My latest article in The Guardian, 6th March 2012
There is an assumption that Bashar al-Assad’s military solution to the current crisis in Syria is hopeless – that no matter how many centres of resistance like Baba Amr he brutally crushes, the opposition won’t be quelled and the fall of his regime, whether it takes months or years, is inevitable.
Yet there are recent examples where Arab governments have repressed uprisings and won. With the exception of Libya, when rebels toppled the incumbent regime only with the aid of Nato support, almost all insurgencies have ended in failure.
Assad already has one template to follow: his father’s crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1976-82. Other successful violent strategies in the region, such as Saddam Hussein’s suppression of the Iraqi Shia rebellion in 1991 and the Algerian government’s victory in the civil war of 1991-2000, may also persuade the regime it can hold on.
Are the conditions that allowed those regimes to survive different enough from contemporary Syria to give the opposition hope, or would Assad be right to believe that history is on his side?
The strength of the security forces compared with a weak opposition is one reason why embattled regimes favour the military option. For a long time the demonstrators in Syria resembled the Shia uprising against Saddam in 1991: a spontaneous, uncoordinated rebellion against the regime.
The Iraqi Shia were, in fact, in a stronger position than Syria’s demonstrators today as they successfully liberated great swaths of southern Iraq for a time. In spite of this, a loyal core of Saddam’s Republican Guard reconquered all lost territory within weeks, killing tens of thousands.
Cultivating loyal units was a tactic utilised by Hafez Assad as well, using his brother Rifaat’s Defence Companies throughout 1976-82. Today, President Bashar has regularly utilised loyal fourth armoured division troops (headed by his own brother, Maher) in Baba Amr and elsewhere – suggesting that this survival technique has been noted.
Even when facing armed opposition, which the Assad regime now does, past Arab governments have overcome far greater threats than that currently posed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It took the Algerian government nine years and up to 200,000 deaths to overcome Islamist militia in its civil war, while it took Hafez al-Assad’s regime six years and up to 60,000 deaths, but both regimes eventually held.
Even with the prospect of Qatar and Saudi Arabia arming the FSA, the Syrian rebels are unlikely to reach the parity with regime forces needed for a military victory unless they persuade sizeable chunks to defect with equipment. Without major external support, as with Libya, precedent would suggest either a regime victory or at best a civil war stalemate.
Importantly, in all three past cases the core of the regime held together under the pressure of an uprising. In Iraq, where Saddam faced a simultaneous rebellion from Kurds in the north, his core Sunni constituency, key members of his inner circle and the security forces all stayed loyal.
The same was true in Hafez’s Syria during the Muslim Brothers’ uprising, particularly because of the loyalty of the Damascus merchant class.
In Algeria, the military took power in a coup in 1992 and retained enough establishment support for the state to function throughout the civil war.
For now, the Syrian regime also shares these traits. Its social base has shrunk but its core support, particularly members of Syria’s religious minorities led by Assad’s Alawi sect, has stayed loyal or neutral. The military has not splintered, with conscripts rather than officers or whole units defecting, and the merchant and middle classes of Aleppo and Damascus have remained quiet. Unlike Gaddafi’s Libya, which disintegrated very quickly, the Ba’athist state continues to function. Assad may, therefore, equate his regime with those of Algeria, Iraq and his father’s that survived an uprising.
However, key differences may yet undo Assad. For one, the international and regional community are more mobilised against Assad than they were against either the Algerian government or that of Assad’s father. In the past, too, tight control on the press ensured only piecemeal media coverage, unlike the constant stream of brutal YouTube footage outraging international public opinion today.
At present, the regime seems to believe that such pressure can be weathered, perhaps hoping that the international community will repeat the climbdown that was seen in Iraq in 1991: calling for an uprising against Saddam but limiting action to a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan and economic sanctions that hurt the people more than the regime.
However, both the global and regional stance may change if the slaughter continues, confronting the regime with either direct military intervention or a concerted attempt to arm the rebels.
The second question is whether Assad can continue to keep a critical mass of public opinion on his side or, at least, not actively against him. The Algerian government and Hafez both faced a credible Islamist threat, whose atrocities rallied support for the regime.
Contrary to regime propaganda, the majority of FSA fighters are not Islamists, and atrocities are being committed by the regime rather than the opposition. Even if the regime’s minority core stays loyal, fearing retribution and a loss of privilege, will the silent majority of Syrians, particularly in central Damascus and Aleppo, accept many more Baba Amrs?
The more the regime kill, the more they risk affecting extended families in other cities, widening the opposition. Recent demonstrations in the previously loyal middle-class district of Mezze in Damascus suggest the tide of public support may yet turn, particularly if the economy continues to decline under the weight of sanctions and unrest.
For now, however, as with Algeria, Iraq and his father before him, the pillars of Bashar’s regime remain in place. Recent historical examples in the region illustrate how difficult it is to unseat a ruling regime without the assistance of western firepower. In its absence, those seeking to topple Assad must thus consider how best to erode those pillars in a manner least damaging to Syria in the long run.
For those wondering about Assad’s next move, however, policymakers could do worse than look at the past Algerian, Iraqi and Syrian examples for a dictator’s handbook on how to survive an uprising.