Assad’s Survival Strategy

The Syrian president is relying on a blend of repression, promises of reform, and anxiety about what comes next to defuse an unexpected challenge to his rule.


Two months ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad famously told the Wall Street Journal that he had nothing to fear from the wave of popular protests convulsing the Arab world because his government reflects "the beliefs of the people." While his boast was surely disingenuous, his confidence appeared quite genuine. Notwithstanding the recent spate of mass demonstrations and violent government reprisals in Syria that have left more than 100 people dead, Assad’s ability to weather this storm should not be underestimated.

If grievances alone could bring down governments, Assad would be in a world of trouble. Most Syrians suffer from the same economic hardships that have fueled popular uprisings in other Arab countries (high unemployment, rising cost of living, rampant corruption, and so on) while their political and civil liberties have been violated in greater measure. Adding insult to injury for Syria’s large Sunni Muslim majority, the ruling elite is dominated by Alawites, an Islamic sect comprising roughly 12 percent of the population.

The Assad family has produced decades of virtually unblemished political stability in Syria by denying aggrieved citizens the resources and structural opportunities needed to mobilize collectively. There are no independent political parties, labor unions, professional associations, or other civic organizations through which Syrians can advance their interests. Of the 183 countries surveyed in the World Bank’s 2010 "Doing Business" report, Syria ranked 168th and 176th, respectively, in access to credit and contract enforcement, the two indices most critical to the aggregation of economic power independent of the state. All media outlets are owned by the government or individuals sympathetic to it, while the Internet is heavily censored and monitored by the mukhabarat (secret police).

This virtually unparalleled dominion of state over society is integrally linked to Alawite control of the military-security apparatus. Whereas Tunisian and Egyptian military officers refused to administer the kind of violent repression needed to keep their recently deposed presidents in power and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi suffered a rash of security defections when his people began rebelling, Assad doesn’t have to worry that his generals will hesitate to punish his enemies. Not one of them has a future in Syria if the regime falls.

Although the fruits of power are distributed among a corrupt political and commercial elite that is reasonably representative of Syria’s diversity, the perception that Syria has an "Alawite regime" is widespread among Sunnis, many of whom consider the sect heretical. While Assad has managed this sectarian resentment by advancing regional causes that resonate with Sunnis (most notably anti-Zionism and resistance to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq), it is never far from the surface.

The regime has compensated for this scarlet letter by cultivating a kind of "negative legitimacy" deriving from the undesirability of perceived alternatives. Most Syrian Christians, Druze, and Ismaili Shiites — roughly 12 to15 percent of the population, all together — and many secular Sunnis fear that the collapse of Assad’s regime will lead to an Islamist takeover or catastrophic civil unrest (or both).

Assad has also managed to convincingly cast himself as the least nefarious member of Syria’s power elite (it helps to have a psychotic brother). Though he never delivered on the sweeping change he promised when taking office 11 years ago, many Syrians still credit him with desiring reform, attributing his failures to a reactionary "old guard" within the regime. Even embittered Syrian exiles often acknowledge that the Assad regime would be more repressive without Bashar in it. So while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak served as a lightning rod for demonstrations by uniting otherwise disparate groups to demand his ouster, Assad’s image discourages mobilization against the government, as nearly everyone has some grounds for fearing what comes next. Similar considerations have contributed substantially to Western tolerance of Assad’s excesses.

The proliferation of uprisings around the Arab world nevertheless pose an acute challenge for Assad. The demonstration effect of common people toppling tyrants live on Al Jazeera has helped persuade his ordinarily fatalistic subjects that they have the power to shape their future. Equally important is what one might call the "coordination effect." Most citizens will abstain from banned political activities, such as participating in protests, if the likelihood of severe punishment is great. However, the risks decrease rapidly once the number of participants exceeds the government’s capacity to punish every infraction. By signaling to citizens that now is the time to act and giving them confidence that others will do likewise, the Arab Spring makes it easier to reach this critical mass.

Efforts by Syrian activists to launch their own uprising progressed slowly at first. Two attempts to organize rallies via Facebook fizzled due to the heavy advance deployment of security personnel (no one wants to be the first to provoke a squadron of riot police). Solidarity rallies in support of the Egyptian and Libyan people provided a clever pretext for small numbers of dissidents to shout generalized condemnations of dictatorship at the top of their lungs, but they were quickly dispersed. 

On Feb. 18, anger over the police beating of a Damascus merchant led 1,500 people to assemble in Al-Hamidiyah Souq demanding justice. Although the protest was relatively tame, it exposed a glaring loophole in the regime’s security screen — spontaneous demonstrations in response to local grievances are virtually impossible to anticipate and pre-empt.

The real game-changer came on March 6 with the arrest of 15 teenagers in the southern city of Deraa for having scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall. Ordinarily, their families would have quietly sought the intercession of tribal and religious leaders and prayed for a miracle. This time, however, the continuing detention of the children sparked massive demonstrations centered on the city’s historic Omari mosque, its loudspeakers demonstrating how easily even the most carefully state-vetted Sunni preachers can get swept away by popular passions.

Assad’s initial response to the crisis was badly botched. By the time the authorities released the 15 children, altercations between protesters and police had claimed many lives, fueling a cycle (familiar to students of Iran’s 1979 revolution) whereby funerals for each wave of martyrs become rallying points for the next. By the time Assad fired the regional governor and promised an investigation into the killings, the crowds in Deraa and nearby Sunni areas were torching offices of the ruling Baath Party and destroying other symbols of the regime on sight.

As anti-government demonstrations began spreading across the country on March 15, there was a revealing disparity. Secular liberal dissidents took to the streets in relatively small numbers and avoided confrontations with the police, while Kurdish groups largely abstained. In contrast, the demonstrations in Deraa and other predominantly Sunni flashpoints were 20 to 30 times larger, organized under the semi-inviolable protection of mosques and clearly intended to provoke the security forces. While it is premature to characterize the protests as an Islamist uprising, there is little doubt that those most eager to risk death or severe bodily harm are overwhelmingly Sunni and deeply religious.

Although many commentators quickly concluded that Assad must either crack down relentlessly or implement sweeping reforms, neither extreme makes much sense for the Syrian leader. Giving his security chiefs free rein to squash the uprising plays into the hands of radicals, who hope that mass casualties will turn a majority of the people squarely against the regime and facilitate defections by hitherto quiescent Sunni political, religious, and business leaders. On the other hand, lifting restrictions on freedom of expression only gives dissidents a free hand to mobilize the public and make greater demands from a position of strength.

Instead, Assad has sought to deflate the protests through selective minor concessions (increasing public sector wages, releasing a few hundred political prisoners, etc.), while instructing the security apparatus to employ suppressive tactics that are less visible or can be plausibly denied. The mysterious rooftop snipers who opened fire on protesters in Latakia on March 26 served two purposes — punishing Sunnis who dared to make trouble in the Alawite heartland, while hinting that there are malevolent forces beyond Assad’s control ready to wreak havoc on civilians but for the protection of the state.

As in the past, Assad has tried to deflect personal responsibility by cultivating the perception that he is not fully in control of his regime. The spectacle of his close advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, proclaiming at the height of the violence that she had personally witnessed him ordering security forces not to fire "one bullet" was intended less to deny that they were shooting people (this much was plainly evident to the public) than to plant the belief that the president of Syria was powerless to stop them. Likewise, her seemingly premature announcement that Assad was preparing to introduce a range of sweeping reforms — days ahead of a televised speech in which he conspicuously made no such promises — encouraged speculation that regime hardliners had blocked him from taking action.

Whether or not the Syrian public will buy into this "blocked reformer" pitch remains to be seen, but it is already an overseas hit. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said — without a hint of sarcasm — that many American lawmakers view the Syrian president as a "reformer."

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