Small Wars Journal

Assad May Survive This

Thu, 02/09/2012 - 11:04am

Claims from political observers that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is experiencing its last gasps at life are overly exaggerated. Syria is not Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya, and the conditions on the ground have set the stage for a prolonged and bloody civil war with the scales tipped in Assad's favor.

Unlike the militaries of Tunisia and Egypt, which operated independently, the reign of Hafez-al Assad, the current president's father, cemented the military institution to the regime. To maintain his grip on the state's security apparatus, he filled the upper echelons of the military with loyal Alawites. Today, the military is so intertwined in the texture of the ruling regime that it is almost impossible to view the two as separate entities. This institutionalized loyalty to the throne of Assad helps to explain the sluggish rate of defections of Syrian military officers to the side of the opposition—a defining factor in dethroning Arab strongmen like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. Indeed, the military’s enduring allegiance to Assad’s Ba’athist regime will ensure he clings to power.

Another painful realization is that external intervention has proved to be on the side of Assad. A former Cold War ally, Russia continues to bolster the Syrian army’s ability to stamp out the rebellion with arms sales amounting to $1.5bn. Assad's reign especially guarantees Russian access to the port of Tartus, the only Russian naval base located outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, Damascus is the only launching pad for Russian power projection in the Middle East. Moscow will not allow such an indispensible asset to teeter.

More ghastly is that both international and regional efforts to squelch the unbridled repression of the Syrian government have run dry. Last years concerted sanctions by the U.S. and Turkey have had little effect at coercing Assad to halt his warpath. In addition, while the Arab League’s decision to impose sanctions late last year is unprecedented, they too have failed to nudge the Syrian leadership in any meaningful way. More recently, Russia and China have proved their resolve at stonewalling any international action against Assad at the United Nations, hoping that the Syrian government will clear up the mayhem itself. Despite a majority call to end the bloodshed, an international response has been sadly muffled.

For now there remains no appetite for outside military intervention on the side of the opposition. With the curtain closed on Libya and the protracted conflict still ablaze in Afghanistan, the US and NATO show little signs of jumping into the mix. Western powers also note the unfavorable military conditions in Syria, citing a lack of workable intelligence and the scarcity of leverage over the regime. More importantly, the Syrian opposition has publically refuted external military assistance and sanctions on their behalf. They instead wish to fashion their rebellion with a peaceful tone, opting for a political solution to defuse the crisis, however unlikely.

Even so, the conditions stated above have imbued the Syrian president with an unabashed confidence to continue his assault on the Syrian people for the foreseeable future. But one shred of hope still remains. The credibility of Assad’s government has eroded domestically and abroad. No state besides his immediate partners in Iran, Russia, and China will procure diplomatic relations with him again, nor will the Syrian opposition resign from its posts. 

The world must now prepare to manage a deepening civil war in Syria. It will not be swift, and it will be unsparing. And as the bloodshed continues, it will test the international community’s tenacity at reinforcing freedom and self-determination in the Arab world. 

Categories: Syria - civil war

About the Author(s)

Adam Ahmad is an investigative researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, DC concentrating on counterterrorism in the South Asian region.



Sat, 02/11/2012 - 9:40am

"More importantly, the Syrian opposition has publically refuted external military assistance and sanctions on their behalf."

Was true in the beginning of the Syrian uprising, last year, but perhaps not anymore?


Fri, 02/10/2012 - 6:39am

hmm...Can Assad afford to sustain his armed forces during this period? I think it's unlikely if the insurgency gets worse. The troops outnumber the insurgents 10 to 1, but if Assads forces start running out of equipment, ammo etc, they are (in my oppinion) following the path of South Vietnam in 1974.

Also, it's worth bearing in mind that some of the troops can't be sent into the fight because of fears they will sympathise with the rebels.

I think Assads days are numbered, but he will hold on for maximum 1 year...a very bloody year though.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 02/10/2012 - 4:41am

Assad is the poster child for a type of Middle Eastern leader, or more accurately, Middle Eastern leadership, deemed increasingly invalid by the evolving populaces of the region. His presence in power is not the primary problem, it is his obsolete perspective on how he choses to wield that power that is driving the revolutionary ferver in Syria.

I doubt any of the new friends listed will be foolish enough to intervene in any major way to sustain Assad in power, nor should we be foolish enough to intervene to speed his demise. Far better we find credible voices (Turkey perhaps?) to talk Assad down off the ledge and convince him to engage his populace, listen to their concerns and make reasonable accomodations of governance to better include the entire populace in a form of governance they find more acceptable than what they have experienced to date.

There is a shifting balance point in terms of how much control government must have over the people, and how much control the people must have over the government. Each culture and country is different, so no US perspective on where the proper balance point should be is apt to be valid. But certainly Mr. Assad's perspective on where that balance point should be has grown invalid since the reign of his father as well. The people are evolving, the governments lag behind. This is true in many places, but is far more apt to lead to revolution in those places where the people have few effective legal options to call for or implement change.

Governments who cling to the same beliefs and fears as Mr. Assad expose themselves when they come to his aid. Also those governments seeking in roads to greater influence in the Middle East by competing for the "Despot protection" detail. Let them have it, I say. Protecting despots never produced a discounted price for oil, but has certainly provided plenty of motivation for those who oppose such external manipulations of the national and regional poliitics of the region to target such countries for acts of transnational terrorism. The sad state of US influence in the region and our troubles with terrorism emanating from the Middle East are testament to that.

Time for the US to do some rebalancing of our foreign policies and how we implement them (ways and means) as well. When one slowly increses how much energy they must apply abroad to sustain their family of policies, until one is at the point of having a military at war overseas to sustain a nation at peace at home, it is time to reassess and make some changes.

For the US, how we play this round is critical; because it will shape our options for when this type of popular pressure is applied in countries we have closer relations to, such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE. We can use Syria to make a turn toward more effective policies toward this region, or we can send unclear messages as we have in Arab Spring to date, or we can double down on our old Cold War approaches that helped bring us to this point. Choose wisely.

All eyes are on Syria, because how this round is played will shape the decisions of a wide range of players across the region and around the globe as to how they play the next round.