There are many reasons why Assad is stronger than ever

The Al Assads are masters at their own political survival, with the former US ambassador to Syria admitting the regime will remain in the medium term, writes Michael Young.

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Last Thursday, at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, the former American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, admitted that the regime of President Bashar Al Assad would likely remain in power for the “medium term”.

This admission, after American officials had spent over two years affirming the opposite, was interesting for what Mr Ford did not say: that Mr Al Assad has remained in power partly because his regime has pursued a careful, if cynical, strategy of survival that Syrian leaders have used time and again.

Aside from Russia and Iran, who have helped keep him in power, the Syrian president can thank his own father. The late Hafez Al Assad perfected a system of control and of regional manipulation that has protected his son’s regime until now.

A constant in Syrian behaviour when the regime feels insecure is to export instability, in such a way as to create problems that only the Al Assad regime itself can resolve, or to show the prohibitive costs if the Al Assads are pushed out.

For instance, after the United States invaded Iraq, Syria funnelled jihadists into the country to compel the Americans to deal with the regime to stabilise the situation. This had a double objective: to heighten the contradictions and violence in Iraq, making it less likely that the US would turn on Syria; and to make Syria essential to any resolution in Iraq, thereby maintaining its political relevance there.

Indeed, when the Iraq Study Group appointed by the Bush administration to address the Iraqi conflict published a report in December 2006, it recommended that Washington engage with Syria and Iran to end the Iraqi fighting. This was important to Mr Al Assad, coming at a time when Syria sought to re-establish diplomatic ties with the US after it was accused of involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

A closely-related strategy pursued by the Assad regime has been to allow religious or political extremism to proliferate, in such a way as to portray itself as a foe of the extremists. This it has done in the Syrian conflict, releasing jihadists from prison, putting much less military pressure on them than on the more moderate opposition, and allowing them to control oil-rich areas to finance themselves.

The objective has, again, been two-fold: to create dissension within opposition ranks and provoke conflict between opposition groups; and to entice Western public opinion into believing the Al Assads are a barrier against extremism, therefore should not be overthrown.

This pattern is hardly new. Though the context was very different, in 1976 Syria sold itself as an actor that could contain what was portrayed as Palestinian radicalism in Lebanon.

That belief led to American backing for a Syrian military takeover of the country, with Israeli approval. Left unsaid, however, was that the Syrians had long supported Palestinian groups, and had even opposed Lebanon’s government when it fought armed Palestinian organisations in 1973.

A third approach is that the Al Assad regime has systematically sought to portray itself as a secular Arab nationalist regime, when in reality it has pursued profoundly sectarian policies reinforcing Alawite control over Syria’s military and security apparatus.

In so doing, the regime perpetuated a minority-ruled system in a Sunni-dominated region. For a long time its purported Arab nationalism gave the Al Assads credibility as champions of Arab causes, above all the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

The Syrian conflict exploded that myth, but it somehow created another, namely that the Al Assad regime is a defender of minorities. That is why Mr Ford, in his Wilson Centre remarks, observed that one of the opposition’s failures was an inability to reassure Alawites. Yet under the Al Assads, minorities, including Alawites, faced equal-opportunity repression with Sunnis.

A good example of this comes from next-door Lebanon. There has been a myth among some Lebanese Christians that the Al Assads were communal protectors. In fact, no one has done more to marginalise Lebanon’s Christians politically than the Syrian regime. Yet to this day there is an entrenched view in the West that a victory for Syria’s opposition would spell disaster for minorities in the Levant.

A fourth survival technique used by the Al Assad regime has been to empty negotiations of their content when these might threaten its authority. The Syrian regime went to the Geneva talks in January worried that there might be a Russian-American agreement on Mr Al Assad’s departure from office. That did not happen, but Mr Al Assad had no intention of allowing a process that might spell his ruin, and blocked all progress in the talks. Today he is preparing to seek re-election next July.

Since Geneva, the Syrian regime and Hizbollah have captured Yabroud, and Mr Al Assad feels no impetus to make concessions. He believes he can ultimately win militarily. He also sees that Russian-American relations are deteriorating over Crimea, so that any American effort to compel him to accept a transition to a new leadership will be met by a forceful Russian counter-reaction.

Mr Al Assad’s regime has a good sense of the vulnerabilities of its neighbours and of Western countries. While he has made mistakes, he and those around him have managed to hold on through great brutality, but also an accurate grasp of shifting power relations.

Opposing the regime are countries divided among themselves, and an indecisive American administration unwilling to devote much effort to the Middle East. With such enemies, who needs friends?

And yet Mr Al Assad’s friends have stuck by him without wavering, which is why he will prevail until someone can show him otherwise.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling