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The Syrians have lost their fear. Is it time for a no-fly zone?

2012 January 1
by Paul Vallely

When President Assad finally falls in Syria will he be shot like Gaddafi in Libya, or put on trial like Mubarak in Egypt, or flee to Saudi like Ben Ali in Tunisia?

On Friday, for the first time, the protests in Syria reached the capital Damascus. The demonstrators on the streets of that nation swelled from tens of thousands to a hundred thousand and more. Protestors have seized the opportunity to show newly-arrived observers from the Arab League the intensity of the anger against the regime of  President Assad, which has now killed around 5,000 of its citizens in its unyielding crackdown on dissent.

Mr Assad’s pledge – to implement a peace initiative involving an end to violence, troops pulled off the streets and political prisoners freed – looks utterly worthless. Indeed the violence has got worse since the Arab peace monitors began their mission on Tuesday.

So is it time for the Nato planes which are so newly returned from Libya to begin enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria? Not yet. The protestors in the capital’s suburbs do not offer the only pressure. Syria has been unprecedentedly suspended from the Arab League. The King of Jordan has bluntly told Assad to step down. Turkey, hitherto an important ally and trading partner, has threatened to cut off the nation’s electricity. The EU has moved to extend sanctions against Assad’s inner circle. In Washington there is talk of increasing support for the Syrian opposition. Even China may not resist sanctions at the UN Security Council in January when the Arab League monitors file their report. Assad’s departure is now a question of “when not if” .

Yet it could be some little time still before that happens.  Russia is adamant in its backing of Assad. Last year 10 per cent of Moscow’s global arm sales were to Damascus. Russia’s total investment in the Syrian economy tops $19bn. But that will hold off the inevitable only for so long.

A barrier of fear has been broken in a critical mass of ordinary Syrians, as their  increased boldness on the streets now shows. Defections from the Syrian army are now said to exceed 10,000. The Palestinian faction Hamas has withdrawn many of its lower-level officials from its headquarters in Damascus.

Protestors have been chanting for the execution of Assad but it might not come to that. Syria is ruled by a tiny group of Alawite Shia Muslims who make up 80 per cent of the officers in the Syrian army.  The ruling elite, nervous about the prospect of a takeover by the Sunni majority, might decide to sacrifice him. He could be replaced by his brother Maher, the ruthless commander of the ultra-loyal Fourth Division, the only army unit allowed in the capital. There may be key splits in this elite already; that would explain why its politicians decided to allow in the Arab League observers while its military leaders continue to attack protesters before the monitors’ eyes.

If Assad loses the support of the urban and business elites in Damascus and Aleppo that could clinch his fall. That could happen as  the economy worsens.

It is bad already. This time last year moderate economic growth was predicted by the IMF, tourism was high and rising, and exploration for new oil and gas fields was under way. Now drought has pushed a million farmers off the land and economic sanctions have hit the banks and the oil sector hard. Fuel shortages and power cuts are routine. One in three men are unemployed. The Syrian pound is worth a third less. Rapid inflation is eroding spending power. The strategic hard currency reserve is being spent.  What will happen when it runs out?

Perhaps neighbouring Turkey will intervene or arm the Syrian rebels with weapons. Perhaps Syria will descend into a Lebanese-style sectarian civil war. Then might be the time to consider a UN no-fly zone. But we are some way off that yet.

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