MIDEAST NOTES: Will Assad Go the Way of Qaddafi?
MIDEAST NOTES: Will Assad Go the Way of Qaddafi?

Since the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya by the NATO-backed forces of the National Transitional Council, many analysts have speculated as to whether this development could ultimately hasten the downfall of two other regimes in the Middle East: namely, Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in Yemen. 

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi’s death, reports emerged from Syria of more intense anti-Assad rallies across the country, amid a crackdown by the security forces that killed 25 people, mostly in the central city of Homs and the city of Hama to the north. The argument goes that because the protestors have been emboldened by the death of Qaddafi, the regimes in Syria and Yemen will collapse sooner. Is such reasoning sound?

In a word: No.

For there has been one factor underlying the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Qaddafi in Libya: namely, military intervention, which can be domestic, foreign, or both.

In Libya, of course, this principle translated to foreign military support from NATO as well as countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, primarily via an aerial bombardment campaign against Qaddafi’s forces. Qatar played a key role in providing backing to rebel Islamist militias opposed to Qaddafi, now vying for control with other militias from Misrata - alarmed about the Islamist presence in the country’s capital - for the harbor and airports in Tripoli.

No one can reasonably claim that Qaddafi would not have won the civil war and would now have the country securely under his control had there been no foreign military intervention.
No one can reasonably claim that Qaddafi would not have won the civil war and would now have the country securely under his control had there been no foreign military intervention back in March. Thus, outside military support was crucial for driving back Qaddafi’s forces from Benghazi and in the end for the regime change we have now witnessed.

In Tunisia, where the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa first began, it is often forgotten that Ben Ali (then prime minister) had been brought to power in November 1987 via a coup d’état, under the pretext of medical reports claiming that Habib Bourguiba was medically unfit to continue ruling as president.

Bourguiba was responsible for secularist policies in the aftermath of Tunisia’s independence from France (including textbooks that teach secularism and encourage students to look towards Europe as a model for enlightenment), and Ben Ali’s presidency was largely a continuation of this secularist legacy, albeit under much more authoritarian rule - despite promises otherwise.

Sensing the president’s unpopularity in the wake of mass demonstrations in Tunisia after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the military effectively asked Ben Ali to leave by demonstrating that it would not be willing to crack down on protests by force. Ben Ali therefore fled the country. Since his departure, the military has decided to withdraw from the political scene, hence the free elections for the transitional Constituent Assembly that is expected to lead onto general elections within a year.

Likewise, the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was a de facto coup, since the military has been in charge since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. Unlike Tunisia, however, the military seems intent on at least retaining a prominent role in the running of the country. Signs of this trend include the imprisonment and torture of bloggers and activists, the military’s effectively orchestrated attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, and the ongoing brutal crackdown on demonstrations, particularly those held by Coptic Christians in protest against the aggressive attacks on their community at the hands of Islamists. 

As Raymond Ibrahim has documented, the Egyptian state media have engaged in a systematic campaign of deception to portray the military’s massacre of dozens of Coptic protestors in Maspero, Cairo, as an act of self-defense against supposedly aggressive Christians. Parliamentary elections this month may only make the situation worse, for while the military will probably continue to run the show on matters of foreign relations, Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood could well be given control of matters like religious instruction in schools.

Having outlined the common thread of the role of the military in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it becomes easier to understand how events may develop elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Syria, elite, Alawite-led military units remain fiercely loyal to the president, and the protestors and army defectors (the latter forming the ‘Free Syrian Army’) are no match for their weaponry and manpower. It is not therefore surprising that Syrian protestors have increasingly called for the imposition of a no-fly zone.

In Yemen, on the other hand, the military is divided: some elite units like the well-trained ‘Republican Guard Units’ are still fighting for Saleh, while other troops have joined rebel General Ali Ahmar and the protestors in the capital of Sanaa and the surrounding areas. Both sides are embroiled in a web of alliances with Islamist militants in the country, and there is the additional complication that factions opposed to Saleh are even more disunited than in Syria.

The Shi’a Houthi rebels of the north and the southern separatists- both traditional opponents of the president- have taken advantage of Saleh’s entanglement with Ahmar to focus on their own limited goals that do not necessarily require the overthrow of the current regime in Sanaa. The southern separatists in particular are beginning to see an opportunity, and in the southern seaport of Aden more are beginning to question whether it is worthwhile to remain part of the rest of Yemen.

Hence, it is to be expected that both Syria and Yemen will remain in a protracted period of sustained civil disorder and unrest for quite some time, unless there is some form of decisive military intervention from within or from outside.

On a concluding note, it is worth pointing to what has transpired in both Iran and Bahrain.

In the former, the military and Revolutionary Guards have remained completely and ruthlessly loyal to the regime, so the protests were always doomed to fail in 2009 and this year.

Bahrain, on the other hand, saw decisive foreign military intervention on behalf of the ruling monarchy from the Gulf Cooperation Council- including the recruitment of troops from Pakistan- to suppress unrest this year, with the result being that the situation has largely been calmed amid smaller-scale protests at least for the short term, while empowering Shi’a extremist factions like al-Haq, a development that could create a potential long-term source of instability.