We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go

Mohamad Bazzi on the unusual predicament of Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad has many enemies outside his own country, but none of them wants him to lose power. He appears to have gained the upper hand against a two-month-old popular uprising, ensuring the survival of the Baathist regime and, for now, defusing the most serious challenge to his family’s rule since the 1980s. He has used brute force – there have been mass arrests, towns and cities have been besieged, hundreds of civilians killed – without so far losing the support of his military, unlike the ousted leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. To prevent crucial segments of Syrian society from joining the protests, he has played on the fear, inside and outside the country, that his fall would precipitate widespread sectarian violence, even civil war.

His success is chiefly due to a foreign policy, pioneered by his father, that allows the Baathist regime to portray itself as a linchpin of regional stability and security. Since coming to power after his father’s death in 2000, the younger Assad has learned to keep his options open and to play Syria’s friends and enemies off against one another. Today, nearly all the regional and Western powers want him to remain in office, an unusual congruence of interests. Syria could count on the support of its regional allies, Hizbullah, Iran and Turkey (though Turkey did have some criticisms), but while the United States and the EU have called for an end to the crackdown, and imposed new sanctions on senior Syrian officials, including the president and his brother, they have little leverage over Assad – and no appetite for another military intervention in the region. Israel has remained silent, but prefers Assad – who has kept the peace along the occupied Golan Heights – to a new regime led by Syria’s Sunni majority and influenced, perhaps, by the Muslim Brotherhood. Even Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab regimes allied with the US have lined up behind Assad in the interest of preserving stability. He seems to be the dictator whom no one outside his own country wants to fall.

There is little doubt that, if he does hang on to power, he will be weakened, and his legitimacy has been thrown into question by the crackdown. But Assad has survived crises before, mainly by waiting for regional dynamics to change in his favour. Forced to cope with the pressure and international isolation imposed by the Bush administration after the Iraq War, Assad studied his father’s way of doing things and sought to convince everyone that it was impossible to stabilise the region without Syria’s help: a peace deal with Israel, Palestinian national reconciliation, a stable Iraq, a secure Lebanon – all these had to go through Damascus. An oil-poor country with little economic clout, Syria derives its power from its strategic position and carefully nurtured alliances. It has played the role of regional broker and Arab nationalist standard-bearer since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad seized power in a military coup. He perfected the art of creating defensive alliances, nurturing proxies in neighbouring countries, and keeping his enemies mired in costly battles. In the 30 years he ruled Syria, unchallenged and ever audacious, Assad père worked tirelessly to cultivate his image as a pan-Arab and, above all, a strong leader.

When popular protests first swept the Arab world in January, Bashar was confident he had nothing to fear: he didn’t depend on US tutelage like the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. On 31 January he told the Wall Street Journal that ‘Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence … you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.’ Assad and his allies in the ‘axis of resistance’ – Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah – boasted that the revolts proved they were the true representatives of the majority of people in the Arab and Muslim worlds, who for decades had been stifled under regimes that had ‘sold out’ to the United States.

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