The current crisis in Syria began in earnest in March 2011 in Dara’a. Protesters’ initial demands included the release of political prisoners, the removal of the emergency law, guarantee of greater political freedoms, and an end to government corruption. President Bashar al-Assad’s government responded with beatings, arrests, torture, and heavy censorship. As protests spread, the regime resorted to military action against civilian protesters, sparking the beginnings of an armed reaction from the opposition. By the end of July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed, marking marked the establishment of formal military resistance against the government. FSA was initially made up of defectors who had refused orders to shoot on protesters.
By 2011, Syria was an established security state, operating with a forty-eight year old state of emergency. The genesis of the current crisis, thus, goes back a few decades. The majority of the population had long-standing grievances that could be traced back to the establishment of the Syrian Arab Republic as a French mandate at the end of the first World War. Syria had gained independence in April 1946 as a parliamentary republic but it did not map onto the region that many of its inhabitants felt a more natural allegiance to, namely the bilad al-sham, including Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, which were now separate states. This was one reason why the early Syrian state was passionate about pan-Arabism, which led to the 1958 merger of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic. The union lasted only until 1961, and was followed by coups within the ruling Syrian Ba’ath party (operating under a socialist, secular and pan-Arab ideology). The result was that a military commander, Hafez al-Assad, installed himself as head of the state. Given Syria’s turbulent political history, he clamped down on all opposition political activity, established various security agencies to monitor political dissent, and maintained the state of emergency that had been instituted in 1963.
Under Assad, the military and intelligence networks slowly monopolised control of the state and its institutions. He also ensured that most senior positions were allocated to people from the Alawi sect (to which he belonged). Thus, his kinsmen were, despite the inclusion of some Sunni figures, established as the effective sectarian rulers of the country. He presented himself as the arch-symbol of the state and made loyalty to the president the decisive factor in politics. Assad slowly turned the Syrian state into a family autocracy. Further, Syria saw extreme mismanagement, inefficiencies and corruption in the economy. The immunity enjoyed by the ruling elite, and especially members of the extended Assad family, led to an elaborate system of crony capitalism, with kickbacks and covert deals that went all the way to the top. For example, Rifaat al-Assad, the president’s brother and first heir-apparent, was in command of Defense Companies, and was infamous for huge amounts of unexplained wealth. And Hafez al-Assad’s eldest son, Bassel, had been earmarked as the president’s successor.
After Bassel’s death in 1994, Hafez al-Assad turned to his younger son, Bashar, as his successor. Bashar was recalled from the UK, enrolled in a military academy and (rapidly) rose to the rank of colonel by 1999. To smooth his path, senior commanders were retired, and replaced by young Alawi officers loyal to Bashar. The young Assad embarked on an anti-corruption campaign to endear himself to the population, also allowing him to remove potential rivals. He also took over the handling of Lebanese affairs from the vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, allowing Bashar to be more deeply involved with pro-Syrian Lebanese factions such as Hizbullah. When Hafez died in 2000, Bashar was appointed leader of the Ba’ath Party and the army. Parliament decreased the minimum age for presidency from 40 to 34, allowing him to run (unopposed), and to be elected with ninety-seven per cent of the vote. He was again elected in 2007, again unopposed and with the same percentage of the vote, for another seven-year term.
With Bashar viewed as a liberaliser, his first term in office was heralded as a new beginning. Political repression decreased between 1998 and 2000, and this was widely attributed to Bashar’s influence. This period also saw the rise of informal discussion spaces where dissidents were able to voice their opinions. It was followed by calls for ending the state of emergency, abandoning martial law and special courts, releasing political prisoners, and the freedom to form political parties and engage in civil society organisations. Reformers demanded the repeal of the notorious Article 8 of the constitution, which named the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party as the leader of the Syrian state and society. Bashar did not respond to all demands, but he released hundreds of political prisoners and closed the notorious Mezze prison. But the hope this had kindled quickly evaporated as the regime returned to its former ways, closing discussion spaces and arresting those who gathered for such meetings. This abruptly ended, in 2001, what had been called the ‘Damascus Spring’, and, with it, the expectations of a more liberal order.
Although Syria is officially a semi-presidential republic, the president and his advisors, especially those in the military and security apparatuses, have almost total and exclusive control over governance. There is no public accountability, and the country was constitutionally, until 2012, under the rule of the Ba’ath Party. With the end of the state of emergency in April 2011, a month after the outbreak of the uprising, presidential decrees now need parliamentary approval. The last parliamentary election was held in 2012. Occurring during a civil war, it yielded a high number of parliamentarians who supported Assad. The Ba’ath Party had previously gained about fifty per cent of the 250 seats; in 2012 it won 133 seats, had the support of the majority of independents and the backing of its six coalition partners. The opposition coalition has five seats to the Ba’ath-led coalition’s 168. Therefore, despite constitutional changes that allowed for political pluralism and ended the guaranteed leadership of a single party, the Ba’ath party has stronger representation in the parliament than it did before March 2011.
Significantly, however, the parliamentary arrangement is merely decorative. A better sense of decision-making processes is gained by attention to Assad’s inner coterie of advisors, especially military and intelligence officials. These include: Maher al-Assad, Rami Makhlouf, Ali Mamluk, Abdul Fatah Qudsiya, Rafiq Shahada, Jamil Hassan, Mohammad Dib Zaitoun, Rustum Ghazali and Walid Mouallem. The closest and most important to Assad are the first three, with the Assad-Makhlouf family relationship being the hardline core of governance, within a bigger security core. Maher, the president’s youngest brother and head of the Republican Guard, which is responsible for protecting the regime, is the second most powerful person in Syria, and was responsible for convincing Bashar not to give in to popular demands during the Damascus Spring. Rami Makhlouf is Assad’s cousin, and is the richest and most powerful businessperson in Syria. He is Assad’s main economic advisor. Makhlouf is guilty of much corruption and cronyism, and is known to leverage his political connections for business purposes. The Financial Times reported that Makhlouf controls sixty per cent of the Syrian economy through his web of networks and interests. His most prominent asset is his major share in Syriatel, one of Syria’s two licensed mobile phone operators.
Internally, then, the regime is stable. The state is controlled by a tight matrix consisting of the army, the intelligence/security services, the Ba’ath Party, and the Assad-Makhlouf families. They are enmeshed in such a manner that separating them – and thus weakening the matrix – is an extremely difficult task. The survival of the regime depends, in large measure, on all these components remaining in this codependent state. There is no reason to suggest that this matrix will unravel any time soon. Thus, the possibility of a military coup, for example, is remote, as is the possibility of the Ba’ath Party divorcing itself from Assad (or vice versa).
A big source of the regime’s strength is its international partners – including those who deny they are partners. Not only is US president Barack Obama, despite the demands of Gulf states, not willing to engage in any military strikes against Syria, the regime’s allies are also committed to defending it diplomatically – with Russian and Chinese vetoes in the United Nations Security Council – and militarily – with Iranian and Russian weapons supplies.
Russia has been a crucial supporter of the Syrian regime and its position is unlikely to change. It has significant interests directly tied to the stability of the Assad regime. First, Tartus hosts Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean. Although only a naval repair base, it can potentially be upgraded to serve various other functions for the Russian navy. With Syria being Russia’s seventh largest arms and weapons purchaser, economic ties between the two countries run deep. Russia’s total investments in Syria were valued at $19.4 billion in 2009, and many of its firms have construction and oil-related deals with the Syrian government. Syria is also Russia’s only ally in the Arab world. Most importantly for Russia, Syria represents a projection of Russian power into the Middle East, into the Arab world, and the most western such projection. This, apart from serving a security agenda, also serves an agenda of national pride. Russia cannot afford to see its influence restricted to its own territory.
At the regional level, Syria’s main ally is Iran. The relationship between the two states extends back to the Iran-Iraq war when Syria became the only Arab country to side with Iran against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, at a time when Iran desperately needed allies. Syria was the stronger partner. Today, Iran is unwilling to turn its back on its ally. Along with significant commercial interests, the two states also share an ideological and strategic enemy in Israel (and the USA). The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard has not only provided its personnel for fighting with the Syrian army, it has also helped with training, strategy and equipment. And, significantly, despite suffering under sanctions, by the beginning of 2012, Iran had already given Syria $9 billion.
The regime’s other regional ally, Hizbullah, supported it since the uprising began. Some sources even suggested that its leadership was involved in planning the original Syrian response to the uprising. Hizbullah, like Iran, has supported the Syrian regime with its fighters. The important town of Qusayr was won by the Syrian army after the participation of Hizbullah reinforcements. The Lebanese group supports the regime not only because Syria is a conduit for its weapons from Iran, but also because it views the country as part of the ‘axis of resistance’ (including Iran and Hamas) against Israel. For Hizbullah, the outcome of the Syrian crisis carries existential implications.
The regime is politically advantaged because the opposition is marred by deep divisions, the extent of which are indicated by the infighting between various rebel groups. Similarly, with the rise of other Islamists rebels, such as Ahrar al-Sham within the larger Islamic Front, western powers face a genuine predicament in opting for what they see as the lesser of two evils, given the choice between the regime and its jihadi opposition. However, even on the matter of non-jihadi opposition, western powers are not agreed on the group they want to back. Before the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Council was the opposition group favoured by the West. And with recent changes in the Supreme Military Council, the FSA’s command structure that is affiliated to the National Coalition, such as the removal of the chief of staff, Salim Idris, it is unclear whether the Coalition is restructuring for functional reasons, or purging those in its leadership not compliant to the ideological demands of its funders.
Whatever the case, such changes raise doubts about the ability of the Coalition to extract any compromises from the regime, especially in light of the opposition’s dismal performance at Geneva 2. Politically fractured and militarily weak, the opposition does not present a viable alternative of a united and democratic Syria, or as a bulwark against the growing jihadi presence in Syria. Regardless of how strong a position the USA might take against Assad in its public pronouncements, it does not want a transitional process that will completely remove the regime. Given its experiences in post-Saddam Iraq, the USA is better understood as the moderating influence on the National Coalition, coaxing it to negotiate with the regime rather than backing the opposition’s demand for the regime’s removal.
Indications are that the regime, especially its innermost security and intelligence core, is strong internally, regionally, and in terms of international support. While it does not have total or lasting military control within Syria, and surely will not be able to recover some rebel controlled areas in the near future, it is not overly concerned by its inability to completely eradicate the rebellion. For the regime to persist, it needs Russia and Iran to continue providing it with the military, diplomatic and economic lifelines they are already supplying. The weakness of the opposition, and the unwillingness of their backers to increase their military support sufficiently to give the opposition a fighting chance, ensures that the opposition will not grow to a size or strength where it can seriously entertain the possibility of capturing the state.
In other words, barring any unexpected and unlikely changes, such as internal coups, assassinations, USA/NATO strikes or regional wars, status quo could last for a long time. The Syrian population, along with the affected population in the border regions of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, will continue to suffer from the fallouts of this crisis. For the status quo to change, the situation will require a radical restructuring of the opposition – organisationally and programmatically – and a radical change in the positions of those states that back it.