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Will Assad Survive? – OpEd

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It is almost unbelievable, given the roller-coaster ride of Bashar al-Assad’s fortunes these past five years, that he remains President of Syria (albeit a much reduced dominion), and stands a fair chance of remaining so.

At the start of 2011 Assad was the absolute ruler of a brutal and repressive regime, and as firmly entrenched in power as his father, Hafez, had been throughout the thirty years of his presidency. For at that time the so-called “Arab Spring” – popular uprisings against repressive regimes which began in Tunisia in December 2010 – had as yet claimed no victims among the autocratic rulers of the Arab world.

Then they started to topple – on 14 January 2011 Tunisian President Zine el Abidine fled to Saudi Arabia; on 11 February Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak resigned; on 23 August Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown; in February 2012 Yemeni President Saleh abdicated and was replaced. Later the president of Sudan resigned, as did the Iraqi and Kuwaiti prime ministers. The uprising in Tunisia had spread like a forest fire across the Middle East, engulfing state after state.

Not all succumbed. Some managed to douse the flames with the firehose of financial generosity. For instance in February 2011, immediately after the fall of Egypt’s President Mubarak, Saudi Arabia announced a social welfare package for its citizens worth $10.7 billion, featuring pay raises for government employees, new jobs and loan cancellation schemes. By the end of the month, the handouts totaled $37 billion. In March Saudi’s King Abdullah announced an additional $93 billion in social spending.

The United Arab Emirates provided some $2 billion in housing loans to Emiratis, while Qatar announced an $8 billion payout in salary and benefits increases for all state and military personnel. Oman and Bahrain also increased social spending by billions.

This was not Bashar al-Assad’s reaction when, in March 2011, a few teenagers in a southern Syrian city daubed some inflammatory slogans on a school wall. Unfortunately for them, the Syria that Assad had inherited in 2000 from his autocratic father was a tightly controlled police state, in which a powerful and all-encompassing security machine ensured that the slightest hint of opposition to the régime was ruthlessly crushed.

The youngsters were hunted down, arrested and tortured. When details of their ordeal became known, protesters took to the streets. The security forces, unable to break up the demonstration, eventually fired into the crowd. That was enough to spark widespread rebellion. Groups antagonistic to Assad’s government began nationwide protests. Gradually, popular dissent developed into an armed revolt. The opposition, consisting of a variety of groups, but primarily the Free Syrian Army, were finally seeking to overthrow the despotic Assad régime and substitute a democratic form of government.

Assad brought himself to offer concessions, but they were too little and too late. He released dozens of political prisoners, dismissed the government, lifted the 48-year-old state of emergency and pledged to start a “national dialogue” on reform. It was all to no avail. Armed anti-regime protests intensified, and in May Assad sent tanks into Deraa, Banyas, Homs and the suburbs of Damascus in an effort to crush them.

Given the sequence of events elsewhere in the Middle East, Assad’s days seemed numbered. Surely he would succumb to popular rebellion as fellow autocrats had done. Both the Western world led by the US, and the Arab League, declared that Assad’s rule was unsustainable. In May 2011 the US and the EU tightened sanctions against him. In November the Arab League suspended Syria from membership, and itself imposed sanctions.

Had assistance of any sort been forthcoming to those fighting Assad in the name of democracy, he could have been defeated, to be replaced by a democratically elected government. But President Obama continued vacillating, even after it was clear in August 2013 that Assad had used chemical weapons against his opponents, utterly indifferent to the extensive civilian casualties that ensued. Calls by the US and the EU urging Assad to step down, echoed by Jordan’s King Abdullah and Turkey’s President Erdogan, fell on deaf ears.

By 2014 Assad was facing two existential dangers – not only his domestic rebels fighting a civil war aimed at replacing autocracy with democracy, but also so-called Islamic State (IS), set on establishing a caliphate across Iraq and Syria. Over 2014 and 2015 IS succeeded in seizing great swathes of Syrian territory. At the nadir of his fortunes in August 2015, Assad controlled only some 20 percent of his original dominion.

Obama’s policy decision to abstain as far as possible from direct engagement in the Middle East had created a power vacuum which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was only too eager to fill. In September 2015 Putin sent in a vast arsenal of Russian military equipment, and began full-scale operations in support of Assad. The resultant readjustment of the relative strengths of the opposing forces, added to the enhanced operations of the US-led anti-IS coalition, resulted in IS losing some 22 percent of the territory it had controlled. It also facilitated the UN’s peace-keeping efforts, although too late for the demand of most Western leaders that Assad should play no part in Syria’s future.

So Assad hangs on, his position strengthened by both Russian and Iranian support and by his consequential territorial gains. A UN-sponsored truce in February 2016 between Assad’s forces and so-called “moderate” rebels – with Assad’s future left out of the agreement – seemed a hopeful step towards resolving the five-year conflict.

Then, on May 4, negotiations began in Berlin aimed at finalizing a new truce agreement. These, though, are unlikely to succeed until Assad’s bid, backed by his Russian and Iranian allies, to seize back the city of Aleppo from his domestic rebels is resolved, although the brutality of his onslaught, and the mounting civilian death toll, will do little to soften the West’s opposition to him.

Clinging to power in a much-reduced domain, Assad nevertheless remains a major player in the effort to resolve the multi-layered battles raging across what has been “Syria” since it became an independent republic in 1946. Whether he will survive as president, what sort and size of state he would be ruling over if he does, and if he does not, what manner of state or states will succeed his regime – these are matters that only time, chance and circumstance will resolve.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

2 thoughts on “Will Assad Survive? – OpEd

  • Avatar
    May 11, 2016 at 11:40 am
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    From this VERY western telling it seems the author must be on US/NATO payroll. No mention of all the foreign fighters aka mercenary terrorists in Syria?? No mention of the fact that the true reason for Deraa incident was the sniper murder of 2 Syrian security personnel?? Not a word about the oil slick created on the roads in Deraa to ambush Syrian soldiers?? Just 3 items left out of many that would make this an objective assessment. But if propaganda works just keep it going. The article could have easily been titled “President Assad Will Wave Goodbye to Obama”, just as he has many other politicians who insist on telling Syrians how to live. Inside Syria the citizens have lived through 5+ years of foreigners trying to decide the fate of their chosen leader. You don’t have to like him, but Syrians love him and his wife – that’s more than the self appointed rulers of the world can say.

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  • Avatar
    May 11, 2016 at 12:04 pm
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    This author is a propagandist most foul for the west’s lies.

    For one thing, the US prepared the destabilization with large scale protests since 2006 and the protests, while honest for some of the Syrian people, who never wanted to topple Assad, because they actually like Assad, were taken over by CIA trained thugs. While the Syrian army and government overreacted at the beginning, it is also true that the first shots were fired by CIA trained incisors, not the Syrian army. The situation disintegrated rapidly, with weapons for the hordes of mercenary “protesters” clearly ready nearby. With the influx of tens of thousands of jihadis and militant fighters from all over the world, the war in Syria is hardly a civil war, but is a proxy war between the US and Syria and more recently, the US and Russia.

    It is ironic that it hasn’t occurred to any of these so-called professional opinion writers that Assad has to go ceased to be a possibility when Assad accepted to give up his chemical weapons. Since Russia convinced Assad to this move, it should have been clear to all that Russia would not let the US exploit the weakness of Syria, deprived of a deterrent, to attack Syria. The chemical weapons attack was diagnosed by a UK lab as not having committed by Assad as he didn’t have the used type of Sarin, but a false flag attack by the rebels, as transpired later on from documents provided by a Turkish parliamentarian, helped by Turkey.

    Russia intervened when Assad was losing western territory – the 20% that contain 80% of the Syrian population – rapidly against the overload of ISIS, al Nusra and allied terrorist groups and it was clear the the US actions to combat ISIS were not serious, but only an effort to contain ISIS within Syria and Iraq and prevent it from expanding into Jordan, SA and Turkey. Russia’s stated goal was to uphold the secular Syrian state and prevent ISIS from spreading to Russia and Central Asia and in time to China. That was of course and still is the goal of the US: to use ISIS to destabilize Russia, Central Asia and China.

    it is ironic that now that the US had to give in and cooperate with Russia to maintain the cease fire to restore some peace and stop the migrant flow to the EU who is close to political collapse, author after author writes opinions that are pure propaganda, characterizing Assad as brutal and unacceptable tyrant and demonizing Russia. In reality, Obama has no other choice short of escalating the war in Syria into WW3. For those of us who thought that ISIS should have been fought off right away at the beginning with the US cooperating with the Syrian army as land force, the Russian intervention was positive and the current pressure on Obama to actively pursue peace and an end to war in Syria is welcome. It is what Obama should have done from the start of his presidency: do the things he promised in a genuine way. Unfortunately, he waited to the last few months of his presidency to act like a statesman. And apparently he still needs the cover of all the foul propaganda to appease the hawks in Congress for which Mr. Teller lent himself willingly. The tragic element is that a US president needs to hide the right way from his own parliament – i.e. Congress. That should give some cause for thought.

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