Syria Unrest: Is Assad up to it?

It has been a few weeks since I last posted on Syria, and unfortunately the regime has proven far more brutal than many expected. For four weeks now we have seen demonstrations spread beyond Deraa to Banias, Homs, Hama, Deir-es-Zour, Qamishli, Hassake, Lattakia, Douma and even Harasta this week, with over 150 deaths reported in total.

Faced with crisis, President Assad has proved unimaginative. Having raised hopes of reform through comments made by high-ranking officials, Assad dashed expectations with an underwhelming speech before parliament last week. Since then he has offered a few superficial concessions, such as citizenship to stateless Kurds and repealing his ban on the niqaab for classroom teachers, but nothing close to the real, wide ranging reforms that demonstrators want. Some good analysis has been written recently (here, here and here) on whether Assad is a reformer at heart or not, having promoted that image at home and abroad for a decade, but seemingly failing now when the key moment comes. Yet is this issue of his ‘true’ intentions misleading? Rather than look at his beliefs, should we not consider Assad’s ability? Here is a man with no background in politics or even the military, save for the few courses he was rushed through from 1994-2000 after his brother Basil’s death. Does he actually possess either the ruthlessness or the political skill needed to recover from a serious internal challenge?

Misjudging the protests

What is clear is that Assad seriously misread the situation after the first demonstrations. His parliamentary speech was all style and no substance. The style was well rehearsed: he looked laid back, approachable and friendly – the very image he has cultivated for the past decade in Syria, and one of the reasons why people seemed to genuinely like him. But the substance was vacuous, rhetorical and substandard for the occasion. With officials such as Farouk al-Sharra raising expectations before the speech, most Syrians wanted major concessions. Yet when the expected reforms weren’t included in the speech, the same laid back, almost jokey style appeared flippant and even insulting: how could the President laugh and smile when 60+ people had been killed in Deraa? His not offering an apology to the families of the deceased was a further insensitive error.

What perhaps Assad did not realise is that, until that speech, he had been the regime’s greatest asset. Most Syrians resent and dislike most of the regime, especially the corrupt members of Assad’s immediate family, but seem to buy the ‘quiet reformer’ line and place Bashar on a higher pedestal. Yet by refusing to offer anything but promises of yet more committees – the same committees that were formed in 2005 and produced no results to date – public faith in Assad as a true reformer will erode. Exacerbating things have been Bouthaina Shaabaan’s comments that she was in the room when President Assad told security forces not to harm protesters. This serves only to trap Assad in his own regime’s rhetoric: if more people die – which they have since Shaaban’s comments – he looks either too weak to control his own security forces from killing people, or a liar. Either way, his popular support erodes further.

Weak leader?

So is he weak or a liar? Most would like to think that he has not himself been ordering the brutal crackdowns that have cost many Syrians their lives.  Most see rogue commanders, possibly on the order of Maher al Assad (Bashar’s more hardline brother), being more aggressive than Bashar would wish. Yet this is not the first incident like this under Bashar’s watch. Ignoring the alleged Syrian role in various Lebanese assassinations including Rafik Hariri, there was the crackdown on Kurdish activists in 2004 that killed at least 30, and the 2008 Sednaya prison massacre in which 25 prisoners were allegedly killed. It is all very well to say that these too may have been out of Bashar’s control, but did he make any attempt to discipline those officers involved? Was there an investigation into the killings? Even if Bashar is not ordering the crackdown’s himself, he is hardly cultivating a system in which rogue officers will fear the consequences if they overstep the line.

All of which suggests Assad is weak and unable to project control over large segments of the security forces. It was tragically farcical that he ordered an investigation into the deaths in Deraa last month, only for another 25 to be killed yesterday.  Surely no leader who hopes to retain power could fail to see the huge contradiction: you are willing to investigate rogue officers’ actions after they kill innocents, but you are unable to prevent them from killing more in the meantime. It is not surprising that many Syrians will conclude that security forces commit these killings with the full backing of the regime.

The question of weakness can also explain the lack of real reforms offered by Bashar. To satisfy protesters’ demands he needs to go beyond a superficial change in the nature of the emergency law or the number of co-opted parties sitting in parliament. Instead, he needs to hack through the very heart of his regime and family: force Maher, brother-in-law Asef Shawkat and cousin Rami Makhlouf to give up power and privilege, route out corruption in the regime and open up the political system. The impression given from the speech last week was that, for all his joking and laughing, President Assad doesn’t dare.

The second-generation autocrat

Yet why has so much been expected of Assad? He way well be the jovial, approachable character that his image-makers promote, but does that qualify him to lead the way out of crisis? He is a second-generation autocrat who became president because of his family not because of his ability, and even then he was second choice behind Basil. To be fair, his record as president has shown an ability to survive threats from abroad. He was able to outmaneuver the Bush administration on both Lebanon and Iraq. He has shown some diplomatic skill as well: forging close ties to Turkey was a masterstroke to survive international isolation, and recognizing the need to withdraw from Lebanon quickly in 2005 showed astuteness. Yet even with foreign policy, the majority of Bashar’s approach has been a continuation of his fathers and has not required a great deal of imagination. The same can be said for domestic policy. There have been moves to liberalise the economy – another extension of Hafez’s own infitah in the 1990s – but these have been stymied by an unwillingness to target the crony capitalism of Assad’s inner circle, particularly Makhlouf. Moreover, having promised political reform in 2000 and 2005, very little has changed and the same elites hold power. After a decade of waiting with no returns, who could be blame Syrians for doubting that Assad will dare to really change anything now?

In short, little in Assad’s time as president, or even his life before it, has shown that he has the domestic political skill, either innovation or ruthlessness, needed to survive this political crisis. This does not mean that he will be toppled tomorrow, and there certainly isn’t a clear alternative to the Assad regime waiting in the wings just yet. Moreover he may still surprise us with a resolve, as yet unseen, though the signs are not good. With every new demonstration, crackdown or superficial concession offered, Assad’s popular image of a reforming modernizer is being severely tarnished in the eyes of the Syrian people. If he doesn’t learn how to lead soon, alternatives that would have never been countenanced just a few months ago will become increasingly attractive to his frustrated former supporters in the Syrian public.

4 thoughts on “Syria Unrest: Is Assad up to it?

  1. Dr Phillips makes a strong case for Bashar Assad as being weak. As the violence spirals upward, it leaves little room for what will come. If Bashar is incapable, then the powers that be will replace him. Many analysts view the power structure as controlled by the Alawites. If so, Bashar may be asked or forced to step down in favor of his brother Maher. If the Assad family is no longer viable, then who would assume power? Is there another Alawite clan standing in the wings?

    The emphasis on the protestors may be misplaced. The excitement of Twitter and Facebook hide the fact that there is no civilian movement that could step into power. Moreover, the protestors do not represent one political perspective. The Kurds of the northeast and the Sunnis of Huran region may resent Bashar, but do not seem to share a nationalist vision. Sectarianism and tribalism remains strong.

    Whether or not Bashar remains as president, the situation promises to only worsen. The removal of Bashar, in addition, does not hold out hope either. The failure of the Ba’ath and Assads as well as no leading civilian figure or political entity resurrects the specter of Syria returning to undergoing coups and government changes. From the late 1940s to 1963, Damascus saw one government after another and one general after another in office–some for only days. Even after 1963, divisions within the Ba’ath Party resulted in coups–Hafiz grabbing power in 1970.

    Western style democracy may not be what some of the protestors are marching for. Economic conditions have not improved and Syria is suffering from one of its worst droughts. The sectarian and tribal rivalries and animosities may be underpinning Sunni resentment towards the Alawites as to governing in Damascus. And, the army is always in the background. Not much to look forward for the 22 million civilians.

  2. Pingback: Syria Comment » Archives » Assad Speech II – (16 April 2011)

  3. Most Syrians are painfully aware of the realities of ‘democratisation’ – after all, they have the example of another Arab state far closer to home than Egypt or Tunisia. The view from Syria of a neighbour tearing itself apart left a lasting impression and cities all over the country are full of unemployed Iraqi refugees brought low by war and civil strife.

    Much mainstream reporting displays a drastic lack of understanding of Syrian national mythologies. The Assad dynasty has left deep and terrible scars on the people, but it has also imparted a national sense of strength and dare I say it, hubris. After the fall of Iraq and now Libya, many Syrians feel that it is the last strong Arab nation, as yet unbowed to America and the West.

    There is a widespread perception among Syrians, especially those who have worked in other parts of the Arab world, that Syria is the last bulwark of Arab self-respect; its place in the Syrian heart and mind cannot be underestimated. If the overthrow of Assad leads to the collapse of this proud independence, many Syrians will feel that however much has been gained, something far more precious has been lost.

    Taken from my own blog at

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