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. how long

    here's real information:

    July 13, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  2. jqent

    Assad called, he said tone it down, looney posts like yours are just giving ammunition to his opposition.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  3. ricksta

    It's just like Nixon was ordering cops and soldiers to attack anti-war demonstrators in the USA.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
    • Very Thick Red Beard

      The same thing.

      July 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  4. Jack

    You'd better look at your own country and region before knocking ours. In fact where do you live, we have a drone for you.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  5. reason

    The Syrian people are fed up with Assad and at this point, his fall is inevitable. Even Russia is starting to restrict arms shipments (This may be because of pressure. Even if some other country steps in and keeps the regime together, there will never be peace in Syria. The people are not going to give up now and the regime will eventually go down. After the atrocities that the government has committed, they will never be trusted. Assad's fortress is crumbing around him and he is selfishly prolonging his peoples' suffering. If he and his accomplices are not before the ICC by the end of the year, then something will need to be done. I do not like war and conflict, but Assad needs to be overthrown. He and the other Syrian officials have no regard for human rights. They are not just enemies of their own people, but of humanity. When will the rest of the world see this?

    July 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Reply
    • Very Thick Red Beard

      Which Syrian people?

      July 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
    • Hez316

      Who in the rest of the world hasn't seen it?

      July 13, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply
    • Richard Diamond

      This is about the only civil coherent argument I've read on this blog tonite. Thanks for helping me understand that there are some sensible civil people reading this.

      July 14, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  6. how long

    more real information here:

    July 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Reply
    • EatYouAlive

      You mean complete left wing looney opinion pieces. I'm a leftist and that site even nauseates me.

      July 13, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  7. Steve

    Funny how this high ranking general has been under house arrest for the last year. Too bad CNN doesn't talk to the BBC.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
    • EatYouAlive

      Too bad you did not read the article.

      July 13, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  8. Mubin

    Seriously, What more proof does the UN need? If Hitler ever had a spawn...I bet you it is ASAD!!!

    July 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
    • Steadfast Muslim Jihadist


      July 13, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  9. Dante6

    The guy looks like a child molester. Where is the United Nations on this issue? For that matter where is the USA? I guess the administration is too busy lobbying voters to worry about people dying by the day for freedom – WOW how far we have degraded as a county – thanks Obama.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  10. EatYouAlive

    Please terrorists, whatever you do, please do NOT, I repeat, DO NOT kill Oprah. America will fall if you do so please do NOT hurt her.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  11. Danedjo

    Saeed your mom called she wants her car back now.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  12. tet1953

    Why hasn't the UN charged him with war crimes yet? And someone or some country needs to put a bounty on his head. Worked with Noriega.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  13. John

    saeed, you are confused, frightened, and ignorant to the realities of the times in that region of the world. Times are going to be very difficult for those who continue using polluted ideologies without direction or purpose. It's hard to believe we're of the same species.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  14. Ba'al

    Yup, lets take him out like we did Daffy in Libya and Saddam in Iraq, that worked out really well. In Libya we openly suppoered Muslim Brotherhood and Al Quada terrorists in a coup and now they are sending weapons and fighters to Syria. Libyan weapons have also turned up in Mali, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen.
    This is civil war and let the government and the rebels fight it out. Both sides are torturing and murdering men, women, and children so it is nor right to choose sides when both are equally evil.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  15. Daniel

    He looks a lot like Adolf Hitler.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  16. bobhamiltonchicago

    He will be gone on August 11th, 2012

    July 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  17. Seth

    BATMAN DIES !!!!!!

    July 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • Very Thick Red Beard

      No way, the Justice League of America will save him.

      July 13, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  18. abdc1

    It's not how long Assad's hangs on ,Will the people still be alive to see him gone .

    July 13, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Reply
    • Steadfast Muslim Jihadist

      No, there will be no people left.

      July 13, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Reply
  19. hypatia

    As long as Russia and China keep feeding his hole.

    July 13, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  20. miken

    history is in my estimation an excellent indicator of how long this man and his cadre will stay in power. examples, cambodia under Pol Pot, serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, rwanda when the Hutu massacred 1,000,000 plus, chile and Pinochet, Robert Mugabe, Omar Al-Bashir, Kim Jong-il, Than Shwe and the list goes on and on and on. all brutal dictators who killed thousands upon thousands of their people while all the world sat around talked a lot but did little else. when the u.s. has no economic, political or military interest we do not get involved to a degree that matters. sad, very much so but that is the reality of the world we live in. maybe someone can find some oil in syria and maybe just maybe big oil will then put sufficient pressure on this administration to do something for the sake of all the innocents. that is something i really doubt will happen and was more sarcasm than anything. truth be told i doubt anything will change there for a long time and not until other arab states are willing to put themselves and their military resources on the line. if that happens then i think the u.s. will play a supportive role at least and finally do something that actually makes a difference.

    July 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  21. hmmm

    If Britain didn't have socialized medicine, Assad would have stayed in private practice in the UK to make a decent living and this wouldn't be happening right now.

    July 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
    • Very Thick Red Beard

      Yes, it would be happening.
      They are all the same=subjugate the masses through religion and ignorance, rule with an iron hand and protect your own.

      July 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  22. frediangelo

    So, as the old Republican guard is crumbling – why doesn't their so called government consider building up a Democratic Guard. Sure. Why not.

    July 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  23. BMack

    Isn't free speach wonderful, must be the first time you've had the chance to express yourself outside the camp.
    Only Evil targets Children by the way, verbally or physically so we know you already.

    July 13, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  24. Bob

    Why are all these Muslim leaders so brutal and violent? I thought Islam was the religion of peace?

    July 13, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  25. Roscoe Chait

    Saeed... we are worried about you. So much hatred coming from such poor English. Are you playing too many violent video games? Are you off your meds? Please call your mama. You need help. Maybe she can send you back to that nice place with the grass in the front and the bars on the windows.

    July 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  26. Mark

    I can't think of a reason Russia is supporting Assad unless of course he has some dirt on Putin or something. Maybe he has threatened to release sensitive secrets unless Russia back Assad.. Just guessing. I mean, what else could it be. Nothing else would make sense.

    July 13, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  27. ralph petrillo

    Yella he will die soon. Another Qaddafi that would not listen. We will cut isi head off and serve it with hummus for the masses to enjoy. Then yella all members of his family can still leave or they will face the death penalty and yella we will get to teh Swiis bank accounts to pay for overthrowing his government. Only the morons n Iran will be left.

    July 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  28. Nick

    Assad is 'all in'. He and his Alawite tribe don't have an out. They face extinction themselves if they lose control...

    July 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  29. TDiddy

    I hope he survives just long enough to take out ALL the rebels who are trying to take him out....then he can go.

    July 13, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply
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