Requiem for a Regime: Bashar al-Assad and the Arab Spring

Remember when Syria was just a rogue state? Those were the days. Things were simpler then. Now, in January 2013, Syria is no longer capable of acting rogue outside of its own borders and barely remains sovereign. Bashar al-Assad has been overwhelmed by a regional proxy war being fought between the Saudi monarchy and the Iranian regime. He is a slight and fragile strategic figurine standing at the centre of an epochal struggle and may soon be cast aside. 

Meanwhile, what started as an unsurprising rebellion in the city of Daraa and the suburbs of Damascus has gone through several cycles of revolt and armed resistance to end up here: a sectarian free-for-all that has destroyed cities, institutions of state and the fragile co-existence of ethnic and religious communities. Nobody was prepared for the barbarism. This is the scale of cynical, suicidal violence once associated with Iraqi Ba’athism rather than its comparatively measured and cunning Syrian relation. Earlier this month, Bashar delivered one of his rare declarations of defiance to a depleted Syrian parliament. It was weird, rubber-neck, slap-head stuff once more: a desperate exhortation aimed at the Syrian people, thousands of whom are either dead or irrevocably radicalised or already defiant — defiantly opposed to Assad.

It is too late for him and probably for his family, too. Apparently, he knows it. In early December the New York Times quoted Fyodor Lukyanov, the Russian Affairs editor who had been in touch with Russian diplomats, saying:

[Assad’s] mood is that he will be killed anyway. If he will try to go, to leave, to exit, he will be killed by his own people. If he stays he will be killed by his opponents. He is in a trap. It is not about Russia or anybody else. It is about his physical survival.

Well, fine. What else is there? There’s the fact that Iran reopened channels to Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense, supplying financial and tactical support to back up the Fajr-5 rockets they usefully donated in happier days. This thawed the Iranian freeze that descended upon Hamas after they declared themselves against Assad in mid-2012. Khaled Mashal, who’d vacated his Damascus apartment and skedaddled to safe rebel-backing Qatar, now thanked Iran for arming the Gaza militants with their rockets. Ismail Haniyeh was bursting with pride on the Gaza Strip: “I thank everyone who supplied us with arms and money,” he declared, adding: “especially Iran.” With Iranian help, the Palestinian Resistance made Israel “scream with pain”; Assad, ironically for a leading anti-Zionist head of state, suddenly looked isolated, abandoned.

What else? The options for retreat faded fast. For all the talk about a break-away Alawite enclave on the mountainous coastal fringe of Latakia province, this had little bearing on reality. Rebels crossed the Turkish border to attack Alawite villages before this endgame even began: on December 17th, the Telegraph reported Alawite families fleeing border settlements and making their way to Latakia and Tartous. The Syrian elite were seen despatching their families to the coast before Christmas, while most remaining (and surviving) key personnel stayed in Damascus. Bashar himself has just reiterated: “I will win, even if Damascus is destroyed.”

That’s one way to go. Another is to goad the Israelis, but they are staying out of this mess. Or to employ Hezbollah, but they are already cautiously fighting for the regime alongside Sadr City imports from Iraq, mainly to save Shia lives from Saudi and Gulf-funded Sunni death squads. So the only trick left for Assad to pull is to suck Lebanon down with his regime, which he may do. (He has been doing it all along.)

There will come a day when I will not be President.
Assad, interviewed in Al-Hayat, 14th March 2004.

Well, he got that right. One year after this complacent interview, Assad proceeded to sow the seeds of his own demise by blowing up Rafiq Hariri with a car bomb so massive that it left a crater in the centre of Beirut. This was the opening bang of a blood bath orchestrated by Syrian agents and assassins inside Lebanon designed to eliminate Assad’s most influential and determined enemies.

This was wanton and overt — and it was incautious. Hariri’s assassination rebounded on Assad, undermining Syria’s strategic position. Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon after an incensed Chirac (a close associate of Hariri) joined Bush to enforce Franco-American UN resolution 1559. As the UN probed Syrian connections to the murder and the International Criminal Court decided to hold the assassins to account, the Assad regime embarked on a killing spree across Lebanon and Syria. The liberal journalist Samir Qasir and Communist leader George Hawi were both killed by car bombs in June, 2005; they had been central leaders of the Cedar Revolution that followed Hariri’s murder in February. LBC anchorwoman and anti-Syrian journalist May Chidiac was hit by a car bomb in September; she survived, but lost an arm and a leg. Further high-profile murders followed in rapid succession: Gebran Tueni (blown up by another car bomb); Pierre Amine Gemayel (mown down by gunmen in broad daylight); Walid Eido (shredded by a bomb outside the Beirut Beach Club); Antoine Ghanem (detonated in Sin al-Fil); and Wissam Eid (incinerated for investigating the murder of Hariri with too much tenacity and success). 

By this time Bashar had lost control of his own agenda, an agenda that had once been the key to his personality, his future, the future of his country and, maybe, the entire Middle East. The assumption of power by Bashar was a watershed moment for the region that still resonates today, for two reasons. Firstly, it cemented the principle of dynastic succession in the secular Arab republics that has only now been repudiated in Egypt by the overthrow of Hosni and Gamal Mubarak and remains in flux in Libya as Saif Gaddafi fights for his inheritance. Secondly, the sensitive, Western-educated Bashar cut a different figure from the hardmen of the regime and had promised some measure of deliverance from the authoritarian nightmare created by his father. The inaugural speech that he made seven days after the death of Hafez was — like Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law of 2004 — a brave, solitary and prophetic text. Announcing a programme of sweeping reform, Bashar tacitly put the corrupt Alawite Old Guard on notice while also encouraging opposition groups to engage in “constructive criticism” of the Ba‘ath state, which was put into practice by the release of political prisoners. The effect was instantaneous and, ultimately for the regime, alarming. Civil society burst into life with the appearance of new journals, newspapers, discussion groups and petitions. The tumult transfixed and thrilled the Arab and Muslim world but appalled its dictators and kings. The ‘Damascus Spring’ ended, abruptly, two years later; unable to control events and under pressure from his family and his own security services, Assad instigated a crackdown and refilled his jails with the very dissidents he had earlier released.

But the memory remained and the networks persisted; now the process Bashar started could, ironically, overwhelm him. It is a tragedy, of sorts. The precise quality of his character remains, to Syrians and outsiders alike, uncertain, opaque. Political dissidents and activists still question the motives and reasons behind the speech but it is generally accepted that Bashar was dealt a bad hand: he had never wanted to rule Syria, they believe, and never really expected to. A twist of fate — the death of his elder brother Basil, a flash thug who crashed his Mercedes into a motorway roundabout in 1994 — ruined his cherished plan to practice ophthalmology, which he had been studying at the Western Eye Hospital in London. Fast-tracked through the Syrian military, he arrived in power as a young staff colonel encircled by Alawite Ba’athists and al-Assad clansmen not quite loyal enough to the memory of the father to rule out overthrowing the son. Alongside his clever, glamorous, reform-minded wife — the former Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan analyst, Asma Fawaz al-Akhras — Bashar conveyed an aura of loneliness and uncertainty that was reinforced by his pale skin and lanky physique. To outsiders, however — notably the Western diplomatic and business classes — this young ruling couple looked fresh and dynamic and the Damascus Spring powerfully underlined this impression (Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac were vocal enthusiasts).

But, ultimately, Bashar kept his state afloat through the continual harassment of Lebanon. His internal reforms had been careful, slow; after all, he expected to have a whole lifetime to transform his state, and did not want to risk a coup from hard-line regime rivals or Hafez loyalists. Over the decade Assad maneuvered his cronies and technocrats into key positions with caution and assurance; one of his greatest allies in this tentative project was his wife. (His opponents included his powerful mother, younger brother, elder sister, and ambitious brother-in-law.) He was able to do this partly because he stayed close to his father’s foreign policy script: hostile to the Zionist Entity and engaged with Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, while keeping Iran and America carefully balanced and at bay. In the end, economic reform would be subordinated to foreign adventures and regional power struggles, and the corrupt, bullied banking and business elites of Beirut would end up paying for Syrian “socialism” and the benefit of their own servitude. 

Bashar lacked the gravitas, experience and strategic intelligence of Hafez, and this led him to disaster. He was tactical and a bit tenacious, but he couldn’t quite play the regional game. He quickly outdid Hafez in ways the old man would not have admired or sanctioned, but had no sense of timing or scale. He had no foresight. He flirted with antisemitism in high-profile public speeches. He fawned over, and deferred to, Hassan Nasrallah. He struck an active energy and intelligence alliance with Saddam Hussein and sheltered senior Iraqi Ba’athists after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He eventually signed a lop-sided pact with Iran that left Syria dependent and almost captive to the Revolutionary Republic: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force became a de facto arm of the Syrian military. Finally, of course, he overplayed his hand in Lebanon, leading Chirac to turn on him with a vigour borne of fury (Hariri was a personal friend of the French president). The enforcement of UN Resolution 1559, pushing Syrian troops out of Lebanon, was a strategic catastrophe for Bashar. But it got worse: a UN tribunal led by the dogged Senior Public Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis accused Bashar’s vicious young brother Maher and other members of the Assad inner circle of organising Hariri’s slaughter. Bashar responded by attempting to destroy the delicate Lebanese coalition government and terminating the growing Cedar Revolution — itself a seed for Arab Spring that now bears down on him with such fury. 

Your God is Bashar.
Shabbiha graffiti on Sunni mosque walls.

As things frayed and stagnated abroad, so they did at home. There is no direct link to or smooth time-line from the Hariri assassination in 2005 to the Damascus and Daraa protests of 2011. But the thrust of the response from the regime was a result of the preceding years: the fear and brutalisation that overtook Bashar multiplied by the unbalancing influence of Iran. As Syrian revolts spread from city to city, the regime took its cues and methods from the Iranian repression of the Green Movement in 2008. They had seen Obama stand aside then. They watched Ben Ali and Mubarak concede to crowds and mobs challenging their legitimacy, and then witnessed their fall. They saw NATO tied up with Gaddafi at the point their own rebellions took hold. In this moment they calculated and took their chance and escalated, unleashing their army and their air force and mukhābarāt and shabbiha gangs on a captive population. Less loyal army units blanched and sickened at their grotesque orders and peeled away to form the Free Syrian Army. This eventually found a base in Turkey and received arms and money from the Saudis, the UAE and Qatar, while Bashar retained Hezbollah and his stalwart Quds Force allies. A revolt turned into a civil war and would descend further. The regional and religious conflagration took root. The cycle of violence became cyclonic: battles, schisms and vendettas metastasized into overlapping micro-conflicts; the war-zone a tangle of theological, ideological and tribal factions, indigenous and foreign. It outgrew the regime and broke Syria apart. You know the story.

King Abdullah of Jordan has said that his former friend is trapped inside a prison built by his father, a sympathetic but accurate assessment of Bashar’s predicament.  He wanted to be a doctor not a dictator, and the ruthless certainty and tactical nous Hafez displayed has not been evident with the midde son. He’s lashed out in the wrong directions at the wrong moments; he’s lost Lebanon and sold his state to the Persian Ayatollahs. He thought that an anti-Israeli alliance with Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah would protect his regime from the anger of his own citizens and gild the fiction of Arab Resistance. But, as in the larger region, this has proved less gripping and decisive than he thought: Syrians have been incited by their own oppression and humiliation, not the Palestinian cause. His cities and their citizens — stagnant and isolated and under constant surveillance — chose to rise up against him, rather than the Jews. The regime hardliners, including his brother, had successfully urged a course of violent suppression, blocking the pleas of Asma: a final split so deep and personal it went to the heart of Bashar’s personal tragedy, admittedly an irrelevant concern in the grand scheme of things. Bashar’s roots and clan loyalties confronted the instincts and desires he nourished in London and kept alive for as long as he dared and, in the end, they won. 

So this is how a regime dies, by its own hand. Syria is now in ruins. The Assad clan has been reduced to a Mafia with an Air Force. Aleppo, once the most loyal city of them all, looks (in parts) like Grozny. Homs is a grave-yard; Baba Amr a district of ghosts. Damascus, the City of Jasmine and jewel of the Levant, is being picked apart, ravaged, raided, vandalised. Bashar’s grandfather, Suleiman al-Assad, had been a key proponent of the slender Alawite state that existed under the French Mandate of Syria; his son and grandson, under the guise of Ba’athist ideology, became central and aggressive protectors of the unified Syrian state and their regimes promoted the Greater Syria restoration. All of that lies in ruins, now. There is no going back, and that spells out one thing: this regime is doomed, whatever will transpire.


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