Will Bashar Assad negotiate?

Despite the strength of the regime’s tools of suppression, it is still uncertain as to whether the Assad regime will survive.

Question:

1. It seems President Bashar Assad is willing to hold on power by any means. Would you say there is any chance the regime will start some kind of dialogue with the protesters and could it be somehow influenced by international community or any outside forces?

2.  Will the regime last or not, and why?

Answers:

Wayne White, Policy Expert, Washington’s Middle East Policy Council

1. At this point, with the Assad regime probably believing it is still in control (and continuing to arrest dissidents), it is highly unlikely that the regime will negotiate in good faith with the protestors or listen to international calls for it to show more restraint. In fact, because of its prolonged alienation from much of the international community, it profoundly mistrusts the intentions of large portions of it—particularly the West.

Also, the regime has witnessed events elsewhere that have taken down authoritarian regimes, with the only two still standing in the face of strong opposition (in Tripoli and Manama) having survived so far because of suppressive violence. Moreover, the core of the regime is a small minority—Alawites—who have shed a tremendous amount of Syrian blood (and engaged in other abuses like widespread official corruption at the expense of much of the rest of Syrian society) and who fear if they lose power they would largely be excluded from future governance and many punished. As a result, keeping power is desperately important to them. In addition, this regime commands perhaps the strongest security and military apparatus of any of the governments challenged so far—much larger, better equipped, trained and disciplined than what Qadhafi commanded in Libya when the opposition rose up against him. Consequently, the Syrian leadership most likely has greater faith in its ability to engage successfully in violent suppression.

Dialogue is unlikely to succeed at this point in any case because the regime’s refusal to agree to real reform when it had a chance to do so (especially at the time of Assad’s speech when concessions were widely expected but not forthcoming), and its continued use of excessive violence has caused opposition demands to escalate from reform to regime change.

Finally, it is unclear whether Bashar Assad truly has been free to take a less violent course. He is not as strong as his father was, and he is surrounded by an old guard of aging hardliners who may well be more extreme in their fear of reform than even Bashar.

2. Despite the strength of the regime’s tools of suppression, it is still uncertain as to whether the Assad regime will survive. Its popular base probably has become somewhat narrower because of the ruthless crackdown; even more people might have taken to the streets in protest if there had not been such widespread fear of the security forces. Should popular pressure grow to the point where portions of the regime’s security forces become unreliable, the situation could change considerably. So, despite the extensive repression and widespread popular fear of more, the fate of this regime still hangs in the balance.

Ellen Lust, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Yale University

1. I think that dialogue will be difficult in the Syrian case. Many forces within the regime, and its supporters, are reticent to see change and significant compromise, while those in the opposition are skeptical of promises of slower reform. It is unlikely that dialogue will be successful under these conditions. Perhaps once the conflict has escalated, if both sides see themselves paying significant costs, they may turn to dialogue.

2. It is difficult to predict whether the Syrian regime can survive. In fact, I would argue that one of the reasons that protest began in Syria later than in other parts of the region was that the uncertainty and stakes are both high. There are likely some among both sides who feel that they need to do everything possible to achieve their goals — whether that be to stay in power (for the regime) or to wrest the regime from power (for the opposition). Given this, the conflict is likely to escalate, and much remains to be seen as to who will ultimately prevail.

Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma

1. It has already begun, but ineffectively because the regime has hand picked the people it will talk to and is arresting others.

2. The regime can last so long as the military sticks with it and is willing to shoot.

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