By Christopher Phillips, The Atlantic, 4 August 2018
After more than seven years of a civil war that has left half of Syria’s population displaced, cities reduced to rubble, and over 500,000 killed, President Bashar al-Assad appears to be on the brink of victory. In July, units loyal to Assad recaptured Deraa, where the peaceful protests that turned into a violent rebellion against him first began in 2011. The recapture came as Assad conquered the south, one of the last rebel holdouts.
The war is far from over, with the Kurdish east and rebel-held Idlib still out of regime hands, and any victory may prove pyrrhic given the devastation wrought. Even so, it now seems Assad is going nowhere. The Syrian dictator has outlasted Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron—Western leaders who once expected his fall “within months.”
How did Assad survive? Some observers grew optimistic about the regime’s impending collapse as the Arab Spring saw neighboring autocrats fall. Yet incumbents have a massive advantage in armed rebellions, and most insurgencies since World War II have been defeated. Assad’s internal and external opponents did put serious pressure on his regime, to the extent that at several points internal collapse seemed possible. But Assad’s survival was no accident: There are clear domestic and external causes. The regime used cynical and brutal tactics to maintain key backing at home, while abroad it had steadfast allies and reluctant and incompetent enemies.
Syria’s own institutions helped Assad withstand the pressures of protest and war. Notably, the security services remained loyal. There was no anti-Assad coup. Though individual soldiers defected once fighting started, these came from non-elite conscript units and without heavy equipment. Casualties and defections saw Assad’s army shrink from 325,000 to 125,000 in four years, but many fled instead of fighting back, and the rebels rarely numbered more than 50,000.
Beyond the military, the most high-profile defections came in 2012 when Manaf Tlass, a Republican Guard general, Riad Hijab, the prime minister, and Jihad Makdissi, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, all fled. These figures were prominent, but had no real power. Those holding actual influence—the security chiefs, top military figures, and industry leaders—doubled down behind Assad.
This was primarily because Assad had inherited a coup-proofed regime from his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. Hafez packed security positions and elite units with loyalists, many of them fellow Alawis, a traditionally marginalized sect that made up 10-12 percent of the population. They were persuaded that the Assads were their best route to security and privilege. In the civil war, vital military units were dominated by Alawis, and Assad’s close relatives in particular. In 2011, among the most powerful security chiefs were the president’s brother, brother-in-law, and cousin. Syria’s leading security and military institutions were tightly bound to the fate of the president.
Second, Assad was able to retain the active or implicit support of key segments of the Syrian population. One ploy was a deliberate manipulation of sectarian identity. Both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad won support from Alawis, Christians (8 percent of the population), and Druze (3 percent), as well as many secularists within the 65 percent who were Sunni Arabs. They did this by presenting themselves as secular defenders of religious pluralism. As soon as unrest broke out in 2011, Assad falsely characterized protesters as violent, intolerant Islamists, and government posters appeared warning of sectarian divisions. Eventually, this worked. Early protests were diverse, but over time Alawis, Christians, and other minorities stayed away. They and many secular Sunnis remained neutral or fell behind Assad.
Material levers were also pulled. Assad’s economic policies helped cause the rebellion, which was strongest in neglected rural areas and among young people facing 25 percent unemployment. Yet the state still provided 20-30 percent of jobs, and some feared losing a paycheck. Indeed, Assad cleverly continued to pay and even raise state salaries throughout the war (despite bad inflation), including in areas out of his control. The middle classes who had benefitted from Assad’s policies were also slow to abandon him. While some in rebellious Homs funded the opposition, in wealthier Aleppo and Damascus they largely remained quiet.
There was also genuine ideological support for Assad. From the beginning, Assad insisted the rebellion was an externally orchestrated plot and, after a lifetime of absorbing propaganda, some believed him. Others feared political instability. The regime cynically cultivated supporters by introducing a sliver of reform, such as a new constitution. While his opponents rightly dismissed such “concessions” as meaningless, to supporters they were important.
Another key ploy was a campaign of intimidation. Oppositionists claimed that the “wall of fear” had been broken by their protests, but that was wishful thinking. Many were scarred by memories of the last rebellion against an Assad, when Hafez massacred at least 10,000 in Hama in 1982. The post-2011 repression was an amplified imitation of that. While many bravely risked their lives, others were evidently deterred.
Then there was the regime’s successful effort to divide, delegitimize, and radicalize the opposition. The protesters that emerged in 2011 threatened Assad’s dictatorship because they formed a peaceful, grassroots, democratic movement. The government preferred to crush them rather than reform, yet it recognized that the population would not stomach unjustified violence. So, it concocted a legitimizing narrative: It portrayed the oppositionists as violent, foreign, sectarian Islamists.
Having constructed its false narrative, the regime set about making it real. Peaceful organizers were specifically targeted, and by July 2011, 8,000 peoplehad been detained, facing torture, sexual assault, and humiliation. Of those who were lucky enough to be released (over 75,000 were “disappeared”), many either fled abroad or became radicalized. When the opposition ultimately shifted to a violent struggle, many of the nonviolent activists who might have resisted were in prison, exiled, or dead.
Meanwhile, the regime deliberately released jihadists from prison in the hope they would radicalize the opposition and confirm Assad’s claims it was violently Islamist. The leaders of two significant Islamist militias—Hassan Aboud of Ahrar as-Sham and Zahran Alloush of Jaysh al-Islam—were both in Assad’s prisons in early 2011. Future ISIS and Jubhat al-Nusra fighters were their cellmates. The regime later prioritized the fight against moderate opponents while leaving embryonic ISIS largely unharmed. This was partly pragmatic, as ISIS was in the peripheral east while other rebels threatened the western heartlands, but it was also strategic. Just as Assad targeted the non-violent opponents to ensure the rebellion turned violent, he focused on moderate armed rebels in the hope that only jihadists and his regime would be left for Syrians and the world to choose from.
Had there been no external involvement, these domestic ploys might have been enough for Assad to survive. But the uprising quickly became internationalized. Western governments called on Assad to stand aside in August 2011, and imposed sanctions. Regional governments led by Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia cut ties. Soon Assad’s foreign enemies were sponsoring his political opponents and aiding the armed rebels. Yet this was dwarfed by aid from the regime’s allies, Iran and Russia.
Assad’s friends consistently gave more than his enemies, providing vital political, economic, and military support. Russia used its UN Security Council veto 12 times to protect Assad from Western resolutions. Moscow and Tehran gave vital economic lifelines to offset the impact of sanctions and war. Russia, for example, printed Syrian bank notes to circumvent EU sanctions while Iran agreed to $4.6 billion in loans to Syria, which paid for weapons and salaries and kept the struggling state functioning.
Both governments also provided key military assistance. Iran initially sent weapons and advisers but increased its role after several Assad defeats in 2012-2013. It deployed foreign Shia militias, including Hezbollah, and reorganized Syria’s forces. Russia also offered arms early on, and intervened directly with its air force in 2015, when Assad looked vulnerable. This is what ultimately turned the tide, allowing Assad to retake key regions from the rebels and ISIS. Vladimir Putin consequently became the key powerbroker, striking deals with Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. to freeze the conflict with the rebels. However, these proved worthless when Assad broke the ceasefires in 2018—with Putin’s support.
Meanwhile, the political opposition’s foreign allies only exacerbated its ideological and tactical divisions. Foreign governments favored emigres over internal activists when they sponsored governments in exile such as the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). Turkey and Qatar empowered Islamists within these bodies, notably the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. This drew ire from Saudi Arabia, which loathed the Brotherhood, and prompted Qatari- and Saudi-backed factionalism within the opposition. That ultimately caused the first president of the SOC to resign after only a few months. Such internal divisions were a gift to the regime.
Similarly, external powers weakened the armed opposition. Militias mostly formed locally, and attempts to unite them under a national command structure had mixed results. Ideological differences, particularly over the role of Islamism, further split the fighters. Secular and moderate Islamists were marginalized by hardliners such as Ahrar as-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS. This also alienated the Kurds (10 percent of the population), long oppressed by the Assads but largely secular, prompting them to become a neutral third force opposed to Assad, the rebels, and, later, ISIS. The rebels’ external allies fed these trends. Qatar claimed to support only the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA)’s militias, but actually backed a range of fighters, many Islamist. Turkey preferred groups allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and later sponsored Ahrar as-Sham. Saudi Arabia, which also initially preferred the FSA, ended up backing the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam. For several years the Gulf states also did little to prevent private Islamist donations heading to Syria. Foreign sponsors were therefore encouraging opposition militia to compete for external funds rather than unify. And few discouraged the shift toward radicalization.
It’s possible more decisive Western intervention might have toppled the regime, but Barack Obama prioritized other concerns over Assad’s defeat. The U.S. backed the rebels from the start, and the CIA oversaw arming efforts. Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus argued that the U.S. should step up its role by vetting, training, and equipping moderate rebels, yet Obama rejected this, believing it wouldn’t tip the balance and fearing the weapons would end up with jihadists. He had cause for concern. The trend toward radicalization (with Assad’s help) was well underway, while U.S. sponsorship of rebels in Libya had not prevented Qatar and others backing radical groups. Later in the war, when the U.S. did initiate a train-and-equip program, some of the fighters it armed were robbed by jihadists, while others sold their weapons. Whether he was right or wrong, Obama prioritized the fight against jihadism over that against Assad.
A similar prioritization was seen when it came to direct U.S. intervention. Obama had threatened Assad that using or moving his substantial chemical-weapons stockpile would mean crossing a red line. Yet when Assad allegedly gassed rebels in Ghouta in 2013, Obama pulled back from a proposed strike, preferring a Russian-brokered deal to remove the arsenal. Although a U.S. strike might have deterred Assad from further attacks or debilitated his forces sufficiently to allow a rebel victory, Obama was conscious of the risks. He had toppled Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, leading to chaos, not stability, and feared the same in Syria. However, a year later Obama did initiate strikes in Syria—against ISIS, after they captured Mosul. The fight against jihadism once again trumped the fight over Assad.
By the time Donald Trump came to office, Assad’s position was arguably already secure. Moreover, Trump’s focus in Syria was fighting ISIS, continuing Obama’s policies of backing Kurdish forces on the ground and largely ignoring Assad’s reconquest in the rebel-held west. While he did strike Assad twice after further use of chemical weapons, his priority seemed to be showing he was stronger than Obama rather than damaging the regime. His closeness to Russia also contributed to relative complicity, to the point of doing nothing to prevent Assad from retaking Deraa, even though it was located in a ceasefire zone that Trump himself had guaranteed in 2017. Despite seemingly wanting to be the anti-Obama, Trump continued his predecessors’ policy of prioritizing other issues over Assad’s defeat, enabling his survival.
From the outside, Assad’s victory looks like no victory at all. He is king of the ashes, overlooking a distraught country from his presidential palace. He has yet to conquer vast swathes of territory and faces ongoing terrorist attacks from jihadist sleeper cells. He must rebuild a heavily indebted, struggling economy, with a shrunken population shorn of much of its technical and intellectual skill. He is reliant on two powerful foreign allies, Russia and Iran, who have infiltrated state institutions and the economy and wield huge influence. He must placate the millions of loyal Syrians who have sacrificed their blood and treasure to keep him on his throne.
Yet to Assad and his inner circle, who have been playing a long game, it must seem these problems can still be surmounted, even if it takes decades. For them, the war was about survival, and in this sense they have won. Their own cynicism and ruthlessness at home combined with decisive assistance from abroad (whether intentional or not) has allowed them to remain in power. It was brutal and inhumane but, from their perspective, it worked. That is a chilling lesson for other dictators.