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.