Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Bounni-Brammertz Conundrum!

Despite the attempt of regime sympathizers to deny it, the wife of jailed lawyer and human rights activist Anwar al-Bounni has come out confirming the reality of her husband continuing hunger strike which is about to enter its third week. But the mere attempt at denial here is a sign that the Assad regime does indeed feel embarrassed by this development and is feeling the brunt of international pressures and condemnation in this regard.

There are even rumors now that the regime might issue a pardon in benefit of all democracy activists and opposition members who were arrested in connection with what became known as the Beirut-Damascus Declaration. I wouldn’t make much of these rumors, however, other than to note that they come as a sign of increasing strains within the regime.

But the Assads themselves are unlikely to yield at this stage, because, like everyone else these days, they, too, are in a wait-and-see mode with regard to the upcoming report by Brammertz. This means that just about everything in the country will be on hold until that critical date of June 15, a date which might just enter the annals of Syria’s modern history, albeit this may not necessarily be such a positive development. All will depend on the content of the report.

A weak, technical and/or vague report will serve to empower the regime, boost the confidence of its leaders and unleash the Assads on the helpless crowds of activists, dissidents and opposition members. But the Assads could also choose here to play it a bit smarter than their natural instincts and inclinations will suggest, as they could opt to behave more magnanimously towards the opposition and might just issue a new more pragmatic party law, one that could appeal to many of them. Naturally, this move will be designed to help consolidate the Assads’ grip on power, undercut the rising threat of the external opposition and offset increasing international pressures.

Considering the exemplary tenacity, if not downright foolhardiness, of the Assads, however, even a nod in this regard will likely remain devoid of any follow through, a fact that can only pave the way to another crackdown down the road.

Thus, and in all cases, a weak report by Brammertz can only lead to a crackdown in Syria, and, of course, a more overt dabbling in Lebanese affairs as well, either in the immediate aftermath of the repot, or in the following weeks.

A strong report, on the other hand, will come as a major shock to the regime and could throw the Assads off-guard for a while, seeing that they seem to be acting these days under the wishful assumption that Brammertz’s findings are not that conclusive, and/or that he is much more “reasonable” than Mehlis had been. Such a development, therefore, could create some confusion among the Assads and could result in the reappearance of certain fissures within the ruling establishment, which would create a brief window of opportunity (few days to few weeks) for some kind of internal challenge to take place.

Failure to take advantage to this opportunity, however, which is the most likely outcome giving the fact that the Assads seem to hold the most efficient and critical units in the army and security apparatuses under their direct contorl, will give the Assads enough time to catch their breath and reaffirm their control of the country's key institutions, and regions, thus thwarting any potential move against them.

But even should a challenge be launched against the Assads, one which could assume the guise of an attempted coup, or a regional mutiny, its chances for success, without immediate external backing, especially military, will be quite minimal.

Therefore, should the current US administration ever be interested in supporting such a scenario in Syria, its top military leaders should then carefully watch out for any telling developments in the aftermath of June 15th, and the administration should be ready to intervene directly from their bases in Iraq, even if the identity of the people involved in the anti-Assads camp is not clearly established in the early days of whatever move or rebellion.

The other likely scenario in this case is to isolate the regime, economically and politically, until such time that the Syrian opposition can coordinate some kind of a people-power movement to challenge the regime, or until the country simply collapses under the deadweight of the regime and the strain of increasing economic hardships. For Syria is not Iraq, it simply does not have the necessary resources (especially oil) to wear out a prolonged period of economic sanctions, even if neighboring countries ended up violating the sanction rules through smuggling activities. Moreover, the Assads are unlikely to tap into their famed food and cash reserves to help their people, not even to help maintain their grip on the country. Such is their greed.

In all cases, some degree of violence seems well-nigh inevitable, the criminal, cliquish and authoritarian nature of the Assads regime being the main determinant in this regard.

But, and while we wait to see which one of these scenarios is going to unfold, Mr. Anwar al-Bounni might need to contemplate the wisdom behind his continuing hunger strike, seeing that the authorities are unlikely to be responsive any time soon.