The Survivor (Foreign Policy, 12/11/2012)

Barack Obama called for Syrian’s Bashar al-Assad to step aside more than a year ago. Here’s why he’s still in power.

On Aug. 18, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama released a written statement that declared: « For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside. » It was his first explicit call for the Syrian leader to resign — but today, 452 days later, Bashar al-Assad is still in power. As he told Russian TV last week, « I am Syrian; I was made in Syria. I have to live in Syria and die in Syria. » 

Even as what was initially a peaceful uprising evolved into a full-fledged armed rebellion, the Assad regime has proved stubbornly resilient. It is still contesting every urban center in the country. While the rebels have succeeded in liberating territories in Syria’s northern provinces, they are still not in control of one major Syrian city. Unlike in other Arab countries, where autocrats were brought down by citizen uprisings, the Assad regime shows no signs of fading into oblivion soon.

Unlike in Libya, the competing interests of regional and international players has so far prevented outside military intervention. But the regime’s strength and the anti-Assad forces’ divisions have played an important role in discouraging direct foreign involvement. Here are four reasons Assad remains in power.

1. The regime’s inner sanctum has not cracked. In July, Assad’s inner circle was dealt a serious blow when a bomb killed four of its members — including Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha. But Assad and his coterie of senior advisors recovered quickly from this blow, appointing replacements to the officials killed in the blast.

According to people close to regime circles, the July bombing was the first time since the start of the uprising when the Assad regime felt under threat. Other setbacks, such as the defections of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab and Assad’s friend and former Republican Guard commander Manaf Tlass, did not present a serious threat to the regime. By the time they defected, both were marginal figures in the regime’s inner core.

As Assad declared in an August interview, these defections are a form of « self-cleansing » for the regime, ridding it of disloyal elements. The regime’s core is now reduced to Assad family members and trusted Alawite security officials, some of whom are holdovers from the reign of Assad’s father, Hafez. This core appears to consist of more hawkish figures who see the struggle in existential terms. As the inner circle gets smaller, the regime’s response only becomes more determined and bloodier.

As Assad articulated in his Russian TV interview, foreign military intervention is unlikely because it will be too costly to the international community. If that holds true, the regime is calculating that it can hold on to power and deny the armed opposition the ability to deliver tangible results on the ground — making it increasingly likely the rebels will lose steam. Russia’s and Iran’s reliable support reinforces this conviction.

2. The Syrian military is not close to a breaking point. Active personnel in the Syrian military are estimated at 295,000 soldiers, with an additional 314,000 troops in the reserves. Although exact figures are impossible to come by, some back-of-the-envelope calculations make it obvious that the bulk of this force has not defected to the rebels.

Qassim Saadeddine, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in Homs, told me recently that military defectors make up an estimated 30 percent of the rank and file of the armed insurgency, whose number is estimated between 50,000 to 100,000 men. This means the attrition rate in the Syrian army is at best around 5 to 10 percent — not enough to seriously erode its fighting capacities. Moreover, when given the option, many military defectors are returning home rather than joining the FSA ranks.

Moreover, Assad’s losses in military personnel have been made up for by the increase in the ranks of the paramilitary shabiha. These mainly Alawite fighters are increasingly becoming a skilled fighting force thanks to training by Hezbollah operatives. Loyalty to the regime also remains strong among non-Alawite soldiers. The insurgents have also acted in such a way to discourage defections: A recent YouTube video showing rebels executing a group of unarmed Syrian soldiers will only convince other soldiers to stick with the regime.

3. Syria’s Alawite community remains hostile to the uprising. Political dissent among Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs, has so far been extremely limited — despite a few military and civilian defectors.

There have been some signs of discontent inside the Alawite community, mainly due to the heavy casualties in the ranks of the Alawite-majority regime forces. On Sept. 29, there was a shootout in the town of Qardaha, the Assads’ ancestral home, between two of Assad’s relatives. While the fight is believed to concern the smuggling business in cigarettes, weapons, and other contraband controlled by Assad’s extended family, it may also have had political undertones.

The Assads have been swift in dealing with any sign of Alawite dissent, as it undermines the regime narrative of a Sunni Islamist uprising targeting the Alawite community. Following the Qardaha shootout, for instance, they quickly brokered a reconciliation between the feuding families. Alawite opposition activists are hunted down, jailed, and beaten. When all else fails, they are shunned by their families and neighbors.

Any hope for regime implosion rests on Alawites’ delinking their physical survival from Assad’s political survival. There are no signs that this process has even started. The opposition — especially the exiled leadership — has utterly failed in reaching out to the Alawite community. No opposition figure has yet made a convincing case to the Alawites that their future in a post-Assad Syria will be safe from revenge killings, that they will enjoy equal rights as their Sunni brethren, that their economic interests will be safeguarded, and that they will not be treated with suspicion for years to come. Even worse, there is no serious thinking going on inside the opposition of how to develop such a narrative.

4. The Syrian opposition remains fractured. Syrian opposition groups signed a tentative agreement on Nov. 11 that aimed to unite all anti-Assad factions under one umbrella coalition. However, much work remains to be done: The basic challenge facing every single component of the opposition — starting at the top and cascading down to the smallest local coordinating committee — lies in the absence of a political program that unites the disparate anti-Assad groups. Although different groups have been working on a « Day After » agenda, there is not yet a common political vision of how to get from now to the day after Assad’s fall.

In short, there is a political vacuum and an organizational vacuum at every level of the Syrian opposition. The diverse funding streams available to the opposition have exacerbated this problem, as new political and military formations emerge solely for the purpose of receiving cash. Competition, not collaboration, rules the day — even inside military councils. As one opposition activist put it to me, « The ranks of the Syrian political opposition swell through further fragmentation. »

Some steps are being taken to rectify these problems. The Syrian opposition groups’ conference in Doha, Qatar, of course, is a necessary prerequisite to laying the groundwork for a post-Assad Syria. But initiatives are also under way on the ground: Local administrative councils are being established in liberated territories, bringing together local civic activists and military councils in an effort to get government institutions up and running again. The councils’ purpose is to help provide Syrians with the services necessary to fulfill their day-to-day needs. It is still too early, however, to judge whether they will succeed in overcoming the infighting and poor organization that has bedeviled the opposition institutions so far.

Absent a game-changer, the violent stalemate in Syria is here to stay. Each side in this conflict believes the momentum favors its own cause, so each is unwilling to strike a deal.

No matter who takes the helm of the Syrian regime in the future, however, they will be forced to deal with an empowered citizenry that will no longer accept being ruled by an iron fist. Assad’s regime may not fall tomorrow, but it can no longer rule Syria — its old levers of control no longer function, and it has proved incapable of significant reform.

On the other hand, the militarization of the conflict has sidelined the activists and civic groups that launched the uprising. The failure — and the unwillingness — of the political opposition to articulate a credible road map for a solution ensures that military conflict will be the uprising’s default course in the short to medium term, plunging the country deeper into chaos and violence.

In the interim, new actors are emerging in Syria. Jihadi groups in particular are injecting their own agenda into the conflict. Although they are still not as prominent as during the height of the Iraqi civil war, they have the potential to be a major player in a future Syria. In wars, as in evolution, the fittest survive and thrive — and these groups are, unfortunately, the fittest.