Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered, according to Syrian-born Dr. Murhaf Joujati, who spoke at the University of Maine’s Memorial Union on Wednesday.
Dr. Joujati is a Professor of Middle East Studies at the National Defense University’s Near East/South Asia Center for Strategic studies. He regularly collaborates with other intellectuals and professionals on ways to resolve conflicts in the Middle East.
Jim Settele, Assistant Director of University of Maine’s School of Policy and International Affairs, introduced Joujati with praise and asked us to think about Joujati’s comments in context with the recent bombing in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three members of his staff.
Joujati took the podium with a joke: “When Mr. Settele mentioned that you were lucky to have me here, my ego went through the roof.”
Joujati spoke to the members of the Orono community, saying, “Imagine tanks or artillery outside of Orono shelling you. Imagine you go to the supermarket and aircrafts are shelling you. Imagine the army has cut off power to your home.”
This is what Syria is like.
Syria uses fear to control the population. The country is fragmented along religious and ethnic lines. According to Joujati, the Syrian government threatens its people, saying, “If Assad is to go away […] there will be no security and [the minorities] will be massacred.”
Syria uses several tactics to stay out of international conflict. Syria threatens to spill its discontent over into other states. Joujati said that Syria has tried to provoke unrest in Lebanon. The Syrian army occupied Lebanon until 2005, and Syria still has allies in the country used to promote Syria’s agenda.
“I think the strategy of the Syrian regime at both [the civilian and international] levels has failed,” said Joujati.
At the civilian level, fear is gone because Syria has already used the trump card of mass violence. The civilians know they can be killed at any moment, and since it will happen anyway, the fear is gone.
Internationally, Syria is isolated due to its wanton geopolitical actions. The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation suspended the country’s membership. The United States, the European Union and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf all condemn Syria’s actions.
Still, the world takes very little action to stop Syria.
“What keeps Syria alive today is not only unbalanced force on the ground, but also […] support from Iran and from Russia,” said Joujati.
Russia and China both vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution to threaten sanctions against Syria’s leadership.
Iran continues to help Syria by supporting the Hezbollah faction within Syria.
Another argument against taking any action toward Syria is: Why fight when you can open up dialogue? Joujati responded, “How do you talk to a man that has killed over 23,000 people [and] injured 60,000 people?”
Joujati believes the current status quo is unsustainable and the Assad regime will collapse soon.
“Now the [Assad] regime is using brutality randomly — as much brutality as it can afford to have — and these are acts of desperation,” Joujati said.
Joujati is not sure what the future holds for Syria: “We are truly at a historic time — at a fork in the road.”
The best-case scenario would be for Syria to look like Switzerland on the day following the collapse of the Assad regime. There is encouraging evidence to support this prospect as a reality in Syria. In now liberated areas, local democratic governments have sprung up through grassroots movements.
The worst-case scenario would be for Syria to become fragmented along religious and ethic lines and turns into multiple states, much in the way Russia did after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. This would allow Iran to continue supporting Hezbollah and use some of the small states as conduits for weapons transport.
Much of what happens to Syria in the near future depends on international involvement. Some countries, such as Turkey, are supplying the Free Syrian Army with weapons, food and communications equipment, and taking in refugees fleeing the conflict.
This support is not enough. The FSA is still fighting with AK-47s. They need anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry to fend off Assad’s army.
Joujati ended his speech by calling on the United States to provide the FSA with the supplies it needs and help end this war.