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Syria’s President Assad: Why Is Anyone Surprised? – Analysis


By Brian J. Davis, Ottawa, ON, Canadian Ambassador to Syria, 2003-2006 for Syria Comment


As Canadian Ambassador to Syria from 2003 to 2006, I had the opportunity to observe President Bashar Assad and his regime under intense stress as a result of the U.S. invasion of neighbouring Iraq, the UN Security Council Resolutions forcing Syria out of Lebanon following the assassination of PM Rafiq Hariri, U.S. sanctions against Syria, the war between Hezbollah and Israel in July 2006, and the virtual isolation of Syria by western powers.

Observing recent events, the only surprise to me about President Assad’s much anticipated speech of March 30th and his subsequent actions or inactions, as the case may be, was that so many Syrians and pundits appeared to expect more. Anyone who thought he would announce a radical shift in policies or a sudden declaration of democracy and increased freedoms should take a closer look at the kind of person he is and what motivates his regime.

Syria President Bashar Assad
Syria President Bashar Assad

Assad is a cautious, conservative leader. While he has slowly acquired the knowledge and skills of a President since assuming that mantle upon the death of his father in 2000, he lacks the natural instinctive talents of a leader. He is not the kind of person who will take risks or be creative. He likes to take his time to study an issue and he is particularly fond of placing these into a logical framework of cause and effect.

As for being a “reformer”, too much is made of his time as a student in the UK. He was there for a very short time and was cocooned in the expatriate Arab community. He did not immerse himself in genuine every day British or European life that would have exposed him to democracy, freedoms and the exercise of civil rights. Indeed, his formative years were spent under the family tree. Using a tired but, in this case, appropriate aphorism, he is an apple who has not fallen far from that tree. Assad is not a cosmopolite and expectations that he would be the “reformer” are simply misplaced.

Bashar Assad is a decent, intelligent man but without particular charisma or strategic brilliance. I believe he genuinely wants to be a popular president. He and his wife have made strides in this regard. They have been far more visible to the common Syrian, trying to demonstrate a human touch by dining publicly in restaurants, driving their own cars, and making more public appearances than his father. He took a lively interest in information technology even before becoming president and has continued to nurture this sector, striking a responsive chord with the Syrian youth.


Because he is perceived to have stood up to the U.S. (with regard to Iraq) and to Israel (through his support for Hezbollah and Hamas), he has achieved considerable popularity on the “Arab street” across the region. This distinguishes him from President Mubarak of Egypt and President Ben Ali of Tunisia, who were seen to have aligned themselves with western powers, rather than fighting for the rights of Arabs, especially those of Palestinians. It remains to be seen if that popularity will endure, given his efforts to smother the current wave of demands for more freedoms being made to him.

Assad would like to see Syria’s economy improve, create jobs for the large number of unemployed youth and attract foreign investment, not only because he genuinely cares for his country but because success in those areas would strengthen the regime. It would attenuate the growing dissatisfaction of a population that is faced with a decaying education system, limited job prospects, a growing gap between rich and poor, endemic corruption, and restrictions on freedoms, particularly those of expression and association.

One of the lessons Assad learned well from his father, but which also seems to reflect his own character, is not to act in haste or under threat. A careful examination of how he has behaved since becoming president shows that he will never easily concede to anything under pressure. Indeed, he has made a number of decisions that were not even necessarily in Syria’s interests rather than be seen to give in to outside arm twisting (even his recent speech can be seen in that light). So, for those who know him, there will have been no surprise that he offered nothing in his speech and as little as necessary ever since.

Despite the above, there is little doubt that Assad and his cohorts are worried about current developments around the Middle East and in Syria. While his regime may have some delusions of being different from others that have come under attack, it also recognizes that there is considerable dissatisfaction among average Syrians.

In his speech, Assad employed the time-honoured practice of many autocratic leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere of blaming the demonstrations on interference by outside forces, making every effort to wrap himself in the flag and to call on Syrians to join him in defending the nation. Indeed, there probably has been foreign meddling and, while not nearly as significant as Assad would have everyone believe, there may have been enough to persuade the credulous.

President Assad also appealed to the Syrian desire for stability in a sea of strife. With ready examples of the sectarian troubles in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon and Syria’s own post-WWII history of coups and outside interference, Syrians will be reluctant to abandon their unspoken pact of accepting restraints on their freedoms in exchange for the safety and stability provided by the Assad regime.

Assad has often alluded to what would happen if his regime collapsed. Après moi le déluge! And, there is a real danger that Syria could go the way of Iraq. It is a society with many minorities and no potential leaders to replace Assad (essentially because the regime has rid itself of any threats). Assad will fight to the end to retain power for fear that his minority Alawite clan could face retaliation for the decades of abuse of power and because all the power, prestige and wealth that his regime has accumulated over that time would be lost.

Assad may well win this round, maintaining his traditionally tight control of his people. Indeed, I believe he will. However, if he runs true to form, he will then take steps in the coming weeks and months to institute more of the types of “reforms” he has been slowly introducing over the past 11 years. This is simply a process of buying time. He is unlikely to open Syria up to broad freedoms, to independent political parties or to any other moves that could jeopardize his regime’s control of the country. In the end, one has to be realistic, true democracy, which assumes the peaceful change of leaders and governments, is not something that holds any appeal for Assad and his clique. Democracy or even significantly greater freedoms would lessen the regime’s control and this will simply not occur in Syria without a revolution of some kind.

Such a revolution will not likely occur in the short term, because Syrians are not yet ready to unite against the Assad regime and pay the cost in blood that this would take. Indeed, many Syrians still believe he is a reformer at heart and is battling others in his circle to implement reforms. This is pure delusion. While there are strains within the regime, its leaders realize they must stick together to survive. In Assad’s early years in office, one might have accepted that he faced considerable constraints on his decision making. The clique would not have been confident of his abilities. He had to earn his spurs. With time, he has consolidated his position and now must take responsibility for the ongoing abuses of human rights and for the lack of progress in most areas.

It is my belief that he now does call the shots when it comes to foreign and security policies. There will be discussion and debate within his entourage but he makes the final decision. That is not to say that there are not occasional ‘excesses’ committed by some of the security and intelligence services. However, Assad has the power and the authority to override these if he wishes. So, when political activists are detained and held without trial for months or even years, Assad has to be held accountable for it. After 11 years in power, he cannot be given a pass by saying that he does not control the elements in his regime who are doing those things. From personal experience, I have seen him override actions by his intelligence services, when he believed it was in his own best interests or Syria’s to do so.

Where he may have more limitations on his actions is in the economic sector. Many of his relatives and powerful allies, including some of the wealthy Sunni merchants that support him, have become rich through monopolies they have been awarded and through a variety of benefits that accrue to them by virtue of their ties to the regime. Any changes that could threaten the revenues of this group will go through an informal vetting and Assad will not be able to proceed without getting a majority of them on board.

With that caveat, I believe Assad is willing to liberalize only on the economic front. He is gambling that if the economy improves sufficiently, many of the reasons for dissatisfaction will fall away and Syrians will be less inclined to make demands in other areas. A successful economy coupled with his personal popularity will be the recipe for long-term survival. This may seem rather short-sighted in light of historical lessons one can take from other countries that have tried that method, but Assad has been much impressed with China’s evolution along those lines (although anyone who knows China well realizes that its resistance to socio-political liberalization is an ongoing battle and that a successful economy does not immunize one from a society’s desire for freedoms).

Something that is sometimes forgotten is that neither Assad nor any of his closest confidantes (other than his wife) have real experience living in open, successful societies. They are a very inward group, interested in their own survival, in enjoying a luxurious and quasi-feudal lifestyle, and in furthering their wealth and power. They are not equipped to provide Assad with advice based on true understanding of how open economies and societies work or how to succeed in a global economy. One way or another, virtually every close advisor brought on board with international knowledge and experience has been undermined by the clique and fallen by the way side. I can remember long personal discussions with three such people, who were themselves often bewildered by the close-minded responses they got to suggestions and advice they put forward. Thus, while Assad genuinely wishes to see the Syrian economy grow, he does not really know how to make it happen.

As an example, in meetings with Assad and some of his senior advisors and ministers, I had discussions about the importance of the “rule of law“ to economic development. I often asked: what company will invest millions of dollars to establish operations in Syria, if it cannot be confident that the legal system will treat it fairly when the inevitable disputes arise? It was obvious in those kinds of discussions that while everyone nodded their heads in agreement, there was little true understanding of the implications. Nor was there any serious effort to consider how the legal system, as just one example of an area badly in need of reform, might be revamped to create a key underpinning for attracting foreign investment.

To sum up, we should not be fooled. Assad and his regime have one overriding objective and that is to survive. He believes that Syria’s situation is different from that of countries like Egypt, Tunis and Libya, and it is different: not in terms of its problems but in its demographics, history and internal power structure. Assad is confident that these factors, along with his popularity and with Syrian reluctance to gamble on freedoms that could open the door to sectarian strife, are among the reasons he did not need to offer much in his speech and why he believes he can regain the upper hand without offering the kinds of reforms that will undermine the regime

He saw what happened in Tunis and Egypt when they began offering concessions under public pressure. He has opted to project an image of strength and not concede anything vital to his control. In fact, it is somewhat surprising that he has made some concessions on the religious front so soon after his speech. These concessions will play well to the more conservative elements of Syrian society, including in Deraa, where so much of the trouble has originated, but they will be read by many as a sign of weakness and nervousness on the part of the regime. While I would be surprised to see the Emergency Law revoked, if that did happen, I would expect it to be replaced by other laws allowing the regime to exercise essentially the same controls.

Even if Assad survives this time, the seeds of his regime’s downfall have already been sown. It is just a matter of when it will happen. If the recent changes in Egypt and Tunis lead to greater freedoms and more democratic and successful societies, the death knell for Assad and company will occur sooner. On the other hand, should those countries fall into violence and chaos or find themselves under the thumb of yet another autocratic regime, Syrians may be less eager to divest themselves of Assad, who is likeable, a known quantity, and reasonably benign towards those who behave.

A key factor in determining the duration of his reign will be the health of the economy. There is an incredible degree of frustration and hopelessness among the Syrian youth. At some point, this will boil over, unless more jobs can be created. If the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow, pressures will build. Syria’s oil supplies are dwindling and the revenues from exporting oil are decreasing. Barring the discovery of major new oil or gas fields, this will put more pressure on the Syrian economy to fund various subsidies, to overcome the effects of the current multi-year drought, to offer health and other services to its people. Without direct foreign investment that actually creates jobs, the prospects are bleak. They will remain so as long as Syria remains a pariah state and as long as it is unable to reform its institutions and create a more open, law-based society and economy. Unfortunately, I do not believe that Assad has either the knowledge or the skills to make that happen. Even if he did, at some point reform will be in conflict with his survival. When that happens, either reforms or Assad and his regime will be shown the door.

Brian J. Davis, Ottawa, ON: [[email protected]]

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis maintains Syria Comment and teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis regularly travels to Washington DC to consult with the State Department and other government agencies. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio.

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