In a spectacular case of bad timing and even worse judgment, Vogue magazine published a glam profile of President Bashar al-Assad’s wife last March, just around the time her husband’s regime started brutalizing unarmed regime protestors. Deeming Asma al-Assad “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies,” the puff piece glossed over the dictatorial essence of the Assad dynasty and missed altogether the fact that it was about to experience the heavy weather of the Arab Spring.
Assad has cast himself as the only thing standing between order and a sectarian bloodbath, denouncing the unarmed protestors as “saboteurs” and “terrorists” while unleashing snipers, tanks, artillery, and even naval gunfire against unarmed civilians, killing, according to the UN’s very conservative estimates, more than three thousand and imprisoning ten thousand more since March 2011.
The apple does not fall far from the dictatorial tree. In February 1982, Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, killed an estimated twenty thousand civilians in putting down a rebellion in Hama (now, understandably, a hot spot in today’s insurgency). The massacre gave rise to the phrase “Hama Rules,” which became shorthand for extreme brutality. But Assad the younger faces a much broader and more determined opposition than his father ever did, and the trajectory of his slow-motion downfall is becoming increasingly clear. So much so that the question in Syria today is not only how to get rid of the tyrant, but what the nation will look like when he’s gone.
Getting a clear read on developments in Syria can be challenging, thanks to Assad’s decision to ban foreign journalists and clamp down on domestic media. Nonetheless, enough uncensored evidence is slipping out—via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube videos—to document the strength of the opposition. It can be difficult to identify the precise “tipping point” when a regime’s collapse assumes an irreversible course, though this probably occurred in Syria during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the largely nonviolent opposition continued to grow even as Assad escalated his killings and detentions.
In early September, Mohammed Adnan al-Bakkour, the attorney general for Syria’s centrally located Hama Province, resigned in protest over the government’s crackdown. (Watch for him to assume a prominent position in the post-Assad regime.) As other senior officials follow his lead, Assad’s downfall becomes assured. Meanwhile, the number of military defections, though mostly from rank-and-file soldiers thus far, continues to climb. This too will accelerate as the regime loses its grip.
International pressure against Assad has increased as well, although somewhat unevenly and with a disturbing hesitancy. In mid-August, President Obama finally abandoned his “unclenched fist” engagement strategy with Damascus and declared that the “time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Germany, France, Britain, and other Western states have issued similar statements. Even the foreign minister of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, called upon Damascus to recognize the “legitimate” needs of its people—a slap in the face from Assad’s closest ally in the Middle East. In September, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad piled on by adding that the crackdown must end. Turkey has decried Assad’s “savagery.” Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Italy have withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus, while the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council have criticized Assad’s behavior.
Assad faces much more than just verbal condemnation. In August, the United States widened the circle of Syrian officials subject to its financial sanctions. In early September, the European Union banned the importation of Syrian crude oil, a significant measure set to take full effect in mid-November. The oil embargo will crimp the regime’s ability to pay its bills and pay off its supporters, since nearly thirty percent of its revenues are derived from oil exports. Tehran could seek to soften the blow, but with economic problems of its own and public condemnations from its leaders, it seems unlikely to offset the loss of this revenue stream entirely.
In August, the United Nations fact-finding mission to Syria reported that it found evidence of summary executions, torture of detainees, and other unlawful acts by the regime. But the UN Security Council, as is often the case when confronted by the depredations of dictators, has been reluctant to take forceful action, its timorousness reinforced by Russia and China, who, believing that NATO overstepped its mandate in Libya, have both signaled a determination to veto any meaningful UN action against Syria. But Assad cannot take too much comfort in this. After all, an increasing number of opposition members within Syria are calling for foreign military intervention on their behalf, and Assad’s crackdown may eventually spur NATO to act, even without a UN mandate. It is worth recalling that the lack of a UN mandate did not stop NATO from undertaking Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999.
Assad has navigated sticky situations before, such as the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005. But the growing national opposition he now faces—and the fierce conviction of this opposition that its time has come—presents a challenge of an altogether different magnitude. For now, Assad apparently retains the loyalty of his most senior civilian and military leaders, many of whom are from the Alawite clan, a sect of Shiite Islam that comprises an estimated twelve percent of the population. But the steady stream of military defections from the Alawite-dominated rank and file indicates that even tribal loyalty has its limits. Assad does not have the cash reserves to buy off his patronage networks for an extended period.
Taken together, these developments reflect a striking reversal of fortune for Assad. As recently as last year, Syria appeared quite stable and several European leaders—led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy—were courting Assad as a regional powerbroker. The Obama administration initially made engagement with Assad’s regime a high priority as well, despite Damascus’s well-documented role in helping jihadists transit Syria en route to Iraq and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. “Syria can play an important, constructive role in the region,” then Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told reporters in March 2009, after meeting with senior Syrian officials. Over a period of two-plus years, however, this optimism that Syria could play a constructive role in regional stability—based from the onset largely on wishful thinking—morphed into intense frustration as Assad rebuffed President Obama’s overtures.
The question of how long Assad manages to cling to power depends on the strength of the resistance both within and outside of Syria. The famously fractious Syrian opposition has become modestly less so in recent months. After several false starts, a group of activists formed a new National Council, claiming a group of nearly one hundred opposition leaders both from within Syria and from exile groups. (The temperate and diverse nature of this group somewhat assuages fears that Islamic radicals might dominate Syria’s political sphere after the Assad regime ends.) The council is led by Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, a political sociologist at Paris’s Sorbonne University who favors a nonviolent approach to the regime change. With some additional seasoning, and additional evidence of the regime’s slow-motion self-destruction, the council could transform itself into a government-in-exile.
The next phase of opposition is likely to include more sophisticated forms of resistance, to include work stoppages. Protests will spread to Aleppo and, eventually, into the heart of Damascus (they have already reached its suburbs). How long the opposition can retain its largely nonviolent orientation in the face of Assad’s increasingly violent onslaught is an open question. Some opposition members within Syria have already requested arms from abroad, and, according to some news reports, small groups of former Syrian officers are arming themselves in Turkey.
There are several exit ramps available for Assad, though none of them particularly attractive for one accustomed to the creature comforts of palace living. In a worst-case scenario, Assad might seek to divert international pressure by trying to provoke a much larger regional conflict. He could try this either by striking Israel directly or by goading his Iranian and Hezbollah allies into doing so. But this Götterdämmerung gambit is unlikely, since Assad knows Syria’s conventionally equipped armed forces are no match for the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli warplanes have buzzed his summer residence in Latakia on more than one occasion in recent years, sending a none-too-subtle reminder about his personal vulnerability.
In a best-case scenario, Assad would step aside and resign peacefully. Unfortunately, capitulation is not in his character—or in his gene pool, for that matter. He could be overthrown by his inner circle once they grasp that his downfall is unavoidable, though this outcome is also unlikely because the Assad dynasty has adroitly created a web of competing intelligence agencies to help make the regime as “coup proof” as possible.
Assad is unlikely to follow in the dusty boot-steps of Saddam Hussein or Muammar el-Qaddafi, both of whom sought to foment insurgencies after their respective regimes fell. Given the privileged upbringing Assad enjoyed, it is difficult to imagine him hiding out in a spider hole or seeking refuge in the desert. He might end up in a courtroom cage, like the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, since the post-Assad regime will want to hold the old regime’s worst human rights violators accountable for their actions (and the legal case against Assad grows daily). Yet Assad is more likely to flee Syria than to risk imprisonment. Iran might offer him refuge, if only to send a message to Hezbollah that it does not abandon its allies. (He would join some senior al-Qaeda figures also being shielded in Tehran.)
No one should underestimate the challenges awaiting Syria when the Assad dynasty finally crumbles. The new government’s most important challenge: holding the worst offenders of Assad’s regime accountable without destroying the organs of government worth preserving. The economic and financial system also cries out for extensive reform, since decades of socialism have taken their toll. Assad has tried a smattering of limited reforms during his tenure, but the results have been predictably poor. Corruption and cronyism are rife in Syria, and the black market is estimated to rival the legitimate economy in size and strength. The centrally planned economy is so feeble that it has struggled to cope with water and energy shortages.
The end of the Assad dynasty will have far-reaching consequences for the region, far more so than Qaddafi’s fall in the Maghreb. Most importantly, the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah nexus will be severed, and with it Iran’s easy transshipment of illegal weapons to Lebanon via Syria. The short-term impact on Hezbollah will be limited, however, since it has already accrued huge stockpiles of rockets.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey stand to gain the most by Assad’s downfall, insofar as aspirations of regional leadership are concerned. After Assad, Syria will be consumed with tackling the basic chores of domestic governance, just as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are far more inwardly focused today than they were a year ago. Syria’s obsession with the Golan Heights may diminish some once Assad departs the scene, but it will not disappear. Under Assad, Syria has also long been a net exporter of terrorism. The successor regime will have a powerful incentive to expel the Palestinian terrorist groups that have hung out shingles in Damascus. Such action would immediately improve the state of US-Syrian relations, and help Syria to escape the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Iran stands to lose the most ground from Assad’s downfall, since his regime has helped extend Tehran’s tentacles into the Levant. Iran may well seek to increase its influence in Iraq as a means to compensate for losing an ally in Assad. By increasing Iran’s isolation, the end of the Assad dynasty will focus renewed international attention on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program, a welcome development since the window for halting Iran’s program by peaceful means is closing.
The oft-quoted cliché that “the road to Middle East peace runs through Damascus” helps to explain why the Assad dynasty has survived so long. Like his father before him, Assad has long championed this idea to Western politicians and diplomats whose eagerness to keep the peace process afloat matched their willingness to overlook the regime’s bloodiness. The underlying logic of this idée fixe has long been suspect—both Egypt and Jordan secured peace treaties with Israel without any succor from Damascus—and now Assad’s escalating brutality raises the obvious question: Given his willingness to kill his own countrymen with abandon, how could anyone trust Assad to play a key role in forging, let alone abiding by, a peace agreement with Israel?
As the walls close in on him, Assad probably wishes he had never received the phone call in 1994 to return from his ophthalmologist residency in London and assume the role of dictator-in-training under his father’s tutelage. That role had been carefully reserved for his elder brother, Basil, until his death in a car crash. But Bashar accepted his fate, seeking dutifully to extend his family’s dynastic rule with all the instruments of repression he inherited.
Assad has survived in power for a little more than a decade—longer than most Syria watchers expected at the outset of his rule—and managed to withstand the Arab Spring longer than Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, and Libya’s Qaddafi. But the Assad dynasty is now reaping the whirlwind as internal opposition and external pressures hasten its inglorious end.
James H. Anderson is a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. He previously served as director of Middle East policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2009. The opinions expressed are his own.
Photo Attribution: Bertil Videt