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 (744 Responses)
  1. danielm1981

    I have a feeling that he's doing what has to be done to run his country. If you know the story, you know that there are militants instigating the Syrian military against the protestors and the civilians are being killed in the crossfire. A man shouldn't be villianized just because he decides that a daily interview isn't a priority. But he should make a meeting with the protestors for the sake of ending the fighting.

    July 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  2. P.S

    al-Assad told the Syrian TV "America, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey helping terrorists in Syria with weapons and money because all these nations are terrorist . But we stay strong." Long live al-Assad and Putin.

    July 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply
    • TB

      that is a common tactic that murdering dictators use when they become desperate; blame an external source for their problems, deflect attention somewhere else. In this case, use the old favorite Syriian scape-goats: America, Israel, Turkey, and let's throw Saudi Arabia in there as well. Every Muslim dictator does this when things go sour. Gadoofy tried it too. So did Amadoodyjob when people started rioting. ALWAYS tell the people that some foriegn enemy is to blame for their problems. Works every time. That's why these Muslim dictators dont really want to get rid of Israel. They are too convenient to blame everything on. Without them, they would have to find a new scapegoat.

      July 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
      • P.S

        We will let the American Bark in the press like CNN , and we will win the war in Syria. America cannot win in Syria, as happened in Libya. Keep us strong .

        July 13, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  3. Dan L

    If the UN doesn't exist to stop ehings like this , what good are they. I think the UN is a joke & useless.

    July 13, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  4. me777


    July 13, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  5. me777


    July 13, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  6. Rags

    Isn't Asswhole an optometrist or something like that? Might be best for him to check his own senses but not only his eyes.

    July 13, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  7. TB

    I work with a man from Syria. His take on this is that the Syrian government is butchering more Syrians than the Israelis ever did. The Israelis got into a fight on that boat of "relief" supplies headed for Gaza, some were killed, and the entire Arab and Muslim world was enraged. Yet this mass murderer is slaughtering people by the thousands, and the Arab world stands by, mute. It's hypocrisy. That's his view of it.

    July 13, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Reply
    • P.S

      You are liar .Yankee + Zionism = axis of evil in the world . Keep us strong .

      July 13, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
      • Steadfast Muslim Jihadist

        Keep who strong?

        July 13, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  8. bribarian

    lol zi0nist propaganda, always good for a laugh

    July 13, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Reply
    • Steadfast Muslim Jihadist


      July 13, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Reply
  9. Meek

    Nice rhetoric, if it what you believe then let it be. From my experience it is people like you that meet a bullet from one of your own. Saeed, given your tone I would guess you are currently residing in Iran or Pakistan. Though the name is common and likely a pseudonym. The opposition is Syria's own creation much like the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere. It reflects long neglected ideals of the populace in general, and while Assad has shown some consolation it is (like so many other totalitarian minority governments) going to be too little too late. Time does not favor him or people with your view. Good Luck (Saeed) adapting to a changing world.

    July 13, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  10. david willcox

    What an ignorant low life you turned out to be~no doubt a child of a brother/sister sleeping together!

    July 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  11. david willcox

    Just the sort of comment I expected from the son of a brother~sister sleeping together!

    July 13, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  12. georgebushSR

    so instead of doing anything about it we continue to pressure him into a position of desperation where he does something that all the while could have been prevented, using the situation as an ultimate justification of total military intervention. US foreign policy at its finest.

    July 13, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Reply
    • Steadfast Muslim Jihadist

      Assad is butchering his people, Hallal style, because we are pressuring him?
      You mean to say that if we were not pressuring him, he would not be butchering his people?
      Dont you think that is a big stretch?

      July 13, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply
  13. First

    This is reply to " saeed "

    First, " Go to School ". Then come back and leave a comment . . . . . .. .

    July 13, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  14. Assad out

    It doesn't take a degree in political science nor an on-site observer status to deduce that Assad's days are finally numbered. I have friends in Syria and Lebanon who dread what's coming after this butcher. They are mostly Christians. I keep on telling them that the Christians – to a large part – are co-responsible for the regime in the first place. Christians thought they'd be safe under the tutelage of the unelected Alawite dictator. The ones who really will have a heavy price to pay are the Alawites, not all of which support the regime.

    As for those who speak up in support of the regime, all I can say is: How stupid do you think the world is to believe this garbage about "terrorists" and "al-Qaeda"? I am certainly not. The fall of the Assad regime will have wider repercussions in the Middle East. Iran's isolation will increase. Hezbollah in Lebanon will have some explaining to do. Hamas in Gaza will be further isolated. Israel is gaining from the demise of the Assad regime and that's just fine with me.

    July 13, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Reply
    • P.S

      We will let the American barking in the press like CNN , and we will win the war in Syria. America cannot win in Syria, as happened in Libya. Keep us strong .

      July 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
      • Steadfast Muslim Jihadist

        Is "us" Syrians?
        If yes, what Syrians?

        July 13, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  15. Truth for Arabs

    The Arab brotherhood needs to intervene and only them. If the west intervenes, all they will do is criticize the efforts and assume that the West wants to control the Arab world. They talk enough...They need to get off their butts and do something to help their Arab neighbors.

    July 13, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  16. Dante6

    You are a seriously ill human being. Or are you a human being?

    July 13, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  17. Dante6

    Here in lies a person who has no regard for his people – only his ability to stay in power and reap the benefits. I just have to wonder why the world (especially Russia and China) can sit back and be disinterested in his genocide. The man needs to be hanged in a public square. Just shows that you can't change tribal mentality of thousands of years. Any intelligent person with some self respect should be upset that this guy is still in power. Amazing – just goes to show how messed up our world has become.

    July 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply
    • Steadfast Muslim Jihadist

      So sad.
      Have you considered suicide?

      July 13, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Reply
    • Jack sheet

      Dante, killing 15,000 terrorists using women and children as human shields is hardly what is considered "genocide".

      July 14, 2012 at 7:53 am | Reply
  18. Dante6

    The guy looks like a child molester. Seriously – someone in his government needs to step up and handle this problem. Here to day gone tomorrow.

    July 13, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  19. P.S

    the American barking here . long live al-Assad and Iran . Death to America , Israel and The rebels in Syria .

    July 13, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
    • Steadfast Muslim Jihadist

      Where is that squeaking coming from P.S.?

      July 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Reply
      • Saeed

        I am a Zionist.

        July 13, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
      • Katie

        Saeed you are an idiot, a muslim idiot, a stupid bigotted muslim idiot.

        July 14, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  20. John2cb

    Saeed the burning of every us and brit man women and child seems a little extreme, even al-Assad is not doing that!
    Are you a militant muslim?
    Why did you say all those nasty things?
    Try to explain why you are upset and maybe the Swiss people can help being a neutral country.
    It is a sad world we live in, we need to be aware everyone should be treated as a human being and people need to respect other people.

    July 13, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  21. Denny

    Once there were rebels in Northern Ireland, they were shooting, planting bombs like those rebels in Libya nad now Syria. Yet, we (I mean CNN and wealthy and powerful standing behind) support them and hail them heros. What a hyporcisy, wake up people in the world, the wealthy and greedy people are draging the world into disaster. Every country in history that invaded other country did it in name of saving peace and self defence – they created chaos first so they could restore peace – on their own terms. History is repeating. All rebels in Syria have been planted there from abroad to create chaos and massacres that is used as propaganda by media (eg CNN). Once Assad is gone and a new puppet regime is installed in Syria (this may or may not happen, depends how Russia and China will react – Assad is just a pawn on the chessbord) Syria wil be used as a spring board to invade Iran. And the same chaos will rule as now in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan ...

    July 13, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Reply
  22. jimmy lim

    From day 1, i said Al-assad must go. If possible, taken out n down.
    On day 2, i said Annan's plan wont work
    Now day 3, I agree annan MUST GO

    July 13, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Reply
    • Star bucks

      day 4- I eat camel steak and watch YouTube.

      July 16, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  23. jimmy lim

    Islam is the root of all muslims problems. Unless muslims are prepared to change, islam will continue to straightjacket muslim minds. so dont blame therest of the world for islamophobia which is inherently caused by musilms backwardness n violent conduct in many musilm or islamic countries. Muslims got to help themselves first before the rest of the world. killing one n another muslm does not help

    July 13, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Reply
  24. Malik

    I honestly believe that you aren't Muslim, because any Muslim who truly has the love of Allah in his heart, would never want to inflict harm on innocent people, especially children! By posting that comment, you have dragged yourself to the level of Basshar al Assad! Please brother,l if you are truly a Muslim, repent to Allah, and read the Quran for guidance! Also, please bring evidence to back your claims because if you don't, all you spread is propaganda!

    July 13, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  25. Fox News

    I am pretty sure that you are a Zionist.

    July 13, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  26. Alex Florez

    Best thing to get rid of this asswhole, is launch a whole fleet of US drones.. a fleet of them, that will target his Demascus estates, government building, and known hideouts.. hopefully no civilians die in the process.. but yea, this Devil Bashar needs to go asap.. can't stand watching all the videos of his army slaughtering innocent children especially. What he is doing is ethnic cleansing, mother fuccer deserves the worst..

    July 13, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Reply
  27. Saeed

    I am a Zionist

    July 13, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Reply
    • justiceforall

      ..than I am Muhamad incarnation

      July 14, 2012 at 12:47 am | Reply
  28. moy

    your such an idiot!!! grow up!

    July 13, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Reply
  29. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, B.A., J.D., S.P.J.

    Mr. Assad and his family need a visit by a Cruise missile.

    July 14, 2012 at 12:07 am | Reply
  30. Paul Martin expat Welsh foreign correspondent

    All tyrants MUST meet their just ends as we saw in iraq, afghanistan and libya in recent times.......ideally, in assad's case.....his own supporters will eventually betray him and hand him over to those who survived his murderous that would be POETIC JUSTICE ! revenge is sweet sometimes !

    July 14, 2012 at 12:21 am | Reply
    • Denny

      Americans have big hearts but people with big hearts are also easy to deceive. They believed Bush and the gov. and they invaded Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction. They never found them so they proclaimed they came to help people to get rid of the tytant. They destryed the country, killed nearly million people and after 10 years they are still fighting – with Iraqi people. They destryed Afghanistan, Libya – all in the name of their people and their protection. And the history is repeating again – now in Syria. And people believe what they hear and read from their media. The media serve them what they want to hear to get their attention.
      In 1939 Germany nation was completly brainwashed, their soldiers were murdering people in occupoed countries, the gas chambers were killing masses and the people were still blind. After war they say – I did not know. I wonder what people responsible for all these attrocities say once it's over and justice will take place. It seems impossible now, but I came from a country where justice seemed to be impossible once – and it changed almost overnight.

      July 14, 2012 at 3:45 am | Reply
      • Edict

        So, to follow your thesis, Arabs (Muslims) have no heart so that noone can fool them.

        July 15, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Mladen

      Even if they call themselves "kings" while wearing dresses?

      July 14, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Reply
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