In the seventh year of the war in Syria Bashar al-Assad is still the main figure. His strategies and allies kept him on the throne. His dangerous narrative made even rivals changed their attitude towards him.
What began as peaceful freedom protests of frustrated youth against a Syrian regime under President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, has plummeted into an ugly ongoing civil war that has claimed the lives of several hundred thousand people. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that over 6 million people have been internally displaced and roughly 5 million people have sought refuge worldwide.
Yet what is a tragedy for Syrian victims and observers, is a chess game for Bashar al-Assad, whose ultimate goal is to eradicate internal opponents and ensure his regime’s durability. Against a backdrop of opposition, a threatening ISIS, a Russian intervention, and a western withdrawal from the region, the regime has crafted a political narrative depicting Assad as a functional necessity for future Syrian stability.
The degree to which the international community has played along to his narrative became evident in 2013 when the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons recognized the Syrian government as the only actor capable of entering international agreements—namely with its speedy accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The American tone has also shifted from insisting “there can be no transitional government with Assad in power,” toward accepting his role in the post-war transitional period.
Syria’s history sets the stage
Despite the instability that has plagued the current leadership, Syria’s tumultuous history sets the stage for the Assad family to sustain a facade of stability. French colonialism promptly succeeded the 400 years of Ottoman occupation. A series of Coup-d’états followed Syrian independence in 1946 until Hafez al Assad took power in 1970: under a veil of secularism, he boasted moderate economic reforms under an iron-fist, authoritarian regime.
This curtain of secularism fell in 2011 and exposed the naked vulnerabilities of the regime.
Meticulously crafting the enemy
Eleven years after ascending the Syrian throne, Bashar confronted the political instabilities his father had faced in the 1980s, yet unlike Hafez, was unable to resolve them quickly and silently. At the start of the war in 2011, while addressing the nation, Assad resorted to the tactic of crafting a common enemy by lumping all factions contesting his rule together as ‘terrorists.’ In blatant contradiction to the perceptions of the international community, he dismissed the Geneva Communiqué of 2012, in which the P5 recognized the Syrian moderate rebels and reiterated that Assad must allow for a transition of power without him.
The entrance of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, onto the battlefield in May 2013 only strengthened the Syrian army’s fight against the moderates. Within months the militia regained the key border city of Al-Qusayr for the Syrian regime.
Middle East expert, Robert Fisk, argues that not only did Assad’s strategy of ignoring ISIS facilitate the group’s expansion, it empowered it. It radicalized the few remaining non-Islamist factions of the Free Syrian Army—a loose coalition of moderate rebels— who felt forced to fight alongside Islamist radicals such as al-Qaeda, for protection from Assad and IS.
The map shows how the Syrian government controls the vast majority of Syria. Almost all of Syria’s main cities (Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Tartous, Souwaida, and parts of Hama and Aleppo) are under government control. Moreover, unlike the moderate rebels, Assad’s territory is connected and functional to the extent that there is relative security in some cities such as Damascus, and even complete safety in some other cities such Tartous. Rebel held areas are often chaotically run, lack basic services and possess limited nutritional products.
When interests intersect
Assad’s plight is not a one-man show, however, for without Russia and Iran, there would be no regime left in Syria. As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains: both hegemons set aside their differences and gambled everything on the Syrian regime. It is not Assad’s person that they mean to protect, but rather their own interests, which for the time being, coincide with his survival.
Since the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Syria was the only Arab country to support a weak post-revolutionary Iran. Syria’s geopolitical position guarantees Iranian influence in the region, thus posing a threat to Israel through its supply to Hezbollah, an old Israeli enemy.
For Russia, the tightknit political and military alliance with Syria dates back to 1956, but like Iran, its incentive is to enlarge its own remote military base and increase its global geopolitical power. Russia has a long history of propping pro-Moscow dictators; it comes as no surprise that it would go above and beyond to preserve state institutions, fight Islamization and shield its allies for its own benefit. Long-awaited aerial support from Russia commenced in the fall of 2015. Although portrayed as a fight against radicalism, the Russian intervention is actually an attempt to eradicate the last traces of moderate rebels on the ground.
Before 2011, Aleppo was Syria’s second most important city—the financial and industrial capital of the country. Assad lost control of a large part of the city in 2012 and has been trying to regain it since. In the spring of 2016, the cry for Aleppo rang worldwide as a picture of Amran, a young boy with a bloodied face went viral. It stirred emotions globally. Yet for the Russians and Syrians, the image only stirred an intensified military campaign against the rebels.
Despite the humanitarian disaster, recapturing Aleppo not only reinforces the regime’s claim of holding the majority of Syrian territory, but also enables the government to negotiate a settlement from a position of power, and thus pave the way for political concessions from the West.
Cue in Donald Trump
Donald Trump’s victory in the US and his rhetoric on Syria align perfectly with Russia’s (and Assad’s) plan. In his first interview with the Wall Street Journal as President-elect, Trump bellowed: “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. … We’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are.”
His admiration of Putin, apathy towards the rebels, potential neo-isolationist rhetoric and virulent tone towards Islamist terrorist groups strongly suggest future U.S. disengagement from Syria’s internal affairs. Even Assad himself said in an interview after the election that he sees an ally in Trump. An American political withdrawal from Syrian affairs leaves the battlefield at Russia’s disposal to craft as she wishes.
Assad’s story slowly becomes reality
In late October 2016, Assad invited a large number of Western journalists to visit Syria. This was unmistakably a stunt to reap international support. He took the stage and denied responsibility for the current despair that personifies Syria.
In an interview with the New York Times, he painted the scene: “let’s suppose these allegations are true and this president has killed his own people, and the free world and the West are helping the Syrian people. After 5 and a half years, who supported me? How can I be president and my people support me?” And he does have support: in a December 2015 poll conducted by ORB International, Assad garnered strong public support, with a 47% majority, trumping all other groups and proxies in the region.
Yes, Assad is today’s new face of brutality, yet through tactics, allies, and rhetoric, he has retold the political narrative, transforming himself from global antichrist, to self-proclaimed prophet of his nation. History is always written by the victors. Assad has played his people and the international community into an existential bind of choosing between ISIS or him. With the help of Russia acting as his loudspeaker on a global stage that is more amenable to its demands, we can expect the international perception to mold from demanding his departure, to soon accepting his rule.
If the past has taught us anything, it is that the word never could quickly mean tomorrow.