At the very least, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a survivor. It’s hard to believe he has been in power for about twenty-one years, up for his fourth seven-year term in office in the upcoming presidential election. Many thought his days were numbered as early as 2005 in the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, followed closely thereafter by the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon due to pressure from the international community that held Damascus responsible for Hariri’s murder. But Assad survived then with some deft political maneuvering that cleaned house of some powerful threats within the government. This episode produced, in my opinion, a strong sense of triumphalism in Assad that has served him well during the now decade-long civil war—as if it was almost his destiny to survive despite all of the predictions that he would be the next domino to fall in the heady early days of the Arab spring following the ouster of Arab leaders from Ben Ali to Mubarak to Gaddafi.
There were a number of reasons, many of them unique to Syria, that I pointed out at the time that would make Syria a hard nut to crack, so to speak; indeed, in my book, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, published in 2012, despite its title, I concluded that the most likely outcome of the civil war was Assad staying in power.
I want to share two stories that I have yet to put to paper that I think captures two of the main reasons why Assad and his cohorts have remained in power. The first one has to do with a series of meetings I had from 2013 to 2016 with a top Syrian government security official close to the Syrian president. Somewhat of a mysterious figure, I saw firsthand the level of his authority when I visited him in Syria during one of the low points of the war for the Syria government in early 2013. I was in a government office in Damascus with what to the outside world were some powerful Syrian officials, yet when this guy entered the room, everyone deferred to him. I later met him in Beirut a few times, and on one occasion he bemoaned the futility of the then on-going Geneva negotiations brokered by the UN between Syrian government and opposition representatives in an attempt to bring about a cease-fire to the war, much less a settlement. At these meetings he usually stayed in the background, allowing the more well-known Syrian officials to do the talking. Out of frustration one time with the opposition, though, he got up and went to the main table, telling the opposition representatives that he could make one phone call and all of the pro-Syrian government forces in the country would cease fire upon his order. He then asked the opposition representatives if any of them could do the same thing.
What he tried to show the UN mediators was the extent of the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, with many of its factions supported by an array of outside actors (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE) who each had their own agendas in Syria, the result of which was reflected in the uncoordinated and often divisive effort on the battlefield in which opposition groups on occasion fought each other rather than pro-Syrian government forces. In fact, a number of opposition groups temporarily coalesced into what was called the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fateh) in late 2014 and into 2015, with their external patrons also getting on the same page for a change. As a result, the Syrian opposition experienced one of their greatest military achievements in taking the province of Idlib in the northwest of the country, a territory the Syrian opposition still holds today with Turkish support. However, this type of internal and external harmony would not last for long, especially once Russians forces entered the fray.
Of course, the Syrian government over the decades had done a very good job of suppressing and fragmenting Syrian opposition elements prior to the civil war with imprisonments, exiles, and military action. The Syrian opposition was ill-prepared to fight a civil war, basing their hopes more on wishful thinking and the mistaken belief that the West—the US—would ensure their success as it had done in Libya. The more the conflict became a proxy war fought among a host of external powers, the more the objectives of the Syrian opposition, whether democratic or theocratic, became lost within the overall goals of regional and international players.
In contrast, the Syrian government and its military-security apparatus had relatively few high-profile defections compared to what happened in Egypt or Libya, for instance. The core of the Syrian government realized early on that they all would sink or swim together, that if they lost, a new government would not be very forgiving. In addition, the Assads—father and son—had done a good job, ruling as minority Alawites, at piecing together through cooptation, opportunity, and coercion enough of a coalition of support to outflank the majority Sunni Arab population in Syria. Together with their own Alawite sect, comprising 10-13 percent of the population, the Assads portrayed themselves as the protectors of minority groups throughout the country, including the ten percent of the population who were Christian, four percent Druze, and a smattering of Shiite groups, who all feared a similar fate to minorities in post-2003 Iraq. And early in the civil war the Syrian government came to something of a modus vivendi with most of the Kurdish population in the northeast of Syria, basically leaving alone—autonomy—as long as they did not join the opposition. This has evolved into tacit cooperation against a common enemy, Turkey. In addition, Bashar al-Assad successfully cultivated good ties with Sunni Sufi religious centers, some powerful Sunni tribes in the eastern part of the country, and many in the Sunni business community. Combine all these together and Assad has a pretty good portion of the population behind him, if not all enthusiastically, at least they see him as the least worst alternative. This especially turned out to be the case as the Syrian opposition became much more Sunni jihadist as the civil war progressed. Assad was the lesser of two evils, and the only one who could provide some semblance of a return to normalcy from the perspective of a war-weary population—something the Syrian government constantly promoted.
The other story was from a friend of mine who was a high-level US official who focused on the Middle East. In one National Security Council meeting sometime in 2012 or 2013, in which he was present along with President Obama, several Cabinet members in attendance pushed hard for more assertive US support for the Syrian opposition. President Obama, according to my friend, responded by asking them if they could assure him that if the US did so, Russia and Iran would not do more to support their ally, the Syrian government – they could not. If Russia and Iran became more engaged, this would compel the US to do more, the result of which could lead to a spiraling military commitment that could end in the type of military quagmire Obama was elected to get the US out of—not into another one. There were also at the time secret US negotiations in Oman with Iran on what would become the nuclear deal of 2015, which was the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration in the Middle East. If the US pressed hard on Iran’s ally in Damascus, it might scuttle the talks. And to Assad, when the Obama administration did not militarily respond to the infamous chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in August 2013, exactly the type of attack carried out by Syrian government forces that the US president said would cross a red line, the Syrian president most likely concluded that the United States had determined that his removal from power would be worse than having him remain. Perhaps Washington did not want a chaotic failed state on the border of so many of its allies, especially one that could be run by Sunni jihadist groups.
In the end, Syria was simply more important to Russia and Iran then it was to the United States. Moscow and Teheran had critical strategic interests in Syria that they were determined to keep and build upon. To the United States, Syria was never that important in and of itself, only as a function of the Arab-Israeli conflict and superpower cold war. And Iranian and Russian support was critical. Without it, Assad would not be here today. Of course, most consequential was Russia’s direct military intervention in late September 2015, which turned the tide of a war that had by that summer turned somewhat grim for Assad.
Despite apparent victory by Assad, the country is in dire straits. Can Assad continue to survive in a country in such a dilapidated condition? The answer is yes. The resource extraction power of authoritarian regimes has been well documented. In addition, although the current international sanctions regime is the harshest ever applied against Syria, Syrian officials and businesspersons have been long accustomed to operating under such restrictions ever since Syria was placed by the US State Department on the initial list in 1979 of countries that sponsor terrorism. They know how to navigate the international black market. And the new Biden administration in the United States appears not to have Syria as a priority right now, as it has more pressing domestic and international challenges.
Not wanting to see Syria implode, with deleterious regional consequences, as well as to minimize the influence in Syria of both Iran and Turkey, several Arab countries and Greece have already re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus and have publicly endorsed Syria’s re-admission into the Arab League. Many believe it is inevitable that Syria and Turkey will come to some sort of a modus vivendi with regard to Idlib, perhaps accompanied by the restoration of political and economic relations. While all of this in and of itself will not get Syria out of its current predicament, it could start to erode its region-wide isolation enough to keep Assad and his cohorts afloat—and keep the country from total collapse. And over time, with wider acceptance at the regional level, especially if the United States and Iran re-activate the nuclear deal, it may become easier for Europe and the United States to waive significant portions of the sanctions regime to allow for humanitarian and reconstruction aid, including by third party states, to finally get into the country in significant amounts.
It seems like a race against time. Will a regional fait accompli of Assad create enough space for the Syrian government to allow it to maintain even a sliver of acceptance from the population, surviving long enough to gain a critical mass of regional and international acceptance that would activate the process of reconstruction? Or will the current situation continue to deteriorate, turning Syria into a failed state beyond resuscitation for the foreseeable future, in which case the regional and international objective will solely be to make sure the chaos inside Syria does not generate instability beyond its borders? There are constituencies in Western governments on both sides of this argument, but the distaste of doing anything that might help Assad outweighs other factors—for now.
But Assad is patient. He waited out the opprobrium, isolation, and diplomatic pressure following the Hariri assassination in 2005; however, it is difficult to see the Syrian government adjusting to the new reality, as its carefully manicured patronage system prior to the civil war has been shattered. What sort of social contract can the Syrian government provide the population beyond being the least-worst alternative at the moment? How long are the Syrian people going to accept their default condition before more assertively demanding change? Can Syria not only physically reconstruct but also, perhaps even more importantly, emotionally rebuild itself? Can the Syrian government eventually find the right formula in terms of the apportionment of municipal, provincial, and national political power? These are just some of the difficult questions that lie in waiting for Assad.
I asked an opposition fighter early on in the civil war the following question: Why are you taking such a risk in fighting and enduring the deprivations of war? His answer was as profound as it was simple: “Because I have heard my voice for the first time.” Most Syrians by now have been empowered by living without the state for a decade. They have all heard their own voices. Perhaps in the end, what will determine whether or not Assad survives in the long term will be if, in fact, he also hears their voices. Or, with an even more heightened sense of triumphalism, will he turn a deaf ear toward their calls?