BEIRUT (AP) — With world powers fresh from their victory over Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Syrian President Bashar Assad is warning them that the Middle East will go up in flames if there is any foreign intervention in his country.
The authoritarian leader issued the chilling warning in a weekend interview with a British newspaper, exploiting fears at home and abroad of regional turmoil, sectarian violence and Islamic extremism.
But given that NATO and the U.S. have made abundantly clear they have no appetite for another military intervention in Syria, Assad does not have to worry too much about a Libya-style operation against his regime. Still, increased international focus on his bloody crackdown on the 7-month-old uprising could bring more sanctions and isolation aimed at a vulnerable point — the weakening economy.
“Assad is playing up to the fears of the West at the moment,” said David Hartwell, Senior Middle East and North Africa Analyst at IHS Jane’s in London. “He is well aware of the Western reticence to get involved in Syria because they are scared of the consequences. He is feeding the fears that any kind of intervention will be costly.”
Syria is a regional nexus, bordering five countries with which it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel’s case, a fragile truce. Its web of alliances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy. Turkey, until recently an ally, has opened its borders to anti-Assad activists and breakaway military rebels.
In the interview with Britain’s Sunday Telegraph, Assad played on fears that if Syria is destabilized, it will send unsettling ripples through the region. The comments betrayed at least a hint of unease following the demise of Gaddafi, who was pulled from a drainage ditch by enemy fighters and killed on Oct. 20.
Syria “is the fault line, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake,” he said in his harshest words so far regarding the potential for foreign intervention. “Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?” he asked, alluding to the 10-year war that has bogged down tens of thousands of foreign forces.
As NATO ended its successful mission in Libya Monday, it sent a clear message that Syria would not be next.
“NATO has no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a news conference in Tripoli, Libya to declare the end of the operation. “I can completely rule that out.”
But he added that the events in Libya should be an object lesson to autocrats the world over.
“You cannot neglect the will of the people,” Rasmussen said. “You should accommodate the legitimate aspirations of your people, and work toward democracy.”
Assad, a 46-year-old eye doctor who trained in Britain, still has a firm grip on power after nearly eight months of violence. The U.N. says some 3,000 people have been killed by security forces.
Besides a loyal security apparatus, Assad’s main base at home includes Syrians who have benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who feel they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over, and others who see no clear and safe alternative to this regime.
But the country’s worsening economic climate could eventually loosen the president’s hold on power. As sanctions mount and the economy deteriorates, growing isolation could encourage Syrians who have supported the regime to move toward the opposition.
The protesters have yet to bring out the middle- and upper-middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the two economic powerhouses, although demonstrations have been building.
The uprising began in March during a wave of anti-government protests across the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But the revolt in Syria has proved among the most intractable and unpredictable.
The protesters have shown remarkable resilience, turning out week after week despite the military assault with tanks, machine-guns and tear gas.
But government supporters have also taken to the streets en masse. On Sunday, thousands carrying the nation’s flag and Assad posters rallied in a major square in the southern city of Sweida, some 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Damascus, near the Jordanian border. There have been two similar pro-Assad demonstrations in recent days in the capital Damascus and the coastal city of Latakia.
Syrian opposition leaders have not called for an armed uprising like the one in Libya — though clashes between army defectors and security forces are on the rise — and they have for the most part opposed foreign intervention.
Haitham al-Maleh, an 80-year-old lawyer who was imprisoned for years for his political activism, said the opposition still hopes to topple the Assad regime peacefully and without help of foreign armies.
“We want to see this criminal and corrupt regime off alone,” al-Maleh told a lawyers’ conference in Dubai. “NATO cannot help us, but it’s important for the United Nations to send peacekeeping units to protect people.”
He encouraged countries to continue with steps to isolate the Assad regime, such as freezing assets, pulling out their diplomats from Damascus and pushing for the U.N. Security Council “to say the Assad regime must go.”
“Now we are seeing massacres all over Syria,” al-Maleh said. “We are really in danger.”