This situation leaves a growing possibility that Bashar Al-Assad may survive for the next few years (or longer) despite the violence and destruction. His weakened regime could survive not because of its prior sources of legitimacy—including Arab nationalism, Ba’athism, and the conflict with Israel—but because the one feature that brought Hafiz Al-Assad to power in 1971 could reinforce his son’s ability to win re-election as President of Syria. This feature is stability, which made the Assad’s original rule palatable to the chaotic—and at times radical—politics of the 1950s and 1960s in Syria. Syria could potentially follow the path of Algeria, which after a long civil war chose the ancien régime instead of backing an opposition that had become fractured and radicalized.
Syria is the latest battleground for regional competition and conflict
For the past year, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, France, and Great Britain have played an active role in backing their sides of the conflict. While democracy has been a rhetorical theme of the conflict, backing or opposing President Assad is framed predominantly in how the outcome of the conflict will impact these states’ respective positions and interests in the region.
Of these countries, Iran and Russia have the most to lose if President Assad were to fall from power. Iran would lose its longest-standing Arab ally in the Middle East, as well as the passageway through which their money and arms flow to sustain their interests in Lebanon and maintain their conflict with Israel. If Tehran were to loose Damascus, it would no longer have this key influence in the Arab world. For Moscow—beyond the significance of the Tartus naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast—Syria is Russia’s only significant ally in the Arab world. If Moscow were to loose Damascus, Russia would no longer be able to portray itself as a consequential power in the Arab world.
Moscow’s signing of a new oil agreement with Damascus is critical to the Assad regime’s ability to finance its position within Syria. It also gave Assad the money to fight the civil war for another few months. The arming of the regime by both Russia and Iran, along with other military assistance, makes it even more difficult for the opposition—which does not have the same military capabilities or the level of support at the moment—to defeat the Assad regime.
The opposition is diverse and loosely connected
The opposition at the present suffers from a lack of unity. As much as François Hollande may wish to recognize a Syrian opposition government, it is quite unclear at the moment whom Paris would recognize. Divisions exist at all levels of the opposition: even within the Free Syrian Army, disunity within ranks is still a challenge. The Syrian National Council is struggling to project a substantive and authoritative voice due to a lack of support from the entirety of the opposition and a lack of strong leadership at the top. Ideology and tactics vary within the opposition movements, resulting in a number of different visions for Syria and a corresponding difference in tactics for achieving the end of the Assad regime. This lack of coherence within the opposition leaves them quite vulnerable to the Assad regime; in particular it gives Assad the opportunity to frame the opposition’s image to the Syrian people and the international community as he pleases.
The advantages of authoritarianism
While Bashar Al-Assad has certainly lost a significant amount of legitimacy within Syria, the regime’s identity, coupled with lingering uncertainty about the nature and purpose of the conflict, leaves the regime a significant opportunity to survive this civil war. The regime’s message of stability has started to appeal even some who oppose Assad, as concerns about the cost of the civil war grow larger.
As the conflict becomes defined even further in sectarian terms, minority groups—the Allawites, the Christians, and the Druze—will likely to continue to back the President not so much out of support, but out of fear of what comes next. A genuine fear exists among these minority communities (and some members of the larger Sunni community) that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi elements of the opposition do not represent democrats in waiting so much as a form of authoritarianism inimical to their interests.
The army, which is predominantly Allawite and Christian in the officer corps with a sizeable Sunni contingent in the non-officer ranks, has yet to break from the regime. This harmony within the armed forces gives advantages in terms of securing equipment and providing training. Along with assistance from an entrenched intelligence network, this leaves the opposition facing a professionally-trained military—a feature not common in most civil wars. Additionally, the fact that the officer corps consists mainly of Allawites, Christians, and Druze makes it very unlikely that an officer will attempt a coup against the President.
Furthermore, President Assad’s financial capital allows him to subsidize basic services, which keeps many who might otherwise side against his regime placated. The longer those undecided people remain undecided, the President has an advantage in that he can remind the Syrian people of the past stability he once offered—and continue guaranteeing services they need to survive. Due to its internal divisions, the opposition cannot hope to convincingly or coherently offer such stability in a post-Assad Syria.
These trends point to the potential resilience of the Assad regime. The possibility that Assad will remain in power must be considered more closely. While events on the ground can often change quite dramatically in a civil war, and there is a real possibility that Assad will yet be defeated, it is still too early to write the obituary for the Assad regime.