As Michael Totten noted yesterday, speculation about the imminent collapse of the Assad regime in Syria has now risen to the point where people are openly discussing the possibility of a massive influx of Alawite refugees pouring across the border to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. The New York Times’s article on the subject today continues the discussion by trying to put in the context of not only the fate of Syria but also Israel’s other refugee problems. But I doubt that this will happen. If members of the Alawite sect that has dominated Syria for the last 40 years are forced by the collapse of their regime to flee, I suspect they would go to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan before Israel. Even though the Jewish state is the only place where they could find religious freedom or democracy, it’s unlikely that supporters of a brutal dictatorship would prioritize those factors when seeking a new home.
However, that’s not the only element of this story that I’m skeptical about. Though Israeli officials as well as leaders in the Arab world and Europe have all spoken as if Bashar Assad’s fall is only a matter of time, they may be assuming too much. Since Assad has continued to not only state his willingness to use force to repress dissent in his country but to murder his critics by the thousands in the last year, the certitude that is being expressed about his demise may be a bit premature. Dictatorships only fall when dictators lose their taste for blood. And so far, Assad has shown no signs of such a human weakness.
It is true the cracks in his regime seem to be widening. The growing number of deserters from the army and security forces is the worst sign for Assad. So, too, is the willingness of his former allies in the Arab League to throw him under the bus.
But it is an immutable rule of history that tyrannies only collapse when their leadership is no longer willing to kill to maintain their grip on power. The French Revolution occurred during the reign of the most benevolent of the Bourbon absolute rulers, not the most brutal. The Shah of Iran was forced to flee because he hesitated to murder demonstrators in the streets of Tehran, a weakness that one couldn’t accuse his Islamist successers of having. And Hosni Mubarak’s decades-long rule in Egypt ended because he was unwilling or unable to order his army to mow down protesters in Tahir Square.
Based on the record of the last year of protests, that is not something anyone is likely to accuse Bashar Assad of doing. Yesterday, Assad vowed to use an “iron hand” to continue to repress dissent that he claimed was solely the work of “outsiders” and “terrorists.” With so much blood already on his hands, why would anyone doubt he would continue to kill?
If Assad lost control of the army or the security forces, that might force him to quit. But because much of the security apparatus is in the hands of Assad’s fellow Alawites, they have an incentive to be loyal to him as they know they will be out of luck after his departure. The very fact that Alawites understand their fate will be a bad one in the post-Assad era and that flight is not an option for most, makes them unlikely to buckle.
Knowing he faces an uncertain future out of power, Assad has every reason to dig in. While anything can happen, so long as he doesn’t run out of bullets, it may be a mistake to assume Assad is about to be ousted.