Desperate to survive at all costs, Bashar al-Assad’s regime instead appears intent on digging its own grave. It didn’t have to be this way. The protest movement is strong and getting stronger but has yet to reach critical mass. Many Syrians dread the prospect of chaos and their nation’s fragmentation. But the regime is behaving like its own worst enemy, cutting itself off from key pillars of support: its social base among the poor, Syria’s silent majority and possibly even its security forces.
Syrian authorities allege that they are fighting criminal gangs, an Islamist insurgency and a global conspiracy. There is some truth to these claims. Criminal groups abound, and the uprising has an Islamist undercurrent. But, far more than the creation of regime enemies, these are products of decades of socioeconomic mismanagement. Most deadly clashes have occurred in border areas where trafficking networks have prospered with the knowledge — and complicity — of corrupt security forces. Meanwhile, the rise of religious fundamentalism reflects the state’s gradual dereliction of its duties in areas that historically had embraced the Baath Party.
For the most part, the regime has been waging war against its original social constituency. When Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, came to power, his regime, dominated by members of the Alawite branch of Islam, embodied the neglected countryside, its peasants and exploited underclass. Today’s ruling elite has forgotten its roots. Its members inherited power rather than fought for it, grew up in Damascus, mimicked the ways of the urban upper class with which they mingled, and led a process of economic liberalization at the provinces’ expense.
Some protesters display thuggish, sectarian and violent behavior. But given the Alawite security services’ own thuggishness and violence — sweeping arrests, torture and instances of collective punishment have been repeatedly reported since the uprising began this spring — what’s striking is the restraint of the popular reaction. Young protesters highlight this by circulating footage in which they pose as terrorists armed with eggplants and with makeshift rocket-propelled grenade launchers firing cucumbers.
The regime hopes to rely on Syria’s “silent majority”: minorities, notably Alawites and Christians, alarmed about a possible takeover by Islamists; the middle class (typically state employees); and the business community, whose wealth stems from proximity to the regime. None would gain from the rise of a provincial underclass, and they can see in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon the price of civil war in a confessionally divided society.
Yet the longer unrest endures, the less the regime will represent the promise of order. Its claim to guarantee stability is belied daily by its actions — a confusing mix of promises of reform, appeals for dialogue and extreme, erratic repression. As instability spreads, the economy is being weakened, alienating the business classes.
The regime’s core asset, many observers believe, is its security services — not the regular army, which is distrusted, hollowed out and long demoralized, but praetorian units such as the Republican Guard and strands of the secret police known as the mukhabarat. All are disproportionately composed of Alawites. The regime seems to believe this, too, and it is relying on them to contain the crisis.
This could be self-defeating. The violence has not stemmed the rising tide of protests and, even to those who commit it, it has had neither a defensible purpose nor visible effect. Crackdowns on armed Islamist groups are a task security forces could carry out possibly forever. But being asked to treat fellow citizens as foreign enemies is altogether different and far more difficult to justify.
The Assad regime is counting on a sectarian survival instinct, confident that Alawite troops — however underpaid and overworked — will fight to the bitter end. The majority will find it hard to do so. After enough mindless violence, the instincts on which the regime has banked could push its forces the other way. Having endured centuries of discrimination and persecution from the Sunni majority, Alawites see their villages, within relatively inaccessible mountainous areas, as the only genuine sanctuary. That is where security officers already have sent their families. They are unlikely to believe that they will be safe in the capital (where they feel like transient guests), protected by the Assad regime (which they view as a historical anomaly) or state institutions (which they do not trust). When they feel the end is near, Alawites won’t fight to the last man in the capital. They will go home.
The regime still has support from citizens frightened of an uncertain future and security services dreading the system’s collapse. But the breathing space this provides risks persuading a smug leadership that more of the same — half-hearted reforms and merciless efforts to break the protest movement — will suffice. In fact, that will only bring the breaking point closer.
It is, even now, hard to assess whether a clear majority of Syrians wish to topple the regime. What is clear, however, is that a majority within the regime is working overtime to accelerate its demise.
Peter Harling, based in Damascus as the International Crisis Group’s project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and Robert Malley, program director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa program.