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Sudan's Omar al-Bashir is out; Syria's Bashar al-Assad could be next

By
Dania Koleilat Khatib
Sudanese people celebrate the reported ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, Sudan, on Thursday. Photo by EPA-EFE
Sudanese people celebrate the reported ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, Sudan, on Thursday. Photo by EPA-EFE

April 16 (UPI) --

On Thursday, the world woke up to unexpected news: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is out. The war criminal that massacred 300,000 in Darfour, the war criminal who starved children to death, the war criminal who sent his Janjaweed in droves to rape women and girls is finally out.

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Despite international condemnation, Bashir was able to keep his rule. He was accepted by Arab countries, which received him and rolled out the red carpet for him and awarded him with medals of honor. When everyone thought he finally won and his rule was undisputed, he was suddenly thrown out of power.

The same can happen to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Actually, the situation of Assad and Bashir are very similar. They both led a war against their own people, committed atrocities and ended up ruling a shattered country and a depleted economy.

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Bashir was uprooted from the power he held for 30 years because his rule was no longer sustainable. The situation in Sudan was no longer livable. As people were protesting the increase in the price of bread and fuel, Bashir lieutenants realized that the country is on a brink of a total breakup. They realized that their survival means getting rid of Bashir, and this what led to the coup. A similar situation can happen to Assad.

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Assad has won. This is what he thinks. This is what his foes think. This is what the world thinks. Pro-Assad forces in the past two years have taken control of most of the country. The opposition has been confined to Idlib, which has been neutralized by a Russian Turkish agreement. However, what did Assad win? He won  large swaths of rubble dominated by autonomous pro-regime militias over which has no control . He has won ghost towns and villages whose residents have fled to other countries.

The international community is refusing to donate funds to reconstruct the country unless a proper political transition is put in place. They are not ready to spend funds to prop up Assad s rule. Hence, reconstruction is not possible as long as Assad is in power. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was hoping that the international community would foot the bill to reconstruct Syria -- and that Russia would benefit from it, is increasingly becoming disillusioned.

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The situation is very difficult in Syria and the conditions that led to the uprising are still there. As hostilities ceased and people were thinking the situation would get better, it only got worse. This winter has been very hard for Damascus residents, due to a shortage in gas supplies. Wages have gone as low as $5 a month. Assad is becoming an increasingly expensive client to his patrons.

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Additionally, Tehran and Moscow are not on the same page on Syria. So far, Assad has skillfully kept a balance between his two patrons. As events unfold, this balance is proving harder and harder to maintain. At one point, Assad has to choose a camp.

A much as we think he has won, he is in a difficult situation. Similar to Sudan, the situation in Syria is becoming less and less sustainable. Actually, the war that led to the cessation of the southern Sudan deprived the north of Sudan of 70 percent of its oil revenues. In the same way, the areas of economic activity, namely the agricultural and natural resource areas in Syria in the north and the northeast, are under the control of pro-U.S. forces.

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Despite the American withdrawal, U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to keep a residual force of at least 400 troops in Syria to prevents the takeover of important natural resources and infrastructure of the eastern part of the country by Assad, Iran and Russia.

Assad was banking on his re-entry to the Arab League as a window from which to gain international recognition. Arab countries had decided to open embassies and accept Assad as a de facto winner of the fight. Their reasoning is that embracing Assad, despite of all his crimes, is the price to pay to contain Iran.

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Actually, Bashir was an example that proponents of opening up to Assad gave. Bashir, who initially was an ally to Iran, distanced himself from the Islamic republic following an overture from Arab countries. With the fall of Bashir, Arab countries will have a second thought about following the same tactic with Assad. Additionally, Arab countries will think twice before dealing with Syrian business people with links to the regime who are backlisted by the United States.

The fall of Bashir is very significant for Syria.  It will drive everyone to hedge their bets: Arab countries, Russia and Assad's own lieutenants. As we went to bed on Wednesday not even thinking that the following morning we would read the news about Bashir's ouster, similarly, we can wake up one day and read the same thing about Assad.

Dania Koleilat Khatib is an affiliated scholar at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. She specializes in U.S.-Arab relations and researches sectarianism, extremism and governance. Her book "The Arab Lobby and the U.S.: Factors for Success and Failure" was published by Routledge UK and translated to Arabic.

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