Explaining Assad’s Durability

Leaders the world over agreed that Assad’s days were numbered last year. The severity of violence deployed by the regime and the suffering endured by thousands of Syrians made Assad’s savagery appear desperate rather than calculated. Because the crackdown was indiscriminate, observers assumed it could not curb legitimate demands; more and more Syrians would naturally gravitate towards the opposition as the regime alienated citizens. The problem with this argument, however, is that the regime remains intact a year after the uprising started, the opposition is still fractured, and Assad apparently feels confident enough to flout demands made by the international community–including Russia and China, its chief defenders of late.

Syria may be out of control but Assad is still in control of what’s left. Where his grip is slipping, artillery and tanks are still shelling villages and cities that refuse his rule. According to many reports, the resistance is increasingly relying on guerrilla tactics in order to draw out the conflict and sustain fewer casualties when facing a superior force. But the imbalance of arms doesn’t entirely explain Assad’s advantage. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar are reportedly willing to arm the opposition (they might already be doing so), it’s unclear if an even playing field will splinter Assad’s power base, which rests on three pillars: economic interests, sectarian affiliation, and selective use of the military’s most loyal forces, led by Bashar’s brother Maher.

Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Program at George Mason Univesity and an editor of Middle East Report, explores the economic underpinnings of the regime in the Spring 2012 edition of MERIP (Middle East Research and Information Project). Titled “The Syrian Regime’s Business Backbone,” the article traces the historic links between Syria’s business community and the regime, and how these affiliations were encouraged by Bashar’s father and predecessor, President Hafiz al-Assad. Included in the analysis is an explanation of how this arrangement benefited the few while exaggerating class, sectarian, and geographic differences at every level of Syrian society after 1970.  Haddad also offers a good yardstick for the regime’s integrity as Syria watchers look for any hint of weakness:

The moguls know very well that their fate is bound up with that of the regime by virtue of intertwined investments and also their years of self-enrichment at regime behest. To switch sides would thus be an enormous gamble on the opposition’s forbearance. Big business’ support is not solely responsible for the regime’s resilience, but it would have been difficult for the regime to hold out in Damascus and Aleppo had these monied interests explicitly thrown their lot in with the protesters. The regime-business alliance took shape over decades, and it is unlikely to snap until the very last moment. Public defections by big businessmen would be a fair indicator that the regime’s days are numbered. Until then, all eyes are on the battlefield.

Discontent in the business community is a fair indicator, as Haddad notes. It’s also applicable to Iran. Although that country is not suffering from an existential crisis like Syria, it’s still under tremendous pressure, and business interests that buoy the regime are in jeopardy. Even then, if business types abandoned Assad or the Ayatollah, it’s hard to imagine loyal military units laying down arms. For those opposed to both regimes, however, all fountains of strength are worthy targets so long as they initiate a new phase in the conflict that affords the opposition more room to breathe.

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