Why Bashar Assad survives the Syrian deluge

Sunday 12/03/2017

Logic, if it applied in this war, would dictate that by now — six long and murderous years into the conflict — Syrian President Bashar Assad should carry the blame for the sectarian violence that has placed his country on the brink of destruction. In any other context, in any other country, he would have been removed from power and brought to stand trial.

However, in Syria, particularly in time of war, there is another type of logic that prevails. As with almost every other aspect of daily life in the region, do not always seek explanations in which one would naturally look. In the Levant, as in other parts of the Middle East, answers may be found in the country’s tribes or in traditions.

In Syria, it is the logic of sectarianism, political schisms and the deep-rooted hatred dividing the various religious communities that guides everyday political decisions and what may pass for logic. It is largely thanks to those guidelines of tribal survival that Assad is still in power despite half the country and most civilised democracies calling for his resignation.

Why has Assad managed to remain in power?

To better understand what keeps Assad so solidly in command when a large portion of his people, most of his neighbours and much of the Western world vie for his demise, one should visualise an inverted pyramid.

Imagine an upside-down pyramid with Assad at the bottom, in a sort of Herculean manner, struggling like Atlas to keep the rest of the infrastructure sturdily on his shoulders and intact. Remove Assad and the structure crumbles.

Right above the president there is the extended family: Mother, brothers and sisters along with their spouses and children. On the next tier one can find cousins, uncles and in-laws. Above them are the top party officials and the senior military personnel. Interjected among all the above is a scattering of loyal bodyguards and their close families.

Remove any of those rows of people and the ones above them crumble and crash. Do not forget that above those mentioned there are hundreds of rank and file who belong here simply because they happened to be born into a particular religious sect. Aside from the political and religious affiliations, many of those within the inner circle are connected through lucrative business deals.

This is a very similar infrastructure to the one that existed in Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein. It was precisely what frightened former US president George H.W. Bush and his team and kept the United States from taking drastic action in the period between the two Gulf wars.

Assad’s position is comparable in many ways to that of Saddam when he ordered his army to invade Kuwait.

There are also fundamental differences between the ruling Ba’ath Party in Iraq prior to the US invasion and subsequent occupation and the ruling Ba’ath Party in Syria, not least of which is Iran’s position in the conflict. Iran plays a major role in the region’s politics.

In the war in Iraq, the Iranians supported the opposition to the regime. In the Syrian war, the Iranians are backing the regime.

Another similarity between the Gulf wars and what is going on in Syria today is the important role being played by the Kurds. They were a major contender in the fight to bring down Saddam and the Kurds remain a power to be reckoned with in the fight to bring down Assad. Suffice to say that, this time around, the Kurds may be somewhat closer to attaining their long aspiration of an independent homeland.

However, as history has a habit of repeating itself…

Saddam was eventually deposed, so why is removing Assad from power so difficult and so complex? Three good reasons: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Once, not too long ago, sidelined from Middle East politics, Russia under President Vladimir Putin finds itself again practically at the level of influence previously enjoyed by the Soviet Union, if not actually even more so.

With these new developments in Syria, the United States will find it can no longer act unilaterally. Another major difference is that Assad was able to call on Iran and on Hezbollah militiamen from next-door Lebanon, whereas Saddam had no friends left.