President Assad may have secured his grip on power with the help of his foreign friends, but he will not be able to crush the enduring spirit of opposition to his rule, argues Frederic C. Hof
It passes these days as common knowledge that Russia and Iran have enabled Bashar al Assad to withstand the Syrian uprising and emerge victorious. Yes, there are parts of the country – Idlib Province and Syria east of the Euphrates – that remain free of the regime. But one routinely hears it is only a matter of time before the Assad writ extends to all of Syria, and even an American ex-President (Jimmy Carter) reputed for supporting basic human rights urges his country and the West to embrace Assad’s apparent triumph. Yet the Syrian Revolution – even if its military phase may thankfully be drawing to a close – is far from over.
The conflagration that began in March 2011 had plenty of dry tinder: sky-high unemployment and underemployment, both aggravated by drought-inspired demographic displacement from the northeast to the cities of western Syria; the conspicuous wealth and unbridled consumerism and corruption of regime elites; and lingering resentments in some quarters over the suppression of a previous uprising three decades earlier. The spark that set the country ablaze was the gratuitously violent response of the regime to peaceful protests against police brutality in Deraa and downtown Damascus. The President of the Syrian Arab Republic – a man on the leading edge of his country’s introduction to the internet and digital communications – somehow failed to see that the killing of unarmed civilians could not be kept secret; that Hama 1982 was no longer in the cards.
“The President … somehow failed to see that the killing of unarmed civilians could not be kept secret”
Right up until he tossed the match, Assad and his regime seemed immune to the consequences of its incompetence and corruption. One often heard, in terms reminiscent of what many Germans said during the Hitler era, “If only the President knew;” if only he knew of the thievery taking place in his name from entourage bigshots milking foreign investment and Potemkin reforms. Assad personally seemed to enjoy a degree of popular legitimacy as chief of state, notwithstanding the system’s kleptocracy and brutality. Indeed, the United States was pursuing a very quiet but promising mediation between him and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, with full Syrian-Israeli peace as the object. Whether Assad’s evident sobriety and caution were mirages obliterated by his independent decisions or realities neutralized by his security chiefs is not known by this writer.
The Assad regime, established in 1970, was not the inventor of bad national governance in Syria. In becoming a Damascene during the 1970s and 1980s as a privileged member of Syria’s politically connected “Golden Youth,” Bashar al Assad did not invent the desire of Damascus’ political elite to dominate all aspects of Syrian politics down to the smallest detail. In becoming a Damascene, Assad not only distanced himself from his family’s origins in Latakia Province, but he effectively nullified the multi-decade effort of the Baath Party (propelled in the 1950s by populist Akram al-Hawrani) to broaden the party’s reach and support throughout the country. Assad and his entourage has become conventionally insular Damascus political elitists, albeit with a police state apparatus built over thirty years by Hafez al Assad.
The Syrian Revolution might have been deferred indefinitely had Assad reacted wisely to the challenges he faced during the first quarter of 2011. But the desire of Syrians for dignity and economic advancement would never have been extinguished. It will not be extinguished now, after over seven years of civilian-centric warfare by a regime completely reliant on outsiders for its rescue. The genie of self-rule has long since left the bottle, as Syrians not directly under the thumb of the regime and its jailers have experienced local self-government and a surprisingly healthy – given the barrel bombs, chemical warfare, and all the rest – civil society.
The revolutionary nature of Syrian self-government is not easily underestimated. Local governing councils and civil society initiatives have had to resist not only a rapacious, murderous regime, but criminal sectarian elements who managed, in many places, to take control of the armed opposition to the regime. They did so with the help of a regime eager to eliminate any possibility of purely nationalistic, non-sectarian resistance, and with resources provided by regional actors – private and public – presumably unaware that they were aiding a regime they professed to despise. And in Syria east of the Euphrates River the so-called Islamic State – a criminal band with Islamist pretensions – crushed civil society first as it pursued a mainly live-and-let-live relationship with the Assad regime.
“[O]ne must not take it for granted that the Syrian drive for self-rule is finished”
Even assuming the regime’s reconquest of Idlib and the abandonment of trans-Euphrates Syria by the United States to Iran and the regime, one must not take it for granted that the Syrian drive for self-rule is finished. Yes, the Assad entourage – supplemented with Iranians and Russians – may achieve for a while a near-monopoly on deadly force. And yes, sectarian hatreds unleashed by a horrific war on civilians may continue to strengthen the regime’s hand. But over seventy years after official independence from France, Syria’s struggle for self-determination and self-rule is in its beginning phase. This struggle can be slowed. It will never stop. It will ultimately succeed.
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is a professor and Diplomat-in-Residence at Bard College, in New York