Can the Assad Regime Survive?

Patrick Seale

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria does not seem to be in any immediate danger of collapse or overthrow. In spite of confronting a popular uprising at home and severe pressures from abroad, he has -- for the moment at least -- weathered the storm. His difficulties, however, are immense. In a speech on 10 January he described the crisis he is facing as “a battle unprecedented in Syria’s modern history.”
Several authoritative sources, both inside and outside Syria, share the view that, having held his enemies at bay since last March, Assad stands a good chance of survival for several more months. His longer-term prospects, however, remain uncertain.
As a skilful tactician, he has played for time. His agreement to allow in Arab League monitors has relieved him of some pressure for a month, and possibly two. In dealing with the protesters, he has used carrot as well as stick, such as his recent amnesty for political prisoners, his offer of an immediate dialogue with the opposition, and his renewed promise of a revised Constitution, to be put to an early referendum, followed by multi-party elections in the early summer. Two new parties were granted licenses this week.
Assad’s long-term survival, however will depend, sources say, on whether Syria’s close ally, Iran manages to stand firm. Already under crippling Western sanctions, Iran faces what looks like an attempt, not just to halt its programme of uranium enrichment -- which Israel sees as a challenge to its own nuclear weapons monopoly – but to change the Tehran regime altogether. The United States and Israel -- supported by a number of European and Arab nations, who have joined in for their own commercial, sectarian or strategic interests -- have launched a determined assault on the tripartite alliance of Tehran, Damascus and Hizballah. The crime of this trio is to have dared challenge America’s military hegemony in the Gulf and Israel’s military hegemony in the Levant. The three allies – Iran, Syria and Hizballah – know that they stand or fall together. The battle is likely to be fierce.
Iran is facing a systematic campaign aimed at subverting its nuclear facilities by cyber attack, the murder of its scientists, and the undermining of its economy by a boycott of its oil exports and Central Bank. Israel and its American friends are also sparing no effort to trigger a U.S. attack on Iran – much as they pushed the United States into invading and destroying Iraq. If Iran cracks under the pressure of sanctions and military threats, Syria could fall. Hizballah in turn, stripped of its external patrons, could then face another Israeli attempt to destroy it, as in 2006.
Bashar al-Assad’s attention is focussed on the danger to Syria from this ‘foreign conspiracy’. As he explained in his speech, it is only the latest of many such conspiracies: When Iraq was invaded in 2003, “Syria was threatened with bombing and invasion”; the same enemies exploited the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005 to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon and attempt to bring down the Syrian regime; in 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon; in 2007, it bombed an alleged Syrian nuclear facility; in 2008, it attacked Gaza, each time exposing Syria to danger. But, Assad declared defiantly, “We will never allow them to defeat Syria... Resistance is the core of our identity.”
Assad sees his domestic opponents as allies of his foreign enemies, rather than as legitimate protesters against corruption, police brutality, severe youth unemployment and a lack of basic freedoms. That some of these opponents have taken up arms, killed soldiers and policemen and destroyed public property has served him well. He is resolved to “strike these murderous terrorists hard... There can be no compromise with terrorism.”
Such is his mindset, and such his justification for the bloody repression of the past ten months -- the large-scale killings, mass imprisonment, beatings and torture. These brutal methods have opened up a profound rift in Syrian society; they have sharpened sectarian tensions. They have gravely damaged Syria’s image and its international reputation. The internal wound will be difficult to heal. How will Syrians learn to live together again? One Syrian source compared the situation with that which the French faced when, once the German occupation had ended, résistants and collaborators set about rebuilding their fractured society after World War 2.
Tourism in Syria has collapsed, the stock market has lost 50% of its value and the exchange rate for the dollar has fallen on the black market from 49 to 67 Syrian pounds. Fuel supplies are running short and the budget deficit has surged. But Syria enjoys a large measure of food autonomy and, if it tightens its belt, can probably survive sanctions and boycotts.
The most important asset which keeps the regime afloat is the continuing loyalty of the army and security services. Defections have been few. So long as this remains the case, the opposition will be unable to topple the regime. Nor can the opposition count on foreign military intervention: No Western or Arab nation is prepared to use force. Turkey might possibly consider intervening if its own vital interests were threatened -- by, say, active Syrian support for the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party which has taken up arms against the Turkish state.
At the UN Security Council, Russia and China will protect Syria by vetoing any resolution authorising the use of force. Syria can probably also count on Iraq, Algeria and Sudan to prevent any internationalisation of the crisis. America’s decline – its retreat from Iraq, its failure in Afghanistan, its weariness with foreign adventures, its defence cuts -- are also much to Syria’s advantage.
The regime has two other important advantages: the opposition’s failure to unite behind a single leader or a single political project, and the fact that a good slice of the population still supports the regime. Minorities such as Alawis, Christians and Druze, as well as civil servants, officers, leading merchants in Damascus and Aleppo, and the new bourgeoisie -- comprising some tens of thousands of people, created by the neo-liberal economic model of the past decade -- are all wary of regime change. They do not feel represented by the street protesters or the exiled opposition.
When Syrians see the terrible devastation caused by the civil wars on their borders in Lebanon and Iraq, they dread suffering the same fate. The fear of a sectarian civil war is on everyone’s mind. The Syrian Muslim Brothers, by far the strongest element in the opposition, are evidently waiting to avenge the crushing of their uprising at Hama in 1982. Beginning in the late 1970s, they mounted a terrorist campaign against the regime of Hafiz al-Assad, Bashar’s father. In one of their terrorist operations, 83 Alawi cadets were gunned down in Aleppo in 1979. When they seized Hama, they massacred Ba‘th party members and officials. The government sent in troops to retake the town, killing over 10,000 people. The exact numbers are in dispute, but the spectre of Hama hangs over the scene to this day, inflaming passions on both sides. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global