Syria after Assad

NEW YORK – The widely held view in the West that the Arab Spring marks a clear step toward freedom and democracy in the Middle East now looks premature. The idea was probably based partly on wishful thinking, which overlooked the power realities actually shaping events. Even a year on, it is impossible to reach a definite conclusion – the situation is still too confusing, and the new leaders too unknown.

Indeed, where new leaders have taken over, they have been unable to deliver what people were hoping for when they went to the barricades. So, while a true “Arab Summer” has yet to materialize (on the contrary, a few of the region’s autocratic rulers appear to be enjoying an Indian summer), there is a growing risk, at least in some countries, of a “Winter of Chaos.”

This is particularly true in Syria, where a criminal regime is clinging to power by any means. Internally, President Bashar al-Assad’s government tries to placate its people by feigning reform and portraying protesters as foreign-controlled terrorists. Internationally, Syria’s main weapons-supplier, Russia, is defending the regime. Assad’s red herring, a belated and sham referendum on constitutional reform, has not ended the indiscriminate killing of thousands of protesters and innocent civilians.

To the international community, Assad has lost whatever legitimacy he had left. Even the Arab League has condemned his actions, suspending Syria’s membership last November. Meanwhile, the West is increasing sanctions, and many inside and outside of Syria are calling for a Libya-style military intervention. Ultimately, unless Russia and China end their support for Assad’s regime, they will suffer a massive loss of standing in the Arab world.