Bashar al-Assad’s Unsalvageable Regime


Free Syrian Army soldier in Aleppo, Syria. Photograph courtesy of Voice of America.

by Hilal Khashan

The Syrian regime continues to celebrate its recent achievement in al-Qusayr, which it describes as a game-changing twist that will eventually awe the opposition into submission. Officials in Damascus wasted no time in announcing the beginning of the Northern Storm Operation to restore government control of Aleppo, Syria’s industrial hub and second largest city. Thanks to steady munitions replenishments by Iran and Russia and decisive involvement of Hezbollah’s elite combat units, Syrian regime forces retook the strategically located al-Qusayr town and ostentatiously paraded haggard army troops in its devastated main street. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to hold on to his seat has much less to do with political genius and public support than with capitalizing on the divisions that prevail within Syrian society, the regional order and the international system. The regime has been surviving on a tightrope since the beginning of the uprising in Mach 2011.

Notwithstanding the complexity of the Syrian case, Assad’s survival tactics are not sustainable for long. His regime rests on tenuous foundations; it survives merely on internal and external divisions. It seems that his late father Hafiz did well in raising him to manipulate the divisions of others to his advantage. Hafiz inculcated in Bashar all he knew about keeping power, but the latter does not appear to have the acumen to build on it and shore his regime to safety. Based on the events in Syria and the reactions of the outside world to it, one can argue that Assad’s regime is unsalvageable, no matter how much its allies infuse it with fighters, military supplies and political support. This is an aberrant regime that is deeply at odds with the logic of governance and historical change.

Assad’s survival tactics have been largely predicated on ephemeral circumstantial variables that have thus far enabled him to stay in power, despite incalculable human suffering and economic ruin. The start of the Arab uprisings coincided with the decision of the United States to disengage itself from the region’s problems, including pulling out from Iraq and curtailing efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ousting of dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh has neither brought about political stability, nor led to the emergence of a national consensus on state identity based on respect for the ballot box. Military intervention in Libya rid its people of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s 41-year erratic and despotic regime, but ushered in an open-ended period of lawlessness, factional warfare and tribal rivalry.

Politically fatigued and militarily quagmired by war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and extrajudicial drone assassinations in Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. has opted to stay out of the Syrian conflict, especially after it became clear that al-Qaeda-affiliated militant groups, such as al-Nusra, have found a new cause to kill and die for. In May 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. He expressed confidence that democracy would prevail in the Middle East and spread from Tehran to Damascus. Subsequent developments have demonstrated the fallacy of his presumptuous speculation. Iran not only remains as defiant as ever with regard to its ambitious nuclear program, but the U.S. has handed it control of Iraq on a silver platter. Since the U.S. did not produce a convincing strategic objective to justify its invasion of Iraq, it gave al-Qaeda an opportunity to drag its army of occupation into a senseless war of attrition for eight years. The limits to American conventional power played to the advantage of Iran and Syria’s illiberal rulers. Democratic appeals had not only failed to make headway, but autocratic rule consolidated its grip on power in the very same countries that the U.S. sought to reshape.

The Syrian regime responded callously to basic demands for freedom of expression and accounting for rampant bureaucratic corruption that were raised by peaceful demonstrators. The use of brutal suppression seemed irrational and self-destructive because the protesters’ demands lay within the regime’s capacity to act upon without compromising its preeminence in politics and society. The regime’s determination to heavy-handedly quell the protest movement eventually led to its militarization. Given that the successive regimes that ruled Syria since its merger with Egypt in 1958 had destroyed its once robust civil society, it became inevitable that religion would provide an alternative mechanism for activism, mobilization and political opposition. Between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the Muslim Brethren challenged Hafiz al-Assad’s hegemonic regime and socialist economic policies that impoverished urbane middle class Sunnis. By 1982, Assad had crushed the Brethren insurgency in the infamous massacre of Hama. In doing so, he eliminated his country’s non-fundamentalist Islamic movement and set the stage for the eventual surge of radical Islamic movements such as at-Tawhid and an-Nusra.

Obsession with power prevented the younger Assad from comprehending that his authority as ruler rested on serving the people who twice endorsed his presidency in ceremonial elections. Perceiving national politics as a personal domain, he decided to protect his private political assets by turning attention from the protesters’ legitimate reform demands to a campaign to defeat alleged terrorist groups. Thus, he struggled to weave Syria into the global war on terror, and also to create the impression that he was at war with an al-Qaeda that threatened the fabric of Syrian society. The communal cleavages that pervade Syrian society have always segmented it along sectarian and regional lines. But despite their split into heterogeneous groups, the Syrians largely exhibited inherent tolerance of differences, including different religious and ideological orientations. This did not sit well with Assad who deemed that his political survival hinged on fanning the flames of sectarian divisions. Mindful of the fact that the heterogeneity of Syrian society is also characteristic of most other countries in the Middle East, the regime in Damascus bet on reinventing the uprising as a sectarian and ethnic civil war.

Assad’s devious calculus focused on radicalizing Syria’s Sunnis and pitting the country’s numerous religious and ethnic groups against them. His machinery of propaganda found no harm in recognizing the demonstrators’ rightful demands for political and administrative reform, as long as it distinguished them from the sabotage activities of extremist religious groups. The regime’s mouthpieces insisted that these al-Qaeda-affiliated groups operated in collusion with foreign powers in order to punish Syria for its steadfastness against the anti-Arab American-Zionist camp. Faced with an imagined global conspiracy against Syria, Assad insisted that the conspiracy had to be defeated before reforms could begin. His ideological army and auxiliary thugs went on the rampage with the singular aim of turning an otherwise peaceful protest movement into a sectarian crucible between a civil majority and a mostly transnational fanatic minority.

There is no question that the deliberate divergence of the path of the Syrian uprising from peaceful to violent led to fatally attracting militant Islamic volunteers to its cauldron. The Syrian regime has shrewdly created a situation that rules out the triumph of an uprising spearheaded by militant fighters feared and detested not only by the West, but also by Russia and the countries of the region. Token and carefully calibrated statements by U.S. officials about Assad’s eroding legitimacy, and the need for him to step down attested to Washington’s indifference to the plight of the Syrian people, if not tacit endorsement of his campaign to rout the jihadists trickling into the country. Similarly, the rather half-hearted declarations by British and French ministers of foreign affairs about supplying munitions to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were invariably curtailed either by European Union objections, concern that they might end up in the hands of al-Qaeda militants, or behind-the-scenes interference by the U.S. Satisfied with the West’s failure to tip the balance of power in favor of the FSA, and heartened by the strong backing of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the army of the Syrian regime regained the initiative and appeared to be winning the war.

It seems odd and incomprehensible that the West’s inability to stop the bloodshed in Syria is due to Russia’s use of the veto power in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This excuse is lame and deviates from the conventional wisdom of U.S. relations with Russia and the former Soviet Union (FSU), on Middle Eastern issues. The Yalta Conference in 1945 included the Middle East in the Western sphere of influence. The FSU knew its limitations in the region during the Cold War years, and it did not attempt to expel the West from it. For example, during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin issued a stern warning to Britain and France to demand ending their invasion of Egypt only after it became clear that U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower was determined to coerce them to pull their troops out of Egypt.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 reduced its inheritor, the Russian Federation into a regional power, present and influential in the countries of the near abroad. Much to its chagrin, the Kremlin could not even stop NATO from bombarding its Slavic ally Serbia — which until few years before was within its realm of influence — in 1995 over Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo in 1999. Russia’s threat to use the veto power in the UNSC to prevent passing a resolution to invade Iraq did not prevent Washington from forming the coalition of the willing to invade the country in 2003 and topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. There are sufficient indicators to suggest that Russia’s firm policy of supporting Assad’s regime stems from its conviction that U.S. president Barack Obama is content to see the Syrian regime battle Islamic radicals and complete the job he did not finish in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One cannot imagine that Iran and Hezbollah would dare to involve themselves so deeply in the Syrian conflict without U.S. complicity. Indeed, there is every reason to assume that the U.S. is amenable to seeing its enemies exhaust their resources in Syria. If Iranian intervention in Syria has been due to free will untampered by certain U.S. restrictions, it would be reasonable to inquire why Tehran has chosen to stay largely out of Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia — despite heavy rhetoric — where the authorities there have put down Shiite protesters demanding fair treatment and placing them on par with Sunnis. The U.S. not only denied the FSA access to arms capable of confronting the regime’s juggernaut, but it also pressured the Gulf states and Turkey to keep their arms deliveries to the bare minimum. Instead of arms, it provided them with non-lethal equipment such as communications gear and medical supplies. The FSA pleading with Washington to help rectify the gross military imbalance with the regime’s army did not impress the Obama administration that chose to keep a distance from the insurgents’ demands. It was not until the loss of al-Qusayr and other FSA towns and villages that the United States realized that a semblance of military balance ought to be introduced between the regime and the opposition.

It is highly unlikely that the Syrian conflict will lead to the emergence of victors and vanquished. It is naïve, however, to expect Assad to keep his position after committing so many atrocities. In this regard Assad does not seem to differ from most Arab heads of state that do not answer to their peoples and see office as a personal fiefdom. Post-Assad Syria is highly likely to evolve into a fragmented political system, à la Lebanese and Iraqi models, with a weak central authority and autonomous regions. The United States is working to ensure that the Syrian army does not collapse, in order to avoid a repeat of the Iraqi fiasco caused by Paul Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army in May 2003. It would make sense for the United States to reintegrate the FSA in the regular Syrian army once a political settlement is reached under the auspices of the United States and Russia. Differences on Syria between Washington and Moscow exist, but they are overstated. Both countries have a vested interest in pacifying Syria. The recent U.S. decision to arm the FSA does not aim at tipping the military balance of power against the regular Syrian army; instead, it seeks to convince Assad to forego his attempt to defeat the opposition and reinstate his authority throughout the country. Syria is expected to witness an escalation in the pace of the fighting, but its conflict appears to have been placed on a bumpy road to resolution.

Cover image by Bo Yaser.

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.