Bashar Al-Assad’s Tenacious and Bloody Rule
The Arab Spring of 2011 was a pivotal moment in the history of the Middle East. A potent mix of youth activism, social media, and hope for a better life spurred revolutions that promised democracy and human rights. Popular movements in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and across the region shook governments to their cores. In Egypt and Kuwait, leaders bowed to popular pressure and stepped down, gestures that lent hope to the war-torn region where democracy has seldom taken root. Other regimes, however, hardened and cracked down on protests.
Hope turned to horror in Syria as neither government nor protestors backed down. Bashar al-Assad, the president and commander-in-chief, deployed troops to major cities to break up riots where the soldiers frequently used lethal force. As Western and Middle Eastern countries condemned Assad, demanding his resignation, conflict only intensified. In March, a car bombing killed many of Assad’s top aides, prompting further violent reprisals. The crisis in Syria became a civil war as rebel groups coalesced and seized a Syrian military base.
Many observers fail to recognize how deeply rooted divisions and a history of ethnic resentment have contributed to the present situation. A key development was the Sykes-Picot agreement. Britain and France signed the agreement in 1916 so that when the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the aftermath of World War I, the two powers could divide the Middle East between themselves. In order for France to rule Syria, a country that constantly agitated for independence and contained myriad ethnic and tribal groups, France favored some minority ethnic groups over others. The predominantly-Shi’a Alawites were one such ethnic group that frequently joined the French army and fought for the French against Syrian nationalist factions who were mostly from the majority ethnic group, Sunnis.
When the French finally left after World War II, Syria experienced a tumultuous period of military rule by dictators of different ethnic groups, punctuated by coups. Alawites, partly because of their intimate knowledge of the state military apparatus during French rule, were in a powerful position. In a coup in 1970 Hafez al-Assad, the Alawite defense minister, overthrew the president and took the position for himself.
Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s second son, is the product of this historical process. He understands that many Syrians hate the Assad family. Hafez al-Assad was particularly adept at using the state security apparatus to prevent coups and other threats to his rule. When Islamic State (IS) recently destroyed the ancient ruins of Palmyra to the world’s dismay, they also destroyed Tadmor, an infamous prison built by Hafez where guards physically and psychologically tortured prisoners with impunity. Many Syrians blamed the Alawites for Hafez al-Assad’s brutal tendencies and as hate for Bashar al-Assad grows, so does hate for the Alawites. In December of 2012, Sunnis massacred more than 125 Alawite civilians. Although the circumstances remain unclear, it is highly likely that Sunnis furious with Assad killed for revenge. Despite the difficulty of media coverage in Syria, there have been numerous reports of revenge killings between Sunnis and Alawites. Assad will certainly not stand down if ceding power puts the safety of the Alawites at risk.
The rise of Islamic State has made the situation even more complex. A ferocious and effective organization, IS has morphed from a militant group into a quasi-state, ruling and expanding its territory. The Sunni majority in Syria recognizes that as brutal as IS is, they are fighting for Sunnis against an oppressive Alawite minority. Before IS coalesced, Western powers were confident that a better ruler could weave the country back together and replace Assad. However, Islamic State, a terror organization bent on creating their own brutal theocratic state would be the clear winner if Assad were to fall. Assad also benefits from substantial Russian support. Syria is a valuable market for Russian weapons and also hosts Russia’s only military base on the Mediterranean. Russia has been instrumental in protecting Assad from direct Western military intervention. Russia has even used its power in the UN to veto a potential investigation of the Assad regime by the International Criminal Court.
The U.S. illuminated Assad’s peculiar staying power after President Barack Obama drew a red line. In August 2011 Obama declared that if Assad were to use chemical weapons, “That would change my calculus,” alluding to direct action from the U.S. against the regime. When evidence of chemical weapons appeared, however the U.S. backed down. Although the U.S. has been outspoken in its strategy to arm moderate rebels and oust Assad, the strategy has more or less failed. Although rebel groups forced Assad’s troops out of a great deal of Syrian territory, they held on to core regions. And now Russian air support has empowered Assad to regain territory lost to IS and other rebel groups. Bashar al-Assad has weathered fierce fighting for four years through savvy politics and ferocious offensives. Do not expect him to relinquish power any time soon.