The Assad system

The all-pervasive governing system in Syria is the secret to the president's baffling longevity.

Assad and generals 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Assad and generals 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After 20 brutal months of internecine conflict, what is it that keeps Syrian President Bashar Assad, the discredited “butcher of Damascus” and scion of a small minority religious grouping to boot, in power?
The key is the all-pervasive system his father created and which he inherited in 2000. The security forces, the ruling Assad family, the minority Alawites and the Ba’ath Party are so ingrained in all aspects of Syrian life that it is impossible to exaggerate the degree of their control or their vested interest in continuance of the status quo. The system is so entrenched that even if Assad were to be shunted aside, a new president would probably not make a significant difference.
During his 12 years in office, Assad gained the respect of his Alawite brethren and the Ba’ath party by not challenging their spheres of influence, and they supported him as a means of perpetuating their untrammeled power and privileges. In much the same way, Assad reinforced the symbiotic relationship between the presidency and the military. Whereas in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the Arab Spring downfall of the leaders was a consequence of the lack of support of the generals and the system, in Syria the generals are fully behind the president and the president backs the system unreservedly.
Crucially, loyalty to the regime and the system goes well beyond the generals. Despite reports of defections by soldiers and some junior officers, very few mid-level army officers have turned against the regime and almost none of the Alawite dominated special forces have done so.
From June 2011 to August 2012, when the last defection occurred, the number of highlevel defections in Syria stood at 46, including 27 senior military and security officials, three cabinet ministers, four members of parliament and 12 diplomats. Significantly, none of the defectors were a key member of the inner decision-making elite.
Furthermore, the army is held in check by four security directorates: Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, State Security and Political Security – all under Assad’s Alawite control.
Army elites also maintain a relatively high social standing in Syrian society. Officers see the army as a socioeconomic safety net. The salaries of junior and middle ranking officers are supplemented by subsidized food, housing and social clubs, coupled with graft on the side to guarantee a superior quality of life.
Consequently, the security forces have not indicated any interest in overturning the current system. They have little reason to expect that supporting the rebels would lead to any improvement in their position. Further, they are scared to death of what might happen if Alawite control comes to an end. Reports of vicious attacks on army units suggest that there is little chance they will be spared retribution if the regime falls.
The Syrian generals, therefore, are committed to Assad’s plan to wear out the rebels in a fierce summer battle and then blockade them in their villages through the winter. Their hope is that by next summer the rebels will be weak, dead or defeated through exhaustion, battle or hunger.
The tactics are the same as those used successfully against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Regular army units establish an outer cordon, while special forces and Military Intelligence raid houses, employ snipers and arrest opposition leaders. They are assisted by the Shabiha militia group, who are Alawite and do most of the dirty work.
The border clashes with Turkey have provided a new symbiosis for Assad and his generals. Although both countries seek de-escalation from full-scale war, skirmishes are likely to continue. The Syrian military welcome these as justifying their role in defending the nation’s borders and turning attention away from demoralizing barracks talk of civil war. And Assad has found an external scapegoat to inoculate the army against the type of fragmentation that occurred in Yemen and Libya.
For all these reasons, the president and the military are bound together in their fate. Any new president and any new system could scarcely offer the same lifestyle.
Bottom line: The symbiotic system, buttressed by support from Iran and Russia, non-interference by China and dithering by NATO and the EU virtually ensures that the Assad presidency, or something very similar, will endure.
Dr. Glen Segell is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.