At Home, the Syrian Ruler’s Support is Crumbling
Every afternoon, since the protests against the Syrian government erupted three weeks ago, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan has phoned President Bashar Assad with daily updates from the Turkish intelligence agency – MIT – about events in Syria and the situation in the Kurdish regions on the Syrian and Turkish sides of their border.
Erdogan is keeping close tabs on the level of dissidence among the 3.5 million Syrian Kurds (about 10 percent of the population) because of his own concerns. He maintains a strong Turkish intelligence presence in the Kurdish cities close to the Turkish border and among the hundreds of thousands of Kurds living in Syria's capital Damascus and its financial and commercial hub, Aleppo.
The Turkish prime minister also keeps his Syrian friend abreast of possible signs of Iraqi Kurdish infiltration of Syria or arms smuggling from Iraq for a Kurdish insurrection against the Assad regime to match the Sunni revolt in the southern Syrian province of Horan and its capital Daraa.
Up until now, Erdogan has been able to assure Assad that the Kurdish front is fairly quiet and poses no serious threat, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources.
This information is vitally important to Assad.
External support system no help against domestic defiance
If the largely Sunni Muslim Syrian Kurds rise up in a body against him, the rest of the country's Sunnis (76 percent of the population) may well follow suit. So far, most are keeping their heads down, staying clear of street protests and watching from the sidelines to see how they unfold.
But the moment they rally en masse around the opposition, Assad knows his fate is sealed.
The Syrian ruler knows better than most how fickle external support can be. (Where is his closest ally Iran at his time of need?) When the chips are down, no foreign power will help him outgun or outrun his own people.
They are not impressed by his short-order pacifiers, such as a superficial cabinet reshuffle and reforms promised but not delivered. Neither will the Muslim Brotherhood, riding high since it won a place in the Egyptian sun, be put off its role in the opposition's Days of Rage by the closing of Syria's only casino Wednesday, April 7, or the lifting of the ban on a full Islamic veil for schoolgirls.
And pent-up popular frustration born of long repression by a tyrannical minority regime is ruffling the populace's passivity.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel for assets to quell protest
In Cairo, the Supreme Military Council which replaced the Mubarak regime had to accept that it does not control the Egyptian army any more than the deposed president did. The generals are therefore wary of issuing direct orders for fear of disobedience or outright insubordination.
The Syrian president is in much the same boat because the Assads and their ruling elite belong to the minority Allawite denomination, whereas the majority rank and file of the armed forces is Sunni, like the rest of the country.
Only one of the Syrian army's seven divisions, the Fourth – which is also the Republican Guard commanded by Bashar's younger brother Maher Assad – is manned by Allawites and therefore trustworthy. The other six cannot be counted on to obey the Allawite regime's orders.
Given the makeup of the armed forces, the Syrian president has not only resorted to brutal tactics but also to acrobatic maneuvers to scrape up enough loyal military resources for putting down mounting popular outbreaks.
The revolt in the Hurani town of Daraa near the Israeli border was the most conspicuous case in point – though unlikely to be the last. The officers and men of the Sunni-dominated Second Division permanently stationed in that region kept to their barracks, while a substantial part off the Republican Guard had to be sent out of Damascus for the crackdown on rioting protesters.
If the Sunnis were to rise up en masse, elements of the army rank and file might well join them and turn their guns on the regime and its loyalists.
Erdogan grinds his own Kurdish axe
The Turkish Prime Minister has more than a neighborly interest in propping up the embattled Syrian ruler, primarily his fear of a spillover of Syrian Kurdish unrest into the eleven provinces of southeastern Turkey populated by 16-20 million Turkish Kurds, who represent about a quarter of the total population.
If that happened, the Arab Spring could quickly evolve into a Kurdish Spring, imperiling Turkish stability.
Assad's fall, furthermore, would break up the Ankara-Tehran-Damascus axis which Erdogan has worked hard to put together since 2009.
It would also write finis to the Turkish prime minister's dream of heading a new Muslim bloc to replace the disintegrating Egyptian-Saudi alliance as the main cog of Middle East equilibrium. The Turkish premier was encouraged by the Egyptian revolution and Mubarak's overthrow to believe he was on the road to realizing his ambition. The uprising against Assad showed him he still has a way to go.
For help in preserving the Syrian president in power, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report that Erdogan turned to the White House some weeks ago and opened a running dialogue with President Barack Obama.
He counted on the US president sharing an interest in preserving the Ankara-Tehran-Damascus axis as the only available line of communication to Tehran for a possible deal on the Iranian nuclear program.
Erdogan also believed they were both interested in keeping Lebanon from capsizing. As he sees it, Assad's fall would shatter the fragile multi-sectarian structure holding Lebanon together and plunge the country in another civil war alongside the conflicts already raging in Libya and Yemen.
Saudi king helps Assad to shield his own backyard
Quite a few of the US president's advisers share this view and are encouraging Obama to keep up the regular personal exchanges as a useful window for assessing the state of affairs in the Arab world.
Obama has not explicitly subscribed to Erdogan's views in any of their conversations, but senior sources in Washington say the very fact that he has been listening provided the Turkish prime minister with periodical openings to ask for intelligence data useful to Assad, which were duly passed on to him.
Another important gear in Assad's support system revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources is the helping hand extended from a surprising source, Saudi King Abdullah.
For reasons of his own, the king told his Director of General Intelligence Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz to instruct Shammar tribal chiefs in Syria not to join the uprising against the Syrian president.
Shammar tribal lands straddle Saudi Arabia and Jordan as well as southern Syria, where the town of Abu Kamal, strategically located near the Iraqi border, is the urban center for its 1.2 million members.
For Assad, Saudi input in keeping this sensitive part of the country calm is as important to his survival as Erdogan's contribution.
It is surprising given the many years of personal animosity between King Abdullah and Assad which culminated in 2010 in the Syrian ruler's stubborn rejection of every Saudi offer of cooperation in Lebanon.
But Riyadh stepped up to Damascus out of concern for its own backyard.
Abdullah reckons that if Assad goes, Jordan's King Abdullah II will be the next skittle to fall. So just by helping the Syrian ruler keep his head above water, the Saudi monarch believes he is building a protective moat around the Jordanian king's palace and safeguarding the northern border of his realm.