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.

There was some truth in Assad’s boast: he did have greater popular support than the rulers ousted in the uprisings. Syrians worried about the carnage in Iraq found the security of the Baathist government reassuring, even as it arrested pro-democracy activists and suppressed any hint of opposition. The challenge to Assad began with a minor incident that developed into the most serious crisis of his presidency. On 6 March, security forces in Deraa – a southern town neglected by central government which has suffered for years under corrupt officials – arrested a group of teenagers who had scrawled on several walls the phrase made famous by the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt: ‘The people want the downfall of the regime.’ Within a week of the arrests, large protests erupted in Deraa; there were clashes with security forces and dozens of casualties. Assad and his advisers bungled their response: the president failed to offer condolences to the families of those killed or to visit Deraa, setting off a new round of protests that spread to other parts of Syria. As the crackdown intensified, demonstrators shifted from demanding ‘freedom’ and ‘dignity’, and an end to abuses by the security forces, to calling for the overthrow of the regime.

For the next few weeks there seemed to be a debate going on within the regime. Officials made contradictory statements, with several suggesting that Assad was ready to undertake fundamental change: that after four decades of rule by his family he would allow the formation of political parties and contested elections. US officials refused to condemn Syrian repression in the terms they had used of Libya. ‘There’s a different leader in Syria now,’ Hillary Clinton told a TV interviewer on 27 March. ‘Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.’

In a speech before Parliament on 30 March, his first public appearance since the crisis began, Assad was defiant, even arrogant. He didn’t lift the state of emergency which had been in place since 1963 and which granted considerable powers to the security forces, or take any steps to loosen the Baath Party’s monopoly. Instead, he dismissed the protesters as ‘dupes’ or saboteurs engaged in a plot hatched by ‘foreign agents’ to weaken Syria. Much of the political capital he had built up over the past decade was squandered. It took him another three weeks to lift the state of emergency and disband the draconian security courts associated with it. Assad warned that once these changes had been made, there would ‘no longer be a need to organise demonstrations in Syria’. His government, he said, would not ‘tolerate any act of sabotage’.

Assad directed his security forces to fire on the protesters who gathered across the country after Friday prayers on 22 April. At least 120 people were killed, making this the bloodiest day of the uprising so far. By 25 April, he had sent tanks and thousands of troops to seal off Deraa. Water, electricity and phone lines were cut; snipers took up positions on roofs; and soldiers went house to house in search of protesters. The strategy was repeated in several other towns and cities that had become centres of protest, including Baniyas and Homs. As I write, the death toll stands at more than 850 civilians, and human rights groups estimate that as many as 10,000 people have been detained.

Assad is employing another tactic he learned from his father, which is to make it plain that the Syrian regime does not make concessions when under pressure, whether external or internal. It’s a principle that has served it well in times of crisis. He seems to have learned from the example of Tunisia and Egypt, where the regimes’ failure to act forcefully only encouraged the protesters to increase their demands. Assad has been deft in the past at dealing with pressure, applying the lessons of his father’s foreign policy: stay firm, don’t give ground and grind down your opponents.

The story of Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power is typical of his generation of Arab leaders, among them Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. These were men from poor families and hardscrabble places who fought their way to the top. They rode the wave of Arab nationalist, anti-imperialist and revolutionary sentiment that swept the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s. Assad, who had served as defence minister, seized the presidency in November 1970, ending the series of coups and counter-coups that had dogged Syria since independence in 1946. He labelled his coup a ‘corrective movement’ and promised to usher in a period of stability and continuity. Before that, however, Assad and Anwar Sadat plotted the October 1973 war against Israel, intended to avenge the Arab defeat of 1967, in which Syria lost the Golan Heights and Egypt the Sinai. The future contours of Syrian foreign policy emerged out of that war and Assad’s subsequent experiences in dealing with stronger, hostile powers.

When Sadat signed a separate peace treaty with Israel, negotiated under US patronage, Assad felt that Egypt had betrayed him. He feared that, far from forming a unified front, the Arab states would fall into line one after another, signing separate agreements with Israel out of weakness. As the journalist Patrick Seale writes in his biography of the Syrian leader, Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East,

Assad had always been a patient man, able to take the long view in conflicts with Arab rivals and in the contest with Israel. Believing that time was on the Arabs’ side, he counselled other leaders not to hurry, not to negotiate impulsively, not to make concessions from weakness. He felt the Arabs were too inclined to worry about how to solve Israel’s problems rather than their own. He urged them to stand up and be steadfast.

Assad decided that he had to cultivate new alliances to offset the emerging axis of the US, Israel and ‘moderate’ Arab regimes. In 1980, he revived the Steadfastness Front, comprising Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, along with Libya, Algeria and South Yemen – three countries at the periphery of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Later that year, seeing the Soviets as the only deterrent to Israel in the region, he signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation in Moscow. It was another rebuff to the US. These alliances became the basis of what Assad called a ‘comprehensive strategic balance’, arguing that Syria had to hold firm until the balance of power in the region shifted to its advantage. He also insisted that Syria must never negotiate from a position of weakness, or without effective bargaining chips.

As Assad honed his foreign alliances, he faced a serious challenge at home. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Baathist regime battled an insurgency led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which carried out attacks against military and civilian targets. In 1982, he dispatched thousands of troops to the city of Hama to put down the remnants of this Islamist uprising. His forces levelled parts of the city, killing at least 10,000 people, and thousands of suspected Islamists were imprisoned or expelled. Assad was making it plain that he was willing to use brute force to remain in power. It’s easy to see the recent sieges of Deraa, Baniyas and Homs as further examples of the Baathist regime’s willingness to use extreme violence to suppress opposition.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Assad used Syria’s regional influence and its confrontation with Israel to generate economic aid. Billions of dollars’ worth in military equipment came from the Soviet Union and hundreds of millions in grants from the Gulf States. Then Assad made the most dangerous calculation of his presidency: he supported Iran when its eight-year war with Iraq began in 1980. As a result, he was shunned by much of the Arab world and the Gulf States cut off their aid. Assad argued that Saddam Hussein was wasting valuable Arab resources by fighting Iran instead of Israel. But the Gulf States were more concerned with regional security, and saw Iran as the greater threat. Moscow allowed Syria to sell Soviet weapons to Iran, and soon there were regular airlifts of arms from Damascus to Tehran. Syria also served as a conduit for Iranian advisers and officers of the Revolutionary Guard, who helped train Shia militias in Lebanon, where they fought Israel and its proxies through groups like Hizbullah.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Assad deftly joined the US-led coalition that expelled Saddam’s forces – and Arab aid once again flowed to Damascus. It wasn’t enough to generate growth in the Syrian economy, but at least it allowed the regime to avert economic collapse. From Washington, Assad extracted something even more important: he was granted control over Lebanon, which was emerging from a 15-year civil war. For Assad, dominance over his smaller neighbour was a crucial part of ensuring Syria’s strategic position in relation to Israel.

Yet despite improving relations with the US and other Arab states in the 1990s, Assad couldn’t regain control of the Golan Heights, a strategic promontory that overlooks northern Israel and the Sea of Galilee. In January 2000, Bill Clinton led marathon talks between Assad and Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister at the time, but the talks collapsed over a sliver of territory that would have given Syria access to the Sea of Galilee – a major source of water for Israel.

Before Assad died in June 2000, he had ensured his son’s smooth succession. Bashar was a soft-spoken, British-educated ophthalmologist who had little experience in the politics of the Middle East. Many dismissed him as incapable of playing his regional cards as masterfully as his father, but he quickly adopted the role of strongman. After he became president, there was a short period of political openness, known as the Damascus Spring. The freedoms gained were small: modest gatherings in people’s homes to discuss democracy and reform; writings and speeches critical of corruption and government failures (although not directly critical of Assad or his family); gatherings of civil society groups. But most of these meagre freedoms were rolled back by mid-2001, after Bashar became alarmed by the nascent civil society movement. Soon he began to boast that Syria would adopt the so-called China model – economic reform without significant political and administrative change.

Assad didn’t have much time to master regional dynamics before he had to confront a serious external challenge. Syria decided to oppose the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, partly because the regime wanted to protect its renewed economic ties with Baghdad and partly to preserve its image as the last bastion of Arab nationalist resistance to the West. Assad’s position infuriated the neocons in the Bush administration, who started to talk about Damascus as another candidate for ‘regime change’. ‘I hope Syrian President Bashar Assad will consider reforms, otherwise he may say to himself: “I could be the second target,”’ Richard Perle told the Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat in February 2003.

As Washington sought to isolate Damascus, some Arab powers – especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt – became hostile to Assad, worried by his growing reliance on Iran. The Bush administration imposed economic sanctions in 2004, accusing Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders, supporting Hizbullah and Hamas, and allowing Islamic militants to cross into Iraq and fight US forces. The US policy of sanctions and isolation intensified after the assassination in February 2005 of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, for which Washington blamed Syria. Hariri was close to the Saudi royal family, and his death further strained relations between Syria and the kingdom. Things reached a new low during the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, when Assad called his fellow Arab leaders ‘half-men’ on account of their criticism of the Shia militia. In 2008, King Abdullah boycotted an Arab League summit in Damascus and withdrew his ambassador from the Syrian capital.

In response to the cold shoulder from the United States and its Arab allies, Assad became still more dependent on Iran, which helped shore up the Syrian economy with cheap oil and as much as $1.5 billion in construction and infrastructure investments. Syria and Iran signed a mutual defence pact in June 2006 and another military co-operation agreement a year later. Assad also strengthened his links with Hamas, Hizbullah and the nationalist Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, calculating that these alliances would help him shape events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq – and that they would be useful in any future negotiations with the US. By 2009, having waited out the Bush administration, Assad was beginning to manoeuvre himself out of international isolation. He had managed to survive under sanctions, and was resilient in the face of international pressure and the threat of further sanctions. And he had new alliances to help him keep his options open.

Now, as he faces an unprecedented internal revolt, Assad’s main goal is to preserve his Alawite regime in a Sunni-dominated country. (The Alawites, about 12 per cent of Syria’s population of 22 million, are an offshoot of Shiism.) It is unlikely that the military leadership will abandon him: most army generals and top security officials are Alawite, and their fortunes are tied to Assad’s survival. Syria is also home to Christian, Druze and Shia minorities – about 15 per cent of the population – and they tend to support the Alawite regime. Along with many secular Sunnis, these minorities regard Assad as a source of stability. While the current wave of protests has been partly inspired by Sunni preachers in towns like Deraa, Syria is not facing an Islamist uprising. Many secular Sunnis, especially the merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo, remain on the sidelines. They were co-opted by Hafez Assad, and while they may not support the Assad clan as staunchly as they did, they fear the lack of an alternative, and the prospect of sectarian fighting and revenge killings. If these Sunnis were to take to the streets en masse the Baathist regime would be in grave danger. Meanwhile, as he confronts new sanctions, and the prospect of becoming an international pariah, Assad is likely to fall back on his most effective strategy: playing regional dynamics better than his adversaries. Syria has shown time and again that it is prepared to destabilise the Middle East to advance its own interests. Now, with his regime’s survival at stake, Assad will seek to convince both his friends and his enemies that regional stability depends on his ability to remain in power.

20 May