Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but he has managed to save his regime at the cost of Syria’s destruction, thanks to his Russian and Iranian allies. However after 10 years of war, is he really the master of Syria?
In the spring of 2011, the discourse on Middle East desks in Western capitals was dominated by speculations on how long Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would last in power. The prevailing view was that it would be a matter of weeks, months perhaps, before the strongman of Syria was ousted, like his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, by protests sweeping the Arab world.
But a decade after the first demonstrations against his regime broke out, Assad is still in power in a country in physical ruins, economically on its knees and with a populace traumatised by an endless conflict. The Syrian war has cost several hundreds of thousand lives, displaced millions and plunged more than 80 percent of the population into poverty, according to the UN.
Saved by the interventions of his Russian and Iranian allies – with whom he must now deal with in his own country – the Syrian president has regained military control of large parts of Syria, even if violent clashes and the presence of jihadists are still a reality in certain areas.
Assad may be accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but there appears to be nothing to prevent the 55-year-old leader, who inherited the presidency following his father’s death in 2000, from winning yet another presidential election, this one scheduled for the summer.
A president indebted to the Russians and Iranians
"He’s still in power and we do not see what are the alternatives that could be opposed to him, especially from the West’s point of view. As for his Russian and Iranian allies, they have no reason to replace him. So yes, he won his bet to save his regime," explained Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert at the University of Lyon 2, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
"Unlike [Tunisia’s] Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, [Egypt’s] Hosni Mubarak or [Libya’s] Colonel Gaddafi, who were all swept away by the Arab revolts, Bashar al-Assad has remained in power by making his population pay a high price. We can say he’s under the tutelage of his Russian and Iranian protectors, but the fact remains that he is indeed the Syrian president, it’s not Vladimir Putin, it’s Bashar al-Assad," noted Antoine Mariotti, FRANCE 24’s Middle East correspondent and author of the book, "La Honte de l'Occident: Les Coulisses du fiasco syrien" [The Shame of the West: Behind the Scenes of the Syrian Fiasco], which was published in France last week.
But Ziad Majed – a professor at the American University of Paris and a co-author of “Dans la tête de Bachar al-Assad" ["In the head of Bashar al-Assad"] – believes that Assad is no longer master of his destiny, nor of the Syrian conflict and its resolution.
"Even if the departure of the Syrian president is no longer demanded by any foreign actor in the conflict, and this issue is no longer a priority since the Russian intervention has secured the regime, Moscow and Tehran have made it clear to Bashar al-Assad that they are his only hope of staying in power,” explained Majed. “And this reality could weaken him if ever – and this is far from being the case today – serious negotiations were to begin to find a solution with a political transition.”
A ‘pillar’ with limited sovereignty
The Syrian president though appears to be satisfied with his limited sovereignty over his own country. “He knows how much he owes the Russians and the Iranians," said Mariotti. “Without their political, diplomatic and especially military support, it’s not certain that he would still be in power today.”
Assad has no choice but to accept the current situation because he needs his allies to protect him on the international stage as well as domestically, to complete the reconquest of Syria. “In the East, they know how to be extremely patient, and Bashar al-Assad is playing it safe in order to remain indispensable in their eyes," explained Mariotti. “Finally, what Moscow and Tehran want is the stability of the country, and as long as he is able to ensure this, the current configuration will remain unchanged, because he is the pillar on which everything rests.”
While Syrian territory is under the influence of several foreign actors in the conflict such as Russia, Iran and Turkey, which directly or through their allies control parts of the country, Assad's real power appears to have weakened.
"To understand who controls what in Syria," Balanche explained, it’s critical to look at control of the borders, because they are a marker of sovereignty and a projection of regional power. “Today, the Syrian army directly controls only 15 percent of the country's borders, basically the stretch that separates Syria from Jordan and a small part of the border in northern Lebanon."
“This is extremely revealing of the reality of Bashar al-Assad's power, because if he were strong and had a choice, he would not let the Lebanese Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shiite militias and Russia control the rest of the borders, instead of the Syrian army,” said Balanche. "Even when it comes to the airspace, Damascus does not control anything since Israeli planes can bomb targets in Syria at any time, and normally the Syrian sky is supposed to be protected by Russia.”
For Majed, "the regime no longer has a say in a country fragmented and occupied by foreign forces because it no longer manages anything except its prison system and internal politics in the areas it controls. This is all that’s left of the sovereignty of the Syrian state since it is neither master of its defence, nor of its diplomacy, which is modelled on those of its Russian and Iranian protectors”.
Russia treats Syria the way Syria treated Lebanon
Majed, a Franco-Lebanese political scientist, compares the reality of Assad's power today to that of Lebanese authorities during the 1976-2005 Syrian occupation of neighbouring Lebanon.
"Ironically, he is treated by the Russians in the same way that they treated and humiliated Lebanese puppet presidents and politicians during the occupation, since he is at the mercy of Vladimir Putin, who can slap him on the wrist or summon him to Moscow whenever he wants," said Majed. The Russians, like the Iranians, prefer to have a weakened leader under their control in order to make him even more dependent on their support, he noted.
Balanche agrees that the situation can be compared with that of occupied Lebanon "in the sense that Syria has become an Iranian-Russian protectorate, and that Moscow is in a position to impose its will on the Syrian president, who is its servant”. But Balanche also notes that when Putin summons the Syrian leader to Moscow, “he does not seek to humiliate Bashar al-Assad, while the Lebanese leaders were more ostensibly mandated to Damascus”.
In this asymmetrical relationship, he continues, the Syrian president is not really in a position to say no to the Russians and is sometimes forced to make concessions. "However, he still retains a certain nuisance power to stand up to Moscow, reminding them, for example, that he remains indispensable for delivering information gathered by his intelligence services, which are crucial for the security of Russian troops in Syria,” Balanche explained.
Assad "knows that the Iranians and the Russians are obliged to put up with him, since he himself has prevented the emergence of any potential competitor, and he uses this to balance his relations with his two protectors to hang on for a while," said Mariotti. "No one within the regime can stand up against him and he will succeed himself in the presidential election, and the Russians know this very well."
The Syrian president has the freedom to get closer to the Iranians when the Russians are too demanding and vice versa, and when there are rifts, confirms Balanche. "He knows how to manoeuvre between these two protectors that are a bit trapped in Syria, where they are obliged to stay after having invested a lot. This, while respecting the red lines that have surely been set for him, is his situation," he explained.
Who’s afraid of Biden?
In such a context, it remains to be seen whether the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House can revive the issue of a political transition in Syria since his predecessor, Donald Trump, had completely lost interest in the issue.
"When the Syrian regime was in the most difficulty, it was Barack Obama who was in power in the US and Joe Biden was his vice president,” recalled Mariotti. “Bashar al-Assad understood that he had little to fear, even after large scale chemical attacks. So, he should not be particularly terrified by the return of the Democrats to office. Joe Biden does not really wanting to start a tug-of-war with Moscow over an opposition that almost no longer exists.”
So, if he is assured of staying in power, can Assad hope for an international rehabilitation? Last week for instance, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates said tough US sanctions on Damascus were blocking Syria’s reconstruction and undermining regional reconciliation that could bring an end to 10 years of war.
Speaking alongside Russia’s visiting foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Dubai on March 9, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said the wider US sanctions imposed under the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act were making it “difficult” to achieve Arab objectives, including Syria’s restoration to the Arab League. Syria was suspended from the pan-Arab organisation in late 2011 due to Assad’s ferocious crackdown on protesters, and several Gulf powers who backed Syrian rebel movements had been betting on Assad’s quick fall.
"In terms of rehabilitation, he is lucid and guesses that he does not have much hope regarding the West, because this would require the regime to make concessions that it cannot make in terms of human rights and a political transition,” noted Balanche.
“But Bashar al-Assad can renew ties with Arab countries that seem less closed to this idea than the Europeans and Americans,” he explained, adding, "Damascus is especially looking towards Russia and China, which, in its eyes, embodies an alternative model to the Western one and with which Syria can deal economically without the question of human rights dominating the table."