Those strongmen that survive this phase transition into a similar mindset as stage one - only deadlier. Having weathered whatever they believed they were facing, endangered regimes begin to consider themselves immune to extinction. Yemen’s Ali Saleh and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad are poster boys for this unstable state of mind.
The Washington Post recently outlined al-Assad’s “new” strategy to suppress Syria’s revolution, a chimera of political and PR objectives to mask its ongoing crackdown. The government, according to its own sources, is beginning to feel empowered by its resistance. A massive army presence has shrunk the size of demonstrations and douses any revolutionary embers in Damascus. Yet al-Assad’s regime needs additional camouflage to hide the country’s mounting death toll, so his officials came up with the “brilliant” slogan of “security first” to slow demands for his ouster. While security forces continue to hammer away at peaceful protesters and armed oppositional cells, the government intends to offer a package of limited reforms that would “leave the existing power of the state intact...”
“The Syrian leadership is quite confident and very strong, and we feel sure that despite all the international campaigns against Syria, we will survive,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad. “Syria is secure... and will be stronger after this crisis. It will be a new Syria. Give us time, and it will be reborn.”
More time, of course, will lead to more bloodshed, death and instability. al-Assad has enough supporters to fight for him and to inflate his self-perception of strength, but not enough to prevent a total uprising if Syria’s opposition decided to militarily escalate their activities. The passage of time also creates more denial, one of al-Assad’s (and all dictators) favorite weapons. After the Arab League issued an urgent message “to the Syrian government expressing its severe discontent over the continued killing of Syrian civilians,” SANA state media rejected the AL’s meek attempt to police al-Assad.
Its declaration, apparently, was “based on media lies,” according to an “official source.”
Syria’s “security first” campaign is a blatant attempt to turn revolutionaries into bandits, rebels and finally terrorists. Reinforced disinformation is being pumped out at high speeds, culminating with a Western interview by al-Assad. Protesters no longer exist, according to the strongman, only "terrorists." Fighting is decreasing because “we are only fighting terrorists,” not because Syria’s opposition is regrouping from the government’s offensive. He claims that most of his security forces have been removed from the streets, contrary to oppositional sources and the few foreign journalists inside Syria.
"We have very few police, only the army, who are trained to take on al-Qaeda," he said. “Now, we are only fighting terrorists.
al-Assad’s statements lurk in the middle of truth and fiction; local and international activists report active oppositional elements in Homs, the center of recent fighting. Clashes between government forces and defected soldiers left at least a dozen dead, according to one oppositional source, while the government is labeling every casualty as “terrorist” or KIA by “terrorist.” Protesters are also involved in Homs’ resistance, and the simple fact that anti-regime units joined their cause doesn’t justify Syria’s disproportionate force. SANA state media’s hopes to delegitimize protesters to the lowest possible level, using the word “terrorist” six times in an opening paragraph:
“In the framework of pursuing the armed terrorist groups, the competent authorities on Saturday clashed with members of these groups, killed six terrorists and arrested twenty other while a number of the terrorists turned themselves and their weapons over. An official source told SANA that the clashes with the terrorists resulted in the martyrdom of four security members. The source said the arrested and surrendered terrorists were wanted for various crimes.”al-Assad also continues to wield terror abroad, threatening Western nations to stay out of Syria or face “tens of Afghanistan's.” At the same time, Syria’s revolution is billed as “a struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism,” with al-Assad being the secularist. Drawing on Western fears in Tunisia and Egypt, he pits himself as the vanguard against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic militant groups such as Hamas and al-Qaeda, all while providing material and ideological support to Hezbollah. Some of al-Assad’s propaganda touches a nerve in reality, the intention of any sophisticated propaganda. We do not advocate military intervention in Syria - its opposition has yet to reach the relative cohesion of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) - only a persistent application of non-military means by global powers.
However al-Assad cannot hide his puffed up chest, the stance of a cornered man.
“Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake... Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.”
Despite the beating inflicted upon Syrian protesters and al-Assad’s relative strength in general, these are the words of a desperate man forced into self-destructive acts. He will certainly fight to the end, being the region’s youngest dictator, and Damascus must be infiltrated in order for Syria’s revolution to progress to its end game. al-Assad feeds on the historical advantages enjoyed by his counterparts. Copying Mubarak, Saleh and Gaddafi’s security oligarchy, he draws from a standard regional legacy of suppressing revolts (even though Syria has experienced several revolutions). The combination of al-Assad’s father seizing power through a military takeover and his subsequent conflicts against oppositional elements would leave Bashar on guard throughout the 2000’s.
Fairness and revolution don’t always mix. One can understand why each dictator might have initially confused the revolutions for limited unrest - they have crushed many peoples at different times - but missing a mass uprising is the consequence of ignorance and injustice. Syrians’ hunger for freedom exceeds al-Assad’s hunger for power, and their will can break through in the end if the opposition organizes and remains persistent. Not every revolution will finish in a flash, and al-Assad seems to have one final chance to hold a genuine dialogue - after resigning from power. He presumably won’t take it.
Kadri Jamil, of the oppositional group Kassioun, predicted, “They have to act to begin real dialogue because the security solution has failed. We have one to two months before we pass the point of no return."
Although al-Assad “the reformer” positioned himself above the Middle East’s cruel dictators, he’s found plenty of uses for their tactics and strategy. Ultimately the false confidence that failed other delusional strongmen will also abandon Syria’s.