The Baath regime of President Bashar al-Assad is preparing for a major military operation to crush the uprising in Aleppo on Friday afternoon, according to rebel and Western sources. Even as the regime continues to pound rebel-held neighborhoods with tank and helicopter gunship fire, it is massing troops and armor to invest the city.
But while tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships can destroy neighborhoods and force irregular fighters to fade away, the price of treating one’s own population as a military enemy is high. The regime may well win the military fight, but lose the political one.
Ikhlas Badawi, a member of the Syrian parliament representing Aleppo, has just crossed over to Turkey and defected. She is the first member of parliament to do so. She said she was leaving “because of the methods of repression and brutal torture that are practiced on the people, who make the slightest demand for their rights.” The Syrian parliament is of course a rubber stamp and its sessions with al-Assad are marked by an embarrassing amount of sucking up. It is significant to have a Baath Party MP defect, because these are the loyalists of the loyalists.
The Syrian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Abdelatif al-Dabbagh, has defected, along with his wife, Lamia al-Hariri, who had been the charge d’affaires in Cyprus. The military attache in the gulf oil nation of Oman has also gone to the other side. The ambassador in the UAE would have been responsible for attempting to convince that government to back off in its support for the revolution, which al-Dabbagh clearly has decided is not a plausible task. The Gulf oil states play an outsize role in the region because of their vast wealth and ability to channel resources and weapons to the opposition (the UAE doesn’t, unlike Qatar and Saudi Arabia, appear to be supplying arms, but its support for one side or another is important).
Earlier in July, Nawaf Fares, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, defected and alleged that Syria had been playing a sinister role in fomenting bombings in northern Iraq. Likewise, the powerful Tlass family of Sunni notables (prominent in the ministry of defense and in business) has left, and Manaf Tlass is now attempting to play a political role in the opposition. The Tlass’s were pillars of the Baath regime, helping to legitimate it with the Sunnis (who form some 70% of the Syrian population) and their defection is a significant blow to the Baath, dominated increasingly at its upper levels by minority Shiite Alawites.
In addition, dozens of one-star generals have gone to Turkey or joined the rebel forces.
Revolutions always involve dual claims of sovereignty. That is, two political forces have to vie over the loyalty of people and political legitimacy. The significance of this raft of defections is that gradually, the Syrian regime is no longer merely faces claims by a ragtag band of defecting corporals and sergeants, or by crowds gathering to chant and protest in town and city centers (both forms of opposition are still going on daily all around the country). The regime increasingly faces a former part of its own political elite, now increasingly denigrating its legitimacy or making claims of their own. This sign of the growth of dual sovereignty in the political sphere could be more decisive over the medium term than who wins what battle for what neighborhood.