There is an assumption that once President Bashar al-Assad steps down, the authoritarian state, a family-based regime, will crash like a house of glass. But the structure of the authoritarian state in Syria is likely to remain in place regardless of the timing of his departure. The Assads have spent more than four decades safeguarding the building blocks of political authoritarianism and co-opting a broad coalition of social, political, sectarian and ethnic communities. The Alawis, a minority sect within Islam, are the spearhead and power base, ut other interest groups play a critical legitimising role, such as Christians, Druzes, and an important segment of the Sunni merchant class and the new bourgeoisie, all of whom benefited from Assad’s neoliberal economic policies.
The durability of the Assad rule has depended not only on coercion and hegemony but also on co-option and the balancing of various interest and communal groups. For example, the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, reserved top senior posts for Sunnis like Mustafa Tlass (whose son, Brigadier General Manaf Tlass has recently defected to the rebels) who served as defence minister for more than three decades, and was instrumental in clearing the way for Bashar as president after the death of his father. Both the father and the son cultivated relations with Sunni businessmen and promoted financial and business networks, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s centres of political and economic life and home to more than one-third of the country’s 23 million people.
To legitimise their rule, the Assads invested the authoritarian state with an identity and ideology of pan-Arab nationalism and resistance to Israel, an ideology that resonated among many Syrians and Arabs. By portraying Syria as a vanguard of defiance and resistance to the US-Israeli dominance in the region, the Assads earned precious political capital at home and in neighbouring Arab countries. It is no wonder that after the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, Bashar al-Assad boasted that he was immune to the contagion because Syrians approved of their country’s anti-hegemonic regional and foreign policies.
It is only by understanding the thick layers and insulations of the authoritarian state in Syria that an appreciation of its longevity is possible, as well as the likelihood of its collapse. The coalition painstakingly built by the Assads appears to be fraying and thinning under the blows of a persistent and dynamic armed uprising. Increasing evidence points to cracks within the system and loss of confidence in Assad’s viability, including defections by senior and junior Sunni officers and the flight of the middle and professional classes, his social support base. Punishing sanctions by the western powers have exacted a heavy toll on the Syrian economy and weakened the regime’s ability to purchase influence.
The armed wing of the opposition has recently thrown Assad off balance with a strategic surprise – killing four of his top generals in a swift blow and taking battle to the very heart of Damascus and Aleppo. Last week’s explosion in the national security building that wiped out the inner circle has shaken Assad’s rule to its foundation, delivering a devastating psychological blow to his authority and its aura of invincibility. The loss of control of many villages and towns, including pivotal border crossings with Turkey and Iraq, undermines Assad’s legitimacy further.
Although Assad is bleeding, besieged internally and externally, and facing what appears to be a moment of reckoning, it may be too early to write his obituary or that of the authoritarian state. Assad still retains the backing of a loyal core of supporters, including non-Alawis. The security apparatus is still capable of deploying massive force to crush rebels, as witnessed over the past week. The structure of the police state seems to function, though less intact and effective than before. As the fierce struggle becomes more sectarian, the regime will fall back on its asabiya to prolong its survival.
Assad has also benefited from the crisis becoming mired in an intense regional struggle between Iran and its allies, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Iran is providing pivotal economic and military support for the Assad regime. Russia has prevented the western powers from passing a security council resolution that threatens military intervention, but Iran is a more important player, as acknowledged by Kofi Annan, the UN envoy to Syria. While Assad is isolated internationally and regionally, support from Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah as well as Iraq has provided a lifeline.
The question is not how long Assad can cling to power, but will the authoritarian structure survive him? Ironically, international diplomacy has mainly focused on forcing Assad out while keeping the system in place. The idea is to avoid a security vacuum (like that of Iraq after the US-led invasion and occupation in 2003) and all-out civil war that could destroy Syria’s diverse social fabric and threaten neighbouring states. This means that post-Assad Syria will be fraught with severe challenges that might exacerbate and prolong its transition from political authoritarianism to pluralism.
Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics where he directs the Middle East Centre. His book Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? has just been released.