Pressure valve off in al-Assad's Syria
July 13th, 2012
07:34 AM ET

Pressure valve off in al-Assad's Syria

By Fareed Zakaria

Over the past sixteen months of bloody conflict in Syria, observers have been waiting for one key development: top-level defections from within President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Suddenly, it seems a pressure valve has gone off. Pilots, ambassadors, and even one general have defected. What does it mean?

The general is Manaf Tlas, a childhood friend of Assad, and an officer in the elite Republican Guard.

Tlas’s father was chief of staff and then minister of defense, for 30 years, under Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad. This is as close to the top of the Syrian regime as you might get. That’s why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took special note of Tlas.

“If people like him, and like the generals and colonels and others who have recently defected to Turkey are any indication, regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet,” she said.

But there are some crucial caveats. Tlas hadn’t been a member of al-Assad’s inner circle for a while – he had actually been under house arrest for more than a year.

Also, he was high ranking, but he wasn’t an Alawite. While Alawites make up only 12% of Syria’s population, they hold more than 80% of the positions in the powerful Republican Guard. They are the inner circle. According to some reports, when Sunnis are put on guard duty, there’s always an Alawite soldier assigned to monitor the Sunni soldiers.

Related: Reports of new massacre

But if the increasing number of top-level defections is a signal that the Sunni elite, which is comprised of generals, businessmen, bureaucrats and which has so far stuck with al-Assad, is now moving away from him, that’s a huge shift – and one that will ultimately bring down the regime.

There’s mounting evidence that the Sunnis are weakening in their support for the al-Assad regime. We’ve spoken with a former U.S. Marine Austin Tice. He’s now a law student and spending the summer reporting from Syria. On a recent embed with a rebel group, he said he found that the government’s helicopters flew so high that they couldn’t really aim their  missiles; he also said he saw first-hand how hostile fire from al-Assad’s tanks and troops were poorly aimed and seemingly random. The suspicion among many rebels at the time, Tice says, was that the predominantly Sunni pilots and soldiers were deliberately missing their targets.

Related: A deluded elite in Syria?

Another telling indicator of dissent is the number of silent objectors in the army. According to the New York Times, a growing number of Syrian soldiers – many of whom lack the means to flee – are staying home. But to ensure their continued silence and neutrality, these officers continue to draw salaries and pensions.

Money is the main reason to believe that al-Assad's regime cannot last. Inflation is said to be as high as 30%. According to some reports, al-Assad and his cronies are freely printing money; the Syrian pound has depreciated against the dollar by more than half on the black market. Meanwhile, the regime is running out of cash. Ninety percent of Syria’s oil used to go to the European Union, but sanctions have put a stop to that. Tourism and trade have of course plummeted. And monetary support from Iran cannot be counted on indefinitely – Tehran itself is buckling under unprecedented sanctions.

And there was a report last week that Iran is weakening in its support for al-Assad. An Iranian ambassador gave an interview in a Tehran paper criticizing his government’s support for the Syrian regime and saying that al-Assad’s days were obviously numbered.

But there's one more piece to the puzzle – the growing strength of Syria’s opposition. The Free Syria Army is getting stronger. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now openly arming the rebels, channeling through routes from Turkey, Lebanon, and now even Iraq. Rebel attacks have become more focused, running deeper into the two main cities Damascus and Aleppo. The various opposition groups are coming together to plan for a post-Assad Syria.

The question then is, what would such a Syria look like?

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS" Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET

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soundoff (743 Responses)
  1. 9ja

    Oh! Loard show me the day that the Syrian people will shoot the Head of Al-assad like football as the Libiyan people did to Gaddafi........

    July 16, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply

      Ahhh ya ameeeel..el Assad seeedeeek we seeed elli khalifouuk..wal yakhsaa elkaseouuun

      July 16, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
      • AlexandertheGreat

        9ja and SALIM LONDON ALGERIA, are you two girls playing nice?
        I feel like treacle between you two.

        July 16, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  2. Acting like a friend you are not....

    Marilyn Manson – Beautiful People

    July 16, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  3. Wrong Address

    Assad needs a Slipnot around his neck because he is a Psychosocial...The Limits of the Dead...and dungeons of torture...

    July 16, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  4. KEVIN

    As soon as Russia and China ask him to step down, Assad will do so

    July 16, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply

    Mr. Al Assad has no options. If he faces his country's radicals, they will hang him. If he faces the ICC, they will imprison him for life. If he continues to fight, to the death, he will die with honor and be considered a hero by his supporters. When I served in Vietnam, we were brain washed by something called "The domino theory". The theory is still alive and well except it is directed at the Middle East. NGO's staffed by western radicals and CIA operatives are driving a democratic take over of the area. Russia seems to be the only Country that has wised up.

    July 17, 2012 at 9:37 am | Reply
    • AlexandertheGreat

      NONSTOP is an islamist with obvious alterior motives.
      The "Domino theory" was an anti- communist theory from the 50s to the 80s that proposed that if one nation fell to communism, the surrounding areas would also fall to communism.
      This, has nothing to do with the discussion but these islamists will do and say anything to take our attention away from them.
      NONSTOP, I doubt very much that you were ever in the American army so STOPLYING–islamist s c u m b a g.

      July 17, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply
  6. Andrey

    Defections mean nothing. CNN reporting is much better indication: when they start showing the opposition as the terrorists they are – that will be the sign! Today I saw first disturbing signs: CNN has shown some photos of popular support for Assad and of victims of suicide bombings...US will maneuver around to keep the fight going: because it has no friends there. If opposition wins though US will have another future war in ME on its hands: it will be matter of few years for the situation to become intolerable.

    July 17, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      You said: "Defections mean nothing".
      PHNOM PENH — The United States says military and diplomatic defections in Syria show a continuing "momentum building" against President Bashar al-Assad. The White House said Thursday that desperation is growing within Assad's government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling for tougher U.N. action against Damascus.

      July 17, 2012 at 11:56 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      Statements such as "Insurgents are Washington proxies" seem to be an islamist rallying cry.
      Do you have another card to play aside from "Insurgents are Jewish proxies?"
      Muslim killing muslim, without anybody's help, is real so deal with it.

      July 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  7. Barry G.

    They should start the war crimes trial at the Hague for Assad and his evil regime now.

    Russia and China have proven to be corrupt and depraved, by sheltering and protecting Assad.

    July 17, 2012 at 10:14 am | Reply
  8. Victor

    You really are a moron. I'm really beginning to think people need to earn a license to post anything online.

    July 17, 2012 at 10:25 am | Reply
  9. Blondefly

    Perhaps we need to have a TBS 24-hour movie marathan of "Shindler's List" to remind folks, sitting in their comfortable arm chairs, of what we were so appalled by and vowed we would never let happen again in our world. Shame on us.

    July 17, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  10. Enough of this

    Enough of this religion bull… Quit listening to other people that do NOT use any critical thinking at all. Stop listening to CNN and having other people do your thinking for you. Do you really think that this at all has to do with religion? Iraq had been an enemy that had repeatedly showed they would use force against us, Afghanistan was a strategic position that helps us to surround Iran and be close enough to Pakistan to use them as a highway for equipment, and Afghanistan is also one of the fastest growing populations in the region. Their government was being occupied by multiple organizations that left the stability of the country in jeopardy in terms of the regions security and welfare. They were training organizations that were radical and were directly threating western allies and the US. Regards to the other countries such as Egypt and Libya, this can be acknowledged by the term American’s known as “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” American’s know that if repressed people have an opportunity to rise up to regimes that for generations have harmed their welfare they would. In the name of democracy these people would want to be happy and live without fear. We as American’s continue to under look and not appreciate what we have here? What are we really complaining about? Basically it is we are not as rich or as well off as are parents or their parents, yet we live so well compared to what others have. As for Syria, this is just another example of if the people think the west will help they will rise up, Russia and China continue to veto the UN resolutions because they fear the fact that the days of their youth wanting freedom is coming and they do NOT want the inevitable protests to carry over to their countries. We will continue the propaganda in an effort to show everyone else that if you want freedom we will do what we can to help the efforts, but military is not the only help we can or will provide. But as the Chinese people become educated and wealthier, they are going to see that the western ideas are dreams come true, they are going to want big families and all the freedoms we have, IT IS JUST A MATTER OF TIME. The Chinese people are brilliant and beautiful people that will be rise up after their country stalls in growth. Their youth are becoming more and more western and when they take over will turn away from their old ideals.

    July 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  11. nibiro

    saeed your rotten – we been deal with you farts since 911 – go to Syria right now tell as from there – YOU FART .

    July 17, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Reply
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