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London Dispatch / Ray Moseley: Why Assad’s days in Syria may be numbered

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President Bashar Al Assad may appear to have the upper hand in Syria as his security forces shoot down unarmed demonstrators and drive thousands more into exile. But three opposition spokesmen have laid out a scenario suggesting his days are numbered.

They cite these principal reasons for President Assad’s coming downfall: An approaching collapse in the national economy, aggravated by Western sanctions. The continuing growth in the size of demonstrations, despite the fact an estimated 1,500 regime opponents have been killed. And, finally, they are anticipating a defection of army leaders that will seal Mr. Assad’s fate.

Ausama Monajed, a London-based Syrian economist and spokesman for the National Institute for Change, outlined the main body of these arguments as the three men addressed a meeting of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London on Tuesday night.

He said the regime’s hard-currency reserves are drying up. Tourism normally accounts for 24 to 26 percent of government revenues and has disappeared entirely. Oil exports bring in $7 million to $8 million a day and, if they are subjected to an embargo in Europe, this will affect the regime “dramatically.”

“We would like to see more names on the sanctions list,” he said, “and more entities and companies added.” But Mr. Monajed, a former United Nations and former European Union official, said army leaders should be exempted from sanctions because the opposition wants to encourage them to defect.

Radwan Ziadeh, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC, also emphasized the importance of military defections. “The army has to decide to break with the regime,” he said. “We expect more generals to defect.”

Until now there has no sign of a mass defection in military ranks, perhaps the most problematic part of the scenario put forward by Mr. Monajed, Dr. Ziadeh, and Najib Ghadbian of the University of Arkansas. They did not suggest they were privy to any inside information on officers planning to desert the regime.

But Dr. Ziadeh said the opposition counts on the army to play an important stabilizing role in the transition period that would follow a change of regime. He also expressed hope that Turkey, whose military leadership has links with the Syrian military, can help to wean Syrian officers from the regime.

“Turkey is the only country that has some leverage,” he said.

Dr. Ghadbian said the opposition movement is mostly led by young people who have expressed no clear ideology but have put emphasis on national unity. Despite arrests and killings, he said, the movement grows week by week, and last week there were demonstrations against the regime in 138 towns and cities.

“The people will not give up,” he said.

Mr. Monajed called for international pressure on the Gulf Cooperation Council, and especially the United Arab Emirates, not to try to bail out the Assad family, which has held power in Syria for 40 years starting with Bashar Assad’s father, the late President Hafez Al Assad. He also expressed disappointment that the Arab League, quick to support the revolutionary forces in Libya, has not taken a similar position regarding Syria.

Pressure also is needed, he said, on Russia and China to back the opposition forces.

He noted that President Barack Obama of the United States has called on President Assad either to lead a transition or to step down, and said, “We would love to hear this in European capitals.”

For the post-Assad transition, Dr. Ziadeh said it would be necessary for the ruling Baath Party, because of its important role in the history of the country, to continue to play a role. But any Baath Party officials guilty of human rights abuses, he said, would have to be punished.

He also said a reform of the state-owned media would be necessary. At present, he said, the media is daily encouraging killings by security forces.

Mr. Monajed said the current economic growth rate is minus 3 percent, according to international projections. A post-Assad Syria, he said, will need to create 340,000 jobs and that will require an investment of $11billion to $12 billion. The West can provide needed technical help in a transition period to democracy, he said, and in the immediate climate can help with relief for Syrian refugees. He said more than 50,000 have crossed into Turkey and the Turks are expecting the numbers to grow to one million.

(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at: [email protected])