The Eclipse of Bashar al-Assad

by Hilal Khashan

Dictators, be they benevolent or malevolent, are incapable of compromise. Because of their constitutional makeup, they see the world as black or white. The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is not an exception to the rule. He is not receptive to engagement in serious political reforms to placate his country’s burgeoning protest movement, and what is yet more troubling is that he denies that there is even a popular uprising, and seems content to dismiss the unfortunate turn of events in Syria as a military campaign waged by Salafi bandits acting in collusion with Western imperialists and Zionist expansionists.

In February last year, minor demonstrations occurred in Damascus, with protestors expressing solidarity with movements in Tunisia and Egypt. The police dealt with the peaceful demonstrators heavy-handedly and insulted them profusely. A few days later, the secret police violently dispersed a handful of demonstrators who were demanding government action against rampant bureaucratic corruption, and insensitivity to basic public needs that people take for granted in service oriented public sectors. The Syrian regime had failed miserably in responding to the then innocuous protesters who did not even raise anti-government slogans, and had not called for the ousting of the president. By early March, local government operatives in Daraa, in southwestern Syria, arrested and tortured several schoolboys under the age of 15 for writing anti-Assad graffiti.

From the outset, the behavior of the regime in Damascus has been characterized by gross miscalculation and a lack of empathy with the changing mood of the Syrian people. For years, the rulers of Syria had come to conclude that they had not only subdued and pacified the Syrian people, but also extinguished their desire for creating an accountable and transparent political system.

The rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were stunned by their peoples’ uprisings and swore to nip them in the bud: they failed! In Syria, the regime flatly refused to admit that there was something wrong in the relationship between the people and the ruling elite. Government officials, including Assad and his vice-president and minister of foreign affairs, accepted that people had legitimate and long-standing demands, but emphasized that they were already working on them, albeit belatedly.

There are no indicators whatsoever to suggest that the Syrian regime is genuinely interested in reform. Assad has wasted away a truly unique opportunity to lead the process of democratic change, rejuvenate his regime and win himself a new lease in office. Instead, he has chosen to resort to the tactics of his late father, and administer now obsolete measures of repression. Seemingly unmoved by the recent demise of fellow Arab dictators, Assad has conveniently dissociated himself from them and arrogated to himself the title of president, in a steadfast nation which he believes to persevere in blunting imperialist and Zionist designs for the Arab region.

Assad and his inner circle are clearly out of touch with reality. The protest movement that got underway in mid-March has not abated despite unprecedented regime brutality. If anything, it has snowballed since its modest beginnings, and has spread from the southwest to the northwest, to the central region, and to the area surrounding the capital. Nevertheless, Damascus continues to deal with the escalating uprising as a security issue, and seems unencumbered by its underlying causes. More than four decades of emergency law, bullying and predatory state policies have literally divorced the people from the government. Arrogant officials and abusive security operatives have engendered a culture of public antipathy towards the symbols of the political system and their local agents of unfettered coercion and intimidation.

In their fixation on the use of cruel and overbearing force to crush the nearly year-long uprising, Assad’s regular army units have simply accelerated their campaign in the country’s four most restive areas: Idlib, Hama, Homs and Rif Damascus. It is abundantly clear that the regime is racing against diplomatic efforts aimed at internationalizing the Syrian crisis. The fresh offensive by the Syrian army against the uprising’s flashpoints has preceded the visit of the secretary general of the Arab League and the prime minister of Qatar to New York to win United Nations support for the Arab plan for Syria. Assad is not amenable to compromise and seems adamant on remaining in office until the very end. This has been his approach to the crisis from the beginning and there is no reason to assume that he will back off before he has exhausted his every means.

It will probably take several more months before Assad and the people commanding his army units come to realize that the game is over, and that he has to step down and spend the rest of his years in exile. Assad’s days in office are not about to end any time soon, but his regime is doomed and he has chosen to go the hard way. Assad’s ability to stay in office, despite the unrelenting protest movement, has nothing to do with the ingenuity of the regime. In fact, the regime’s tactics and approach to crisis management are detached from logic, reasoning or any ability to comprehend what compels hapless people to rebel. Assad survives on the contradictions that exist in Syria’s internal environment and its external environment, be it in the region or the international system.

Assad’s greatest assets are his country’s divisive opposition groups and their seeming inability to form a unified bloc. The politics of Syria are shaped by a myriad of divisions, such as ethnic (Arab, Kurd, Armenian), religious (Sunni, Alawite, Druze, Christian), ideological (secular versus religious) and regional (the Damascus-Aleppo divide, and the urban-rural dichotomy). As well, the Syrian opposition has not yet been able to convince the international community that they present themselves as a viable alternative to Assad’s decayed regime. In fact, there are no objective reasons to assume that the overthrow of the incumbent regime will bring stability to Syria, harmony to its population mosaic, and smoothness to its political transactions.

We can refer to the course of events in the countries of the Arab Spring to predict the situation in Syria in the post-Assad period. At the regional level, there is no agreement on how best to deal with Assad’s faltering regime. It goes without saying that most Arab countries are unhappy about popular uprisings, but Arabs simply have no policy on Syria. Its uprising did not only surprise them, but found them unprepared to deal with its consequences or propose solutions to it. This explains why they have been painfully slow to react to its inception and progression. The Arab League’s plan for dealing with the situation in Syria amounts to nothing more than giving Assad an early retirement from office, while struggling to preserve the institutions of the state in their existing format. It is evident that the Arab League is inspired by the manner in which the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been handling the Yemeni situation, i.e., to ease the president from office but at the same time, maintain a system of checks and balances on the basis of accommodation and mutual veto.

If the situation in Syria worries the countries of the Arab League, it is because Syria is a fulcrum state, whose developments can readily impact their own domestic situation, the major powers think in terms of their own status, stature and global balance. Even though the United States, for example, may be interested in seeing Assad go in order to end the Iranian-Syrian alliance, it is not true that Washington welcomes any revolutionary change in Syria. Keenness on ensuring that regime change in Damascus does not implode the country has probably played a major role in giving Assad one chance after another to reform. Russia’s defence of Assad’s regime does not stem from ideological imperatives, but from purely utilitarian reasons. The demise of Assad weakens Russia in its tug of war with the U.S. on several issues ranging from the standoff on Iran to the question of missile shield deployment.

Assad is evidently not oblivious to the local, regional and international complexities that have so far shielded his regime and prevented it from collapse. What he is unaware of is that the international system always finds a mechanism to deal with emergent crises that threaten the maintenance of its balance. Assad does not seem to understand that the scale of bloodshed in Syria has doomed his regime and made change inevitable, even if mostly restricted to removing the symbols of the regime.

Political transition is inevitable. Assad cannot possibly survive politically no matter how much blood he spills. Syria will not change revolutionarily but incrementally in a manner that does not threaten the fabric of its heterogeneous society. Syrians have always looked up to Egypt as a role model: the Egyptians introduced to them the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1940s, inspired them with Nasser’s pan-Arabism in the 1950s and socialism in the 1960s. I would indeed be surprised if the current transition in Egyptian politics does not leave its mark on Syria’s impending political change.


About the Author:

Hilal Khashan is Professor of Political Science and chair of the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut.