Thursday, February 09, 2012

Syria Approaches a Death Spiral into Assad's Black Hole

Syris is a beautiful country which I've visited several times, most recently in the mid-90s. When I was an Entry-Strategy Exec for Amoco, the Syrian Oil Minister turned up the volume on the TV and began to whisper to me how to identify the various kinds of secret police, a black art necessary to aficionados living in Damascus, one of the oldest and nastiest cities in the world.

The Economist has a good article on the complexities of the internal and foreign position of the many minorities threatened by the predominantly Sunni majority:
Most independent observers in Damascus believe that indeed, in the short term, the Syrian regime’s savage offensive may succeed in containing most forms of armed resistance. But if Deraa is any indication, Mr Assad has little chance of long-term survival. As in a vampire film, citizens go through the motions of daily life, fearful of contact with officials. In the eyes of most, the government is totally discredited, at best an evil to be suffered. The cold fury that clearly burns in many homes, linked now in many hearts to religious fervour, may flare at any time.

Even with the army’s offensive at its peak, flash protests are frequently breaking out across Syria, including in the security-infested heart of Damascus. Over a recent weekend, protesters staged some 400 separate demonstrations. Israel’s military-intelligence chief reported in a recent public briefing that only a third of conscripts answered the latest call-up for Syria’s compulsory military service. He also cited intelligence of cracks in Syria’s command structure, with officers speaking of the need to replace Mr Assad and his clan.

This may be disinformation, designed to dismay Israel’s enemy, Iran. But in economic terms Syria is pitching into a deepening crisis. The central bank’s reserves are believed to have topped $20 billion before the uprising. Since then they are thought to have fallen by as much as two-thirds. Syria’s currency has slipped by nearly 50% in the past few weeks, stoking already fierce inflation. Power cuts and fuel shortages are common, and many of the country’s factories have closed. The tourist industry is all but dead. Syria’s modest oil exports, the staple of government revenue, have virtually dried up.

Many Syrians are convinced that, eventually, Mr Assad will go. What worries them is how. Few expect the opposition to seize Russia’s bait and engage in talks with the regime. Nor do they see Mr Assad retiring willingly. On the other hand, few expect much help from the outside world either. Those who can are leaving the country. Those who cannot are waiting, resigned to their fate.

The problem with Syria is that as long as the bloodbath goes on, the ultimate butcher's bill will lengthen when, as in Iraq, the final toting up after a majority victory eventually takes place and mass murders [no outsider will intervene as in Iraq] ensue.

In 1958 the rioters in Baghdad dragged the King and the Prime Minister's bodies through the street and in the end, all that were left were fingers and other torn flesh. Assad may try to escape, but eventually this London-trained optometrist may meet a similar fate. And from what events in Syria seem to predict, he will have richly deserved it.

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