broke out in Syria, the regime was offered ample room to maneuver by the international community. Western states have been reluctant to call for Assad's departure. Even after initiating sanctions, EU and U.S. diplomats held off demanding that Assad step down, a move that Barack Obama will reportedly be making in the coming days.

The regime has shown a bewildering ability to make matters worse as it slowly implodes
--Christopher Phillips
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Russia and China have similarly been staunch supporters, defending Syria from Western condemnation at the U.N.. Yet the regime has shown little willingness to use this time to find a non-military solution to its unrest and has wrongly assumed that such acquiescence will last indefinitely.

Yet despite its self-destructive efforts, the Assad regime still retains some advantages that could prolong its survival. The security forces remain loyal and have shown few signs of fracturing. The Sunni merchant class, whose support is crucial, also remains loyal or at least neutral. The major cities of Aleppo and central Damascus, which between them host half of Syria's population, remain relatively quiet. Many ordinary Syrians still give the regime the benefit of the doubt, fearing the possibility of a sectarian civil war. The opposition is growing in size, but lacks leaders that could replace Assad.

Furthermore, Syria still retains key diplomatic and economic support from Iran and its key trading partner Iraq and, despite the increased criticism seen this week, is not yet facing anything more than rhetoric, such as organized diplomatic or economic isolation.

However, given its record in the crisis so far, few would bet on the Assad regime maximizing these advantages. If anything, the regime has shown a bewildering ability to make matters worse as it slowly implodes. The great fear is that, in its forlorn struggle for survival, it drags the Syrian people into the void alongside it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Phillips.