The Syrian regime headed by Bashar Assad is doomed in the long run, but is likely to last longer than most believe. In December, the leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood stated that President Assad would fall “in the next few months”, the US State Department proclaimed Assad to be a “dead man walking”, and Israel’s defense minister insisted that Assad would fall in a matter of weeks. This has turned out to be wishful thinking.
The Assads stand atop the last minoritarian regime in the Levant and thus seem destined to fall in this age of popular revolt. When they do, the post-colonial era will draw to a final close. Following World War II, minorities took control in every Levant state thanks to colonial divide-and-rule tactics and the fragmented national community that bedeviled the states of the region. Unique in this was Palestine, for the Jewish minority was able to transform itself into the majority at the expense of Palestine’s Muslims and Christians. Neither the Christians of Lebanon nor the Sunnis of Iraq were so lucky or ambitious. Nevertheless, both clung to power at the price of dragging their countries into lengthy civil wars. The Alawis of Syria seem determined to repeat this violent plunge to the bottom. It is hard to determine whether this is due to the rapaciousness of a corrupt elite, to the bleak prospects that the Alawi community faces in a post-Assad Syria, or to the weak faith that many in the region place in democracy and power-sharing formulas. Whatever the reason, Syria’s transition away from minority rule is likely to be lengthy and violent. Levantine history suggests this as a rule.
There are three main reasons why the Assad regime is likely to last well into 2013–if not longer–despite Syria’s rapidly deteriorating economic and security conditions.
The first is the strength of the regime compared to the opposition. The military has not turned against Syria’s president. It is a professional army, which so far has a monopoly on heavy weapons in Syria. Important government officials have not defected in significant numbers. This loyalty is due in no small part to the fact that the Assad family has prepared for this moment of popular, Sunni revolt for 40 years. It has packed sensitive posts with loyal Alawis and Baathists. Some analysts estimate that 80 percent of Syria’s officer corps is Alawi. The main strike-forces, such as the Republican Guard led by Bashar’s brother, is Alawi to the man. An ambassador in Syria’s Foreign Ministry recently claimed that 60 percent of Syria’s Foreign Service officers are Alawi and only 10 percent Sunni. The sectarian nature of the elite elements of the security forces ensures a high degree of loyalty and willingness to fight. The broader Alawi community is also likely to remain loyal to the regime, even as the economy deteriorates. Almost all Alawi families have a least one member in the security forces as well as additional members working in civilian ministries, such as education or agriculture. Most fear collective punishment for the sins of the Baathist era, whether this means trials, the loss of jobs, or even worse (one irresponsible Sunni sheikh threatened that the Alawis will be ground into mince meat when defeated).
The second reason the Assad regime is likely to survive into 2013 is the disorganization and factionalism of the opposition. Through much of 2011, the Syrian opposition hoped that by remaining leaderless, as had revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia, the regime could be brought down largely by peaceful means: either because Bashar Assad would surrender power, a coup would dislodge him, sanctions would cause elite defections and collapse, or growing demonstrations would achieve a Tahrir square moment. By the end of 2012, these scenarios seemed ever more unlikely, and the opposition has been forced to think seriously about developing a trusted leadership, unifying its ranks, and coming up with a realistic military option to defeat the Syrian army. These objectives still seem far off
The Syrian National Council, Syria’s leading opposition coalition, remains highly factionalized and has found it difficult to unite with other opposition parties. The mere fact that the SNC membership has felt compelled to limit its leaders to a three-month term testifies to the high level of internal dissent. Burhan Ghalioun, the capable and savvy secular leader, is distrusted by many Islamists in the SNC as well as younger activists who are leading the struggle on Syria’s streets. Only recently was he denounced by members of his own party for being a traitor and dictatorial when he prematurely announce a unification plan with the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a coalition of leftist parties led by Haytham Manaa.
Just as important as the opposition’s political weaknesses, however, are its military limitations. The Free Syrian Army being assembled in Turkey under the leadership of Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad is no match for the Syrian army. Although armed opponents of the regime are an important development, their size, structural limitations, lack of heavy weapons, and limited command and control mean they do not yet present a real danger or alternative to the Syrian military. In fact, many analysts insist that most fighting is being done by small units organized on the local level that do not take orders from Col. Asaad or other leaders, even if they call themselves members of the Free Syrian Army. What is more, many Syrians still do not accept the notion that the regime should be brought down by military means.
The third reason that the Assad regime is unlikely to be deposed soon is that foreign powers are not eager to intervene militarily in Syria. US President Barack Obama and European authorities would find it difficult not to support military strikes on the Syrian army if they were led by Turkey or the Arab League, but neither has shown an inclination to undertake such a risky adventure.
So long as the Syrian military leadership remains united, the opposition remains fragmented, and foreign powers remain on the sidelines, the Assad regime is likely to survive, but all three of these elements are changing, even if gradually, in the favor of the opposition. The predominant role of minorities in the governments of the region, which was universal at the end of the colonial period, is being brought to a violent conclusion.
Published 25/1/2012 at bitterlemons-international.org