How Syria’s ruling apparatus became its albatross

The Assad dynasty as we know it will be a thing of the past, regardless of how long it takes.

Assad making speech 311 (r) (photo credit: REUTERS/Syrian TV)
Assad making speech 311 (r)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Syrian TV)
Top officials in the Syrian government that I spoke with more than a decade ago following Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rise to power strongly suggested that he was determined to introduce significant political reforms. Why then has he failed to even partially implement such reforms and failed to meet the public’s expectations for change following his father’s 30-year reign? The reason is that Assad inherited from his father not only the office of the presidency but a system of governing: an entrenched ruling apparatus consisting of the Ba’ath party leadership, the high military brass, a massive intelligence (Mukhabarat) community, internal security and top business elite.
All were dominated by Bashar’s own Alawite minority group which had heavily-vested interests in maintaining the system at all costs, knowing that meaningful reforms would ultimately usurp their power.
Assad was able to assert his rule based only on the tacit condition that he would preserve the status quo, which in the end turned out to be his albatross.
The predictable failure of the Arab League observers’ mission emerged from the fact that they were directed by the Syrian authorities to visit and report about places and incidents of the government’s own choice. From the start of the observers’ mission a month ago, government forces have killed more than five hundred Syrians. Following the recent extension of the mission a few days ago, the Arab League decided to suspend the observers’ mission as the indiscriminate killing of civilians continued.
Neither the continuation of such a mission, the call by the League for Assad to step down, nor the call for new assembly elections and the drafting of a new constitution will bring about any serious change. The League’s decision to approach the UN with the support of the US and the EU may produce a watered down resolution at best that will neither call for Assad to step down nor impose any meaningful sanctions. Russia has already made it abundantly clear that it will veto any such resolutions.
Whatever happens in Syria will have serious regional repercussions. As a result, any outside interference must be carefully weighed against the evolution of Syria’s internal conditions. One thing remains clear: significant and permanent changes will not occur in Syria without the removal of the clique surrounding Assad. In this regard, the Arab League, with the support of other major players including Turkey, should institute a four-part strategy of interconnected components (to be pursued simultaneously) in order to remove Assad and his cohorts.
FIRST, an offer to negotiate a safe exit and immunity from prosecution for Assad, family members, Alawite leaders and several dozen of his lieutenants should be placed on the table. This must occur before the International Criminal Court indicts the Syrian leader and his clique for en masse killing. Once indicted, Assad will be discouraged from opting for this course.
For this reason, Assad should not be asked to hand power over to one deputy (a plan already rejected and dubbed a “plot” by Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem). The Arab League, in consultation with the Obama administration and Turkey, should offer Assad a safe haven, which will spare his country from further bloodshed. This “safe exit” option has already worked in Yemen and the Saudi Royal family will not object to offering Assad and his clique sanctuary as it has done so previously with Uganda’s Idi Amin and more recently with Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Since Assad will likely not take the first option, hoping for continued financial and logistical support from Iran and Russia, step two should be the imposing of crippling sanctions on Syria by the League, the United States, the European Union and Turkey: • Civilian flights should be cut off.
• Trade should be ended with several Arab state trading partners (including Jordan and Saudi Arabia).
• Threats of military intervention should be made through no-fly zones.
• Cyber warfare should be used.
As Syria desperately depends on imports, sanctions like these may be painful enough to pressure the entire ruling apparatus to gradually collapse. An Arab-European draft resolution reflecting the demands of the Arab League initiative is currently under consideration by the UN Security Council, which calls for Assad to hand power over to his deputy but does not mention sanctions as a consequence of non-compliance.
Despite Russian objections to the draft, Moscow may eventually relent with some US inducement.
As a senior Russian envoy said this week, “Russia can do no more for” Assad — something that should serve as a serious signal to the ruler.
Third, as the first two prongs of the strategy are initiated, the high military command should be encouraged to mount a military coup. Such a coup could gather momentum as defections rise and the state has failed in repressing the protests thus far.
The military high brass realizes that undertaking massacres on the scale of Hama in February 1982 will not turn the tide and may seriously consider the Egyptian model where the military high brass, motivated by its own survival, opted for abandoning Mubarak and his immediate associates, while promising and implementing real reforms.
The Syrian military remains the strongest institution within the country and possesses the capability to impose its will. For its high command, the option of sacrificing the tyrannical Assad and some two dozen of his cohorts would maintain the unity of the army and save the lives and interests of the bulk of the ruling apparatus.
This scenario, although unlikely only a few months ago due partly to the military’s loyalty to Assad’s Alawite community and the regime’s security firewalls, now has the conditions on the ground to dramatically succeed and stop the carnage in a situation which is steadily leading towards civil war.
Finally, the sectarian conflict has largely already begun and will, if unimpeded, turn into a full-scale civil war, which will eventually bring down the Assad regime and everyone in his current power structure. Defections are now in the hundreds every day, which has allowed for the emergence of the Syrian Free Army as an organized, armed opposition practically working as the military wing of the Syrian National Council.
The FSA is in control of two key cities, Douma and Zabadani, which has forced the regime into indirect negotiations to stop the fighting. There have been reports that the Syrian regime has already started distributing weapons in the country’s Alawite areas with the double aim of denying the FSA further gains and targeting the silent majority’s fear of sectarian divides a la post-Saddam Iraq.
Time has run out for President Assad. Under no circumstances will he be able to restore his legitimacy as a ruler, either externally or domestically.
Even if some calm is re-established, he may very well end up being the first to be sacrificed because of the governing apparatus he inherited but failed to upend.
The Assad dynasty as we know it will be a thing of the past, regardless of how long it takes.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He teachers international negotiation and Middle Eastern Studies.