The Syrian war will enter its ninth year this March. The brutal conflict has left nearly 600,000 Syrians killed, although the accurate death toll has been lost in the fog of war. Close to 6 million Syrians fled their country to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and other countries. Roughly the same number of Syrians are displaced internally. Hospitals, roads, and schools are gone. Architectural and archaeological treasures have been destroyed. The government has not started the rebuilding process after entire cities have turned into an apocalyptic hell and neighborhoods were wiped out of the map. More than 50 percent of Syrians in urban areas suffered from heavy bombings and fighting. Roughly 11.7 million Syrians across the country need humanitarian aid, possibly for many years to come.
Assad is picking up where he left off after massacring thousands of his own people and leveling 50 percent of major Syrian cities to the ground.
The only constant in the midst of the chaos in Syria since 2011 has been the staying power of President Bashar al Assad’s regime. The systematic destruction of most of his country, international isolation of the regime, crippling Western sanctions, nonexistent reconstruction efforts, expulsion of Syria from the Arab League, and threats from powerful enemies have shaken Assad’s regime in the early years of the civil war, but they have not diminished its strength. At this juncture, the unthinkable is almost a reality – he is rehabilitating his image as Syria’s leader. He is picking up where he left off after massacring thousands of his own people and leveling 50 percent of major Syrian cities to the ground.
When the unrest broke out after police apprehended and beat 15 teenagers for writing anti-government and pro-revolution slogans on walls in Daraa, followed by massive protests and violence that turned into civil war, Assad was on shaky grounds. It seemed like the regime could collapse in the summer of 2012 after rebel forces killed senior Syrian officials, while massive defections of soldiers from the Syrian military continued to increase. But a number of key factors were in favor of the seemingly vulnerable regime that helped it survive and come out strong from the war.
First, the protests in Syria never reached the level of anti-government demonstrations that occurred in Egypt or Tunisia in 2011 to pose a major threat to Assad’s survival. Involvement of foreign powers in the conflict changed the dynamic of the war. 2012 was a crucial point when the domestic civil conflict between pro and anti-regime forces was hijacked by foreign interference as Iran began funneling money, weapons, training government forces, and injected thousands of Shia militia forces to fight anti-government rebels. Iran’s intervention significantly strengthened and empowered beleaguered Assad.
Because Syria has been Iran’s only ally since the 1979 revolution, Tehran’s main interest in that country has been to prop up the loyal regime.
Because Syria has been Iran’s only ally since the 1979 revolution, Tehran’s main interest in that country has been to prop up the loyal regime. Iran fears that Sunnis, a majority in Syria, could become a dominant group in the country if Assad falls and diminish Tehran’s influence in the region. Maintaining supply routes to Hezbollah through Syria is another factor in Iran’s support of Assad.
However, the game-changer for Assad has been the involvement of Russia. While Moscow has been providing intelligence and arms to the Syrian government since the beginning of the conflict, its direct participation in the conflict since 2015 has made all the difference. Russian air strikes against rebel groups and the Islamic State (ISIS), while providing military cover to Syrian troops as they waited for Iranian troop reinforcements, helped Assad regain control of eastern Aleppo, Damascus, and Deir al-Zor. Assad took over most of the territory that was under ISIS with the help of Russian military intervention.
While Russia was driven partially by economic interest, interference in the Syria war was mostly motivated by its desire to re-assert its influence in the Middle East.
While Russia was driven partially by economic interest, interference in the Syria war was mostly motivated by its desire to re-assert its influence in the Middle East. As the West lost interest in ousting the Syrian leader, Russia’s direct involvement has solidified Assad’s power at the expense of thousands more Syrian lives and the world’s worst modern refugee and humanitarian crises. Assad is poised to assume control over all of Syria, except for parts of the northwest that has been controlled by Islamist forces, after President Donald Trump’s decision in October 2019 to pull out American troops from northeastern Syria. Continued presence of armed Kurdish groups and a small contingent of American forces to protect oil fields makes it difficult for Assad to establish control over the northeastern region. He expressed his hope that the government would restore its authority there soon, once he works out a political deal with the Kurds and after American forces leave.
Apart from the timely and strategic help of Iran and Russia and apathy from the West to rein in Assad, he benefited from a strong political system handed down from his father. After French soldiers left Syria in 1946 at the end of the French mandate, the new Republic of Syria made every effort to strengthen its military and intelligence power. Building on the intelligence agency under the French rule, the post-independence Syrian intelligence pursued brutal punishment for dissent in Lebanon and supported pro-Syrian religious and ethnic groups beyond Syria. The ascendance of Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s father, as leader of the Baath Party and the country’s president in the 1970s resulted in establishment of a powerful cross-border intelligence network and a strong political regime based on patronage, which have shown their resilience since 2011. A police state created under Hafez al Assad, where intelligence agencies dominated domestic and foreign policies, violently responded to any domestic opposition and external threats.
Although there were speculations that the Assad’s rule as a minority Alawite Muslim group may not last after 2011, he managed to coalesce allies beyond the Alawite community, including upper-class Sunnis who have benefited from the patronage system. Fearing violent backlash, the Alawite community has remained a loyal backbone of Assad’s power. Despite the early defections of Syrian military men, government forces have remained robust, further buttressed by foreign militia groups. By now, Assad’s security and military forces have re-asserted their power and control in most of Syria.
Another source of Bashar al Assad’s ability to maintain power during the civil war was his commitment to continue providing basic services to people, such as electricity, water, and public sector salaries, even in areas under rebel control. Doing so was important to show government’s continued function even at times of war.
As Assad confidently re-enters the world stage as leader of Syria, he is far from being a winner. He rules over a failed state, where violence, suffering, and dysfunction are unlikely to go away any time soon.
As Assad confidently re-enters the world stage as leader of Syria, he is far from being a winner. He rules over a failed state, where violence, suffering, and dysfunction are unlikely to go away any time soon. Protracted economic problems and worsening living standards present challenges to Assad’s power. It will require a concerted international effort to rebuild Syria, which is estimated at 200-350 billion USD. Ultimately, Assad’s continued stay in power may depend on the challenging work of stabilizing and rebuilding Syria more than just his use of brute force.