Security and Foreign Policy

Bashar Ascendant: How Assad Has Avoided The Fate Of His Contemporaries


Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali are among the leaders of all the Arab Socialist States who have been overthrown. Some have even been killed by their own people. All except one: Bashar al-Assad. He has succeeded where others have failed. Why has he maintained his position, when all the others have been toppled?

First, the demographics of Syria are somewhat unique and have given President Assad an opportunity to diffuse or accelerate certain aspects of the Civil War in a way unavailable to other dictators. Many of the conflicts of the Arab Spring have taken place in more homogeneous states, (e.g. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya). This allowed protesters to make a claim be representative of the people at large, which is a much harder claim to make in a heterogeneous state. Syria has a much more complex make-up than most Middle Eastern countries. Though it has a large Sunni Arab majority, it has sizable minorities of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Kurds. Furthermore, Sunnis make up much of the urban elite and middle classes, which generally support the Assad government, so the Sunni majority itself is not a monolith. As the rebellion progressed and took on an Islamist nature, Assad was able to expand his base of support from his own sect to include most other minorities and a large proportion of Sunnis. This coalition of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and moderate Sunnis have coalesced into an effective response to both the rebellion and the Islamic State.

Second, he had a willingness to use organized violence to an extent which the other dictators failed to do in such an effective manner. While nearly all the Arab dictators responded with violence to the Arab Spring, none did so as effectively as Assad. Ben Ali and Mubarak were unwilling to involve their Armed Forces, which were the only institutions that could have saved them, and so they fell. Gaddafi’s response caused a war very quickly, which invited Western intervention. Saleh fought a small war and lost it. The Assad government responded to the Arab Spring with limited violence. As the rebellion itself became more violent, so did the government’s response. Though ineffective in stopping the rebellion, the gradual escalation of violence denied the West any pretext for intervention. As the violence increased, the Assad government was able to bring the full force of its loyal military power to bear. This deft use of organized violence has allowed Assad to maintain control of the majority of the population of Syria, its major urban centers, and has allowed him to maintain his claim to legitimate power.

Third, al-Assad’s individual character helped distinguish him from other dictators. Assad came to power in an unusual way. A doctor by profession, the second son of Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, Bashar was never meant to rule. His older brother was the heir apparent, but died unexpectedly in a car accident. Bashar lacks the panache of the ‘normal’ Arab dictator, but he strikes a more cerebral posture and tone than Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, for example. Panache and flamboyance are fine for a dictator during peace or a war against another state but in a Civil War a nation must see its leader as consistent, calm, and uncompromising. Assad has never spoke of compromise, much to the consternation of the international community. This reticence is a source of strength for his regime. In interviews, Assad time and time again showed his determination to remain president. He made it clear he was going to die in Syria, as president of Syria. These pronouncements were made even in 2012 and 2013, when there were rebel shells falling inside the presidential compound in Damascus. Assad’s steadfastness gave heart to the individual Syrian soldier, showing them that they would not be abandoned. This is in great contrast to many other dictators, Arab or otherwise, who stepped down or fled in an attempt to save themselves. The soldiers and militiamen fighting for Assad know that they are fighting for a man who will not flee and will not step down.

The Syrian Army, the government, and its supporters have managed to maintain a cohesive, though damaged state. The Assad government has achieved this by creating a broad coalition of different communities and getting those communities to support and inflict violence of various degrees against the rebellion. The ability of the Assad government to prevent meaningful Western intervention, despite the violence he has inflicted, shows that he still has legitimacy inside Syria. These key differences in both the situation at hand and the decision making by the Assad government, begin to explain why Bashar al-Assad is the last Arab Socialist dictator in power.

Michael Gerini is a young journalist with a specialty in foreign affairs. 

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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