The future of Assad
Syrian President Bashar Assad may feel in control. His press department grants interviews and access to Damascus when he wants and to whom he pleases. He has Russian warplanes bombing rebel groups, his regime’s primary long-term threat, in northern Syria.
The world’s gaze — and firepower — is zeroed in on Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists. Assad has Hezbollah and Iranian militias fighting in his stead on the ground and perhaps most importantly, he remains tightly in control of Damascus and the coastal regions.
Yet arguably his tenure has never been so fragile.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met weeks ago, Assad’s role going forward was surely a topic of serious discussion. They see Assad as a pivotal link to the Syrian people and a bulwark against pro-Western elements in the Levant but you could hardly imagine them asking each other: “How can we help President Assad?” More likely the conversation went: “How can Assad be of use to us?”
Residents of Damascus say it has become a city of women because all able-bodied men of fighting age are in hiding for fear of being forced into the military. Iranian and Russian military officers see this and it hardly inspires confidence in Assad’s actual popularity. What is more, the idea that Assad is telling Russia where, when and how many warplanes to unleash is so unlikely as to be borderline preposterous.
A lot of this is Assad’s own fault. His responsibility for how events in Syria have turned out over the past four-and-a-half years centres on his position as the leader of the state, and like any state anywhere else in the world, the protection of a country’s people and territories begins and ends with the president.
As such, responsibility for the physical destruction of Syria, making millions of people homeless and the rise of extremists must lie at his and his government’s door. Legitimate leaders resign in the face of popular dissent of the scale of the 2011 uprising; Assad instead chose to resort to shootings, torture, massacres and air strikes against civilians. Had Assad called for and allowed free elections as the uprising unfolded he would have won handsomely and the narrative of today’s war would have been very different indeed.
It is important to remember that, in the end, Iran and Russia are not fighting in Syria to protect Assad; they are in Syria to further their own, realpolitik-tinted position in the world. For the Iranian regime, the existential threat it sees posed by Israel means that securing Syria and Hezbollah is vital; for Russia, in order to maintain its relevance in the Middle East it must keep hold of its naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus.
Furthermore, when the chips are down, Iran still has Hezbollah while Russia’s attachment to the Tartus naval port is tenuous for the reasons that it is leased from the Syrian government, is very small and is manned by just four servicemen.
All this means that though Assad may appear defiant and confident when speaking with the Times of London, his sponsors may be less inclined to keep him in power than rhetoric from Moscow and Tehran suggests. The coming 12 months should tell much about what regard Russia and Iran hold for Assad and perhaps the bigger question going forward is what Iran and Russia will exact from the West in order to part with Assad.
Can there be any future for Assad? One thing the history of the Assad dynasty tells us is that when the international community thinks it is dead and buried, such as after Syria’s military withdrawal of Lebanon in 2005, it held on and rebuilt its contact base and web of influence across the region.
Assad may have become the press attaché rolled out to speak to Chinese, Russian or Western media as Iran and Russia do their thing on the ground but he remains a formidable figure for pro-regime Syrians to rally around.