The Syrian uprising of 2011: Why the Asad regime is likely to survive to 2013? (MEPC, January 2013)

Will President Bashar al-Asad make it to 2013? Chances are he will. Despite his regime’s rapid loss of legitimacy, its growing isolation and tanking economy, no countervailing force has yet emerged that can take it down.

Many opposition and foreign leaders are predicting that the regime will fall within months. Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa stated that Bashar would fall « in the next few months. »1 The U.S. State Department has called President Asad a « dead man walking. » Israel’s defense minister has insisted that Asad will fall in a matter of weeks. Certainly, the revolutionary process that began to sweep the Middle East a year ago is powerful; most Syrians want change, and many are willing to fight for freedom and dignity. One cannot envision the Asad family retaining power in the long run; all the same, predictions of its rapid demise may be wishful thinking.

Four elements are important in assessing the regime’s chances of surviving to 2013: its own strengths, the opposition’s weaknesses, the chances of foreign intervention, and the impact of sanctions and economic decline.

1. Asad remains strong militarily.

First, let’s place the regime in regional perspective. The Asads stand atop the last minoritarian regime in the Levant and thus seem destined to fall in this age of popular revolt. When they do, the postcolonial era will draw to a final close. Following World War II, minorities took control in every Levant state, thanks to colonial divide-and-rule tactics and the fragmented national community that bedeviled the states of the region. It is estimated that, due to their over-recruitment by the French Mandate authorities, Alawis already by the mid-1950s constituted some 65 percent of all noncommissioned officers in the Syrian military.2 Within a decade, they took control of the military leadership and, with it, Syria itself.3

Unique among the Levant states was Palestine, where the Jewish minority was able to transform itself into the majority at the expense of Palestine’s Muslims. Neither the Christians of Lebanon nor the Sunnis of Iraq were so lucky or ambitious. Nevertheless, both clung to power at the price of dragging their countries into lengthy civil wars. The Lebanese war lasted 15 years; the Iraqi struggle between Shiites and Sunnis, while shorter, has yet to be entirely resolved. The Alawis of Syria seem determined to repeat this violent plunge to the bottom. It is hard to determine whether this is due to the rapaciousness of a corrupt elite, to the bleak prospects that the Alawi community faces in a post-Asad Syria, or to the weak faith that many in the region place in democracy and power-sharing formulas. Whatever the reason, Syria’s transition away from minority rule is likely to be lengthy and violent. Even though the Alawis make up a mere 12 percent of the total population, the regime continues to count on support from other minorities who fear Islamists coming to power and from important segments of the Sunni population who fear civil war.

The Asads have been planning for this day of popular insurrection all their lives. Hafiz al-Asad did not make the mistake of Hosni Mubarak, allowing his sons to go into private business, while leaving the military in the hands of others, who ultimately turned against him. The Asads were less trusting, and for good reason. Syria’s urban Sunnis looked at the Alawis as interloping aliens when they first took power — muwafidiin, as they were called. It was not long before the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against them, labeling them as non-Muslim and non-Arab (shuubiyun) — only to be crushed brutally after the notorious Hama uprising in 1982. The use of excessive force was then a clear sign of the regime’s determination and sectarian nature; the forces sent to retake Hama were largely Alawi.

The Asads tutored their children in the arts of war so they could take command of the military and police their population. They marshaled in-laws, cousins and coreligionists into the upper ranks of the security forces. Despite the rhetoric of Arab nationalism, the Asads were keenly aware that only the traditional loyalties of family, clan and sect could cement their rule. In essence, they upheld the notion that it takes a village to rule Syria, a formula that successfully brought an end to political instability. For over two decades following independence, Syria had been known as the banana republic of the Middle East because of its frequent coups and changes of government. Under the Asads, loyalty quickly became the ultimate qualification for advancement into the upper ranks of the security forces. They packed sensitive posts with loyal Alawis and Baathists. Some analysts estimated that as many 80 percent of Syria’s officer corps is Alawi. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but it underscores the sectarian safety measures the regime has taken.4 The main strike forces, such as the Republican Guard led by Bashar’s brother, are overwhelmingly Alawi. Many of the divisions made up of enlisted Sunnis have not been deployed to quell the uprising. Instead, the regime has built up special forces and irregulars, often called shabiha, which are heavily Alawi or Sunnis of known loyalty. Policing loyalty in order to coup-proof the regime has been a paramount concern. Alawis were placed in strategic ministries other than defense. The foreign ministry is a case in point. Recently a Syrian ambassador who has sought refuge in Turkey told Hurriyet, « There are 360 diplomats within the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Of these, 60 percent are Nusayri [Alawi]. » He added, « The number of Sunni diplomats does not exceed 10 percent. »5 Even if these numbers are an exaggeration, there is little doubt that the regime has been careful to staff the upper ranks of important ministries with loyalists and coreligionists. This attention to staffing is a key reason that major defections have not occurred in the top ranks of government and why we have yet to see a repeat of the Libya example, where whole sections of the country fell out of central control and turned to the rebel cause within weeks of the uprising’s debut. Ironically, the minoritarian character of the regime makes it more durable than its republican counterparts in North Africa, where the population is largely homogeneous.

The sectarian nature of the regime may protect it from major desertions when economic difficulties make paying for the far-flung patronage networks impossible. Patronage serves as essential glue, binding the interests of disparate social groups to the regime. Just as important, patronage frustrates the emergence of corporate groups that might compete with the government.The regime has skillfully doled out jobs and benefits to fragment the opposition and buy off opponents.6

For this reason, opposition leaders hope that sanctions will promote the collapse of the regime. They reason that, once government money runs out, widespread defections will take place, a coup by top-ranking Alawi officers may occur, or a Tahrir Square moment will overwhelm security forces in the major cities. Such hopes have not been fulfilled in 10 months of growing violence and protest. There is little reason to think they will be in the coming months. Despite increasing defections among the military’s rank and file, the elite units, special forces and intelligence agencies may have little choice but to rally around the Asad regime, given their bleak prospects in a post-Asad Syria. Heavily Alawite elite units with sizable numbers of loyal Sunnis will likely see no alternative.

The broader Alawi community is also likely to remain loyal to the regime, even as the economy deteriorates.7 Almost all Alawi families have a least one member in the security forces as well as additional members working in civilian ministries, such as education or agriculture. Most fear collective punishment for the sins of the Baathist era. Not only do they assume that they will suffer from wide-scale purges once the opposition wins; many also suspect that they will face prison or worse. Opposition leaders have tried to calm Alawi anxieties provoked by hotheaded sheikhs. The most notorious is Adnan Arur, who threatened, « We shall mince [the Alawis] in meat grinders and feed them to the dogs. »8 The head of the Muslim Brotherhood has assured ordinary Alawis that they will be protected. Those guilty of crimes will face proper courts and be tried according to the law.9 Such assurances only go so far in calming Alawi anxieties. Many do not expect an orderly transition of power, just as many remain convinced that a spirit of revenge may guide the opposition, which has been so badly abused.

In short, because the Syrian military remains able and willing to stand by the president, whether out of loyalty, self-interest or fear, the regime is likely to endure for some time.

2. The opposition is weak.

The strength of Asad’s rule is relative and can only be measured in relation to that of the opposition. Many analysts point out that his regime is brittle, narrow and ideologically bankrupt. All the same, the opposition is weaker. The regime has been able to count on the factionalism and bickering of its opponents to survive. Syria’s feeble sense of political community has been the regime’s greatest asset.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) being assembled in Turkey under the leadership of Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad is no match for the Syrian Army. Although armed opponents of the regime are an important development, their size, structural limitations and predominantly Sunni character make them a minimal threat. They have limited command and control, no dependable communications, and offensive capabilities that are restricted by their lack of heavy weapons. They do not yet present a real danger or alternative to the Syrian military. In fact, Western authorities have been pleading with the Syrian opposition not to militarize, for fear that the insurgency will actually weaken the opposition rather tahn strengthen it.10

The main political representative of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), claims to have gained control over the FSA, which in turn claims to have control over some 15,000 defectors and armed elements in Syria. This alleged hierarchy is, by most accounts, fictional.11 Whether peaceful or armed, the opposition cells in Syria work independently. The New York Times recently concluded, « Factionalism has been hindering the drive to topple Asad. »12 Most observers doubt that the FSA has the number of followers it claims or is responsible for many of the attacks against the Syrian army. Resistance groups in Syria are organized locally, depend on civilian volunteers as well as defectors from the military, and do not take orders from Colonel Asaad or other leaders, although they call themselves part of the FSA. The term has become common rubric in disparate resistance groups whose common goal is to bring down the regime and protect Syrian protesters from the military.13 The SNC did not invite the leaders of the FSA to its December 2011 meeting in Tunis, a snub to the organization, although it has been trying to repair the relationship since then.

The political leadership of the Syrian opposition remains divided. The SNC claims to speak for the entire opposition but has been struggling to contain divisions within its own ranks as well as to unite with competing opposition parties. The United States and Europe recognize the SNC as the rightful leader of the opposition and have sought to build up its legitimacy and authority, but they continue to wring their hands over its internal weaknesses. It is composed of three main factions: The Muslim Brotherhood, the National Bloc — primarily secular, whose members tend to come from elite Syrian families — and members of the National Coordinating Committees, who are resident inside Syria and cannot reveal their names. There are also many independents, a handful of representatives of the Kurdish Bloc, and a few representatives of other minorities, although Alawis seem to be absent. Secular supporters of the SNC often complain that the Muslim Brotherhood is the real power behind the organization, although there is little concrete evidence for this.

The SNC’s leader, Burhan Ghalioun, is a professed secular Sunni who teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris. Although he is capable and savvy, Ghalioun’s leadership is anything but assured. When the SNC was first announced, the various factions could not agree on the organization’s leadership. Three different executive lists were announced in a two-month period. Ultimately, the more Islamist members confirmed Ghalioun as the leader, perhaps because he is an effective spokesperson in the West, but limited his tenure as executive to three months. He told The Wall Street Journal in December, only weeks before his term was due to end, that he did not know whether he would be given a second term.14 Ultimately, Ghalioun’s presidency was extended for a month, but the circumstances and process for its renewal remain obscure.15

The SNC has failed to unite other opposition groups who have challenged its leadership. In December, unity talks between the SNC and the National Coordination Body (NCB) for Democratic Change, a coalition of leftist parties led by Haytham Manaa, caused a storm of recrimination. Ghalioun led the unity discussions with Manaa in December. He initially stated that the two groups would combine forces on December 31, but his hasty announcement caused heated protest from the more conservative and Islamist SNC membership. Even some of Ghalioun’s closest allies joined in the criticism. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood attacked him for being a « dictator » because he didn’t send the agreement to the appropriate SNC committees before announcing it.16 Ghalioun quickly backed away from the agreement, calling it a draft, and the SNC leadership promptly voted against union with the NCB. The SNC leadership criticized the NCB for being willing to negotiate with the regime, for refusing to recognize the Free Syrian Army, and for standing against any foreign intervention. A number of SNC members accused Manaa and his NCB associates of working for Asad’s mukhabarat (secret police).17

For its part, the NCB officials accuse the Syrian National Council of betraying Syrians by supporting military action that would result in widespread bloodshed. Imposing a no-fly zone would require neutralizing the regime’s vast air defenses, which would lead to heavy civilian casualties, NCB officials say. Even worse, they argue that foreign intervention will result in an « occupation » of Syria similar to the prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. « The SNC wants the devil to come and protect them against this regime, » said Khaldoon Alaswad, a member of the NCB’s executive committee.18

The incident weakened Ghalioun and caused many secular and left-leaning opposition members to worry that they may become increasingly marginalized by the revolution as Islamists assert themselves, as happened in Egypt.

More and more opposition parties and groups are announcing themselves each week. For example, Murhaf Jouejati, a Washington-based academic and member of the SNC, most recently announced the formation of a new political party, the National Consensus Movement. A new Islamic Front announced itself in Cairo in December. The Kurdish parties are sitting on the sidelines. They do not trust Turkey, which has been sponsoring the SNC, nor do they trust Arabs, who surmise that Kurdish demands for « national » recognition and autonomy are but a prelude to an eventual call for independence.19 The religious minorities remain fearful of the mounting success of Islamic parties elsewhere in the region. Many see the Arab Spring to be a thinly disguised « revenge of the Sunnis. »

Perhaps the most important divide among the opposition is not that between the Islamist and secular Syrians, which gets much attention, but rather the divide between those living abroad and those on the inside, who are waging the daily battles on the streets. Neighborhood committees and armed groups are forming in ever-greater numbers. Most use the word « coordinating » in their title, but few relinquish local authority. They prefer to keep decision making local. Some of this is for practical purposes; spies are everywhere. One of the main reasons Aleppo has been so quiet is that the local coordinating committees recently discovered that their efforts to put together surprise demonstrations were being foiled by informants. One recent opposition statement admitted that their ranks had been riddled with double agents.20

Opposition disunity is to be expected. The Asad regime thoroughly destroyed rival parties and suppressed most forms of civil debate and organization for 40 years. Little wonder that Syrians find it hard to unite. All the same, disunity is a luxury the Syrian opposition can ill afford. Tunisians and Egyptians could be leaderless and disorganized because their militaries turned against their presidents. In Syria, the military is standing by the president and shooting at the protestors.

All the same, the opposition is becoming more capable, more numerous and better armed with each passing week. Increasingly, Syrians are despairing of the Asad regime. Even many Alawis believe the president lives in a cocoon, as he remains convinced he will vanquish the uprising and continues to claim that Syria will be the stronger for it.

As the uprising drags on in a stalemate, opposition leaders are seeing the limits of their capabilities and becoming increasingly eager to get foreign powers involved. On finishing its meeting in Tunis on December 21, 2011, the NSC issued a statement to the international community demanding « international protection, the establishment of safe zones, … and prompt intervention. »21

3. The international community is unlikely to intervene.

In the United States, Europe and the Arab world, there is only limited support for intervention in Syria. However, the same could also have been said in the lead-up to operations in Libya. Only weeks after Washington’s intervention there, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates confessed that, if anyone had told him two months previously that the U.S. military would be involved in Libya, he would have asked them what they were smoking.

Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done an admirable job of isolating Syria and mobilizing the Western world and Arab League against it, she has discouraged the notion that the United States will intervene. Syria will be a much harder nut to crack than Libya. In some respects, it remains in the realm of « too big to fail. » One U.S. military intelligence officer who spent four years in Iraq recently explained to me that, if Iraq slips back into civil war at the same time as Syria fails, the region would face a « hell of a mess. » Europe is sidetracked by its financial crisis, and President Obama is touting his success in withdrawing U.S. troops from the Middle East as part of his reelection campaign. He will not want to step on his own message of withdrawal by launching another U.S. military intervention.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are constrained from leading an intervention for fear of their Iranian neighbor. Turkey has little to gain from intervention, despite Erdogan’s tough talk about democracy and Bashar’s tyranny. Turkey’s Kurdish problem is again on the upswing, and Iraq is becoming less stable. Ankara does not need a war with Syria.

Most important, foreign powers are unlikely to intervene if Syrians cannot unite and build a military force capable of providing, at the very least, a credible promise of stabilizing Syria on its own. Many ordinary Syrians who are sitting on their hands even as they decry government brutality will not support the opposition until they are assured it can provide a real alternative to the regime and impose order on the country. None want to follow the path of Iraq. Many worry that President Shukri al-Quwatli was right when he lamented to Gamal Abdel Nasser on the eve of the creation of the United Arab Republic, « You have acquired a nation of politicians: 50 percent believe themselves to be national leaders, 25 percent to be prophets, and at least 10 percent to be gods. »

There are circumstances in which the United States might support Arab League and Turkish efforts to lead an intervention. Washington might be convinced to « lead from behind » again, if Middle Eastern states commit themselves to intervention. The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq has left many questions about the future role and influence of the United States, especially in the context of strategic competition with Iran. Instability in Syria presents Washington with the opportunity to undermine Iran’s regional posture, to weaken or change the leadership of one of its key allies, and potentially to downgrade the Islamic Republic’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict through Hezbollah. Directing the orientation of Syria away from the Shiite Crescent toward the Sunni leadership of friendly Saudi Arabia and Turkey is enticing, especially as it might counterbalance Iraq, now that it has moved into Iran’s orbit.

All the same, the Syrian opposition is likely to become disappointed in the international community. Both NATO and the United States have stated in no uncertain terms that they will not intervene in Syria. What is more, Russia and China have vetoed efforts in the UN Security Council to condemn Syria.

For these three reasons, Syria’s opposition may be asking for intervention in vain, at least for the time being. Like Syria’s opposition leaders, foreign powers remain in disarray over the issue of how to topple Asad.

4. The economy is problematic.

Syria is a classic case of the failure of the Arab authoritarian bargain. Many specialists have focused on the economic drivers behind the Arab Spring, and their analysis encompasses Syria.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Arab regimes, whether republics or monarchies, turned to similar socioeconomic measures to buttress their rule. In return for political quiescence, governments redistributed wealth, subsidized food and provided minimal shelter, education and health care. The result was a distinctive « authoritarian bargain. » State-owned enterprises and bloated government ministries absorbed tens of thousands of workers and guaranteed stable employment and a minimum wage.22 These measures solidified autocracy but at a tremendous price. They paralyzed Arab states and saddled them with unproductive economies and unsustainable expenses. Run-away population growth acted as a time bomb, guaranteeing that expenses ballooned in an environment of low growth. This bargain was unsustainable.

Syria met the challenge to liberalize later and more hesitantly than most Middle Eastern states. Bashar al-Asad’s efforts to open up the Syrian economy and copy the « China model » were bolder than his father’s during the 1990s but remained hobbled by half measures and caution. All the same, he introduced private banking, insurance companies and liberalized real-estate laws. He dropped tariff barriers with neighboring states, licensed private schools, and permitted use of the Internet in an effort to encourage private and foreign investment.

But, even as Asad sought to boost private initiative, he feared its results. To avoid the emergence of a capitalist class that would be largely Sunni and not beholden to the regime, Asad turned to his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who became « Mr. Ten Percent » of the Syrian economy. He assumed a majority stake in many major enterprises and holding companies and ensured that the Asad family maintained control over the economy. Office holders at every rank of the state bureaucracy replicated this model of crony capitalism, exemplified by the presidential family. A new class of businessmen drawn from the progeny of major regime figures — called the « sons of power » (abna al-sulta) — has become notorious for its wealth and economic assertiveness. The result has been an explosion of corruption and public resentment at the growing inequality and injustice of Syrian life.

A new form of crony capitalism, which has failed to provide jobs or economic security to the broad masses, has replaced socialism. Growth has been skewed in favor of the wealthy. The poor, particularly the rural poor, have been abandoned. This was the social sector that provided the original base of support for the Baath party, but it is now up in arms. The wealthy have remained quiet.

Growing Poverty and Income Gap

Poverty in Syria has been on the rise, even as the upper class has prospered with globalization. Poverty rose from 30.1 percent to 33 percent between 2004 and 2007. According to the 2004 UN poverty report, « While between 1996-1997 and 2003-2004 poverty declined, the wealth gap widened. » Since then, both the wealth gap and poverty have been on the rise.23

Growing poverty has underscored the failure of the Baathist regime and is a leading factor in the Syrian uprising. It also helps explain why the most persistent centers of the Syrian revolt have been centered in poor agricultural regions such as Deraa, Homs and Idlib.

Syria’s growing income gap is mainly due to three causes. The first is the severe drought of the last five years, which devastated Syrian farming and drove an estimated one million people off the land and into urban slums. As a result, some 40 percent of Syria’s housing stock is estimated to have been built without permits and in areas with no state-provided water or electricity. The drought is estimated to have plunged 800,000 Syrians in the eastern part of the country into extreme poverty, according to a 2010 United Nations report.24

The second factor is the rising price of food. Global commodity prices have been soaring. The average basket of Syrian foodstuffs increased in price by close to 20 percent in 2010, led by wheat, which increased by 30 percent.25 Syria’s poor, who spend over half their income on food, have been particularly hard hit by inflation, which soared 15 percent in 2008. Inflation has been compounded by government reductions to price supports for basic commodities. In particular, fuel-oil (mazoot) subsidies were slashed in 2008, causing its price to rise 42 percent between December 2008 and September 2010.26 Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, inflation has exploded. This rise is a result of four main factors: foreign sanctions, the 30 percent tariff on all goods coming from Turkey, the failing ability of the government to pay for remaining subsidies, and hoarding.

The third factor is increasing unemployment. The Syrian economy has been unable to provide jobs for the rapidly growing population. The story of the Arab youth bulge is well known, and Syria has been particularly affected. The last decade has seen an enormous demographic shift. Around half the population of the Arab world is under the age of 30. Syria is worse off than most: More than half the population is under the age of 25. Twenty-three percent of the population is bunched in the 10-year segment aged 15 to 24.27

By the mid-2000s, about one in four young Arab men was unemployed, with the situation in places like Jordan (28 percent), Tunisia (31 percent), and Algeria (43 percent) being even worse.28 Syria’s unemployment figures have been notoriously unreliable. Until the Arab Spring, official Syrian figures placed unemployment at a fanciful 9 percent. In December 2011, the new minister of labor and social affairs, Radwan Habib, confessed that unemployment in the country stood between 22 and 30 percent.29 The effects of the revolution since March 2011 have sent figures skyrocketing.

Economic Effects of the Revolution

The Syrian revolution has sent the economy spiraling downward, but how quickly real economic crisis can lead to regime change is unknown. By the eleventh month of the revolution, many signs of severe economic stress have begun to appear. Adib Mayalah, governor of the Central Bank of Syria, described the situation as « very serious » in November. He ran through the problems the economy is facing:

Unemployment is rising, imports are falling, and government income is reduced. In areas where there are protests, there is no economic activity — so people aren’t paying tax. Because they aren’t working, they are not repaying their loans — so the banks are in difficulty. And all this is weakening the economy.30
Syria’s gross domestic product has shrunk by almost 50 percent in dollar terms since the start of 2011 — from $55 billion to $25 billion — as the Syrian pound has collapsed from 47 to 72 to a dollar. Merchants interviewed recently on the streets of Damascus reported a 40 to 50 percent fall in business as consumers hoard cash and cease spending on all but the most essential items. Tourism has skidded to a halt, representing a loss of $8.4 billion.31 A ban on oil imports, applied by America in August and the EU in September, is costing Syria $400 million a month.32 Sanctions have also taken their toll on the Syrian economy in unexpected ways. Trade with Iraq has been reduced by 10 percent because of banking restrictions.33

A ballooning deficit is expected to be close to 17 percent of the GDP in 2012. This will elevate it well above the danger mark for default, usually estimated to be 10 percent of GDP. Elias Najma, an economist at the University of Damascus, estimates that tax revenues next year will be less than half those of 2011 and will pay for only 60 percent of projected government expenditures. He estimates that the budget deficit will be 529 billion Syrian pounds out of a total budget of 1.326 trillion pounds,34 equal to nearly $9 billion, or 17 percent of GDP, assuming a GDP of $55 billion.

The government has no access to credit markets in order to make up for its deficit spending; it failed to develop a local bond market. Moreover, it can no longer access international credit markets. This will force the government to turn either to foreign friends such as Iran or Iraq or to Syria’s large businesses. Some local economists are already recommending that the government impose special levies on big business and businessmen. President Quwatli imposed such extraordinary taxes in 1948 to pay for the war in Palestine.

The government has ordered all ministries to slash expenditures by 25 percent. Fuel subsidies, which have been estimated to cost the government close to $8 billion annually, have been unofficially cut. The government has simply stopped providing most sources of energy to the public. Heating oil and cooking gas have become scarce, and electricity in most cities is shut off for hours on end during peak usage. Rateb Shallah, a prominent Damascus businessman, recently said, « The whole system has been shrinking — and very fast. »35

One Syrian banker recently explained that no one in Syria is paying his debts. Large companies are refusing to make payments to banks on their loans, bill discounting or letters of credit. Bankers expect businessmen will soon default altogether. Many are beginning to leave the country. What is even more telling, he explained, is that some state banks are refusing to make payments to private banks; instead they make excuses.36 For now, banks are treating defaults as « delayed payments, » but the day of reckoning cannot be postponed indefinitely. When it comes, how will the Syrian Central Bank respond? Where can it get money?

The fiscal pressures on the government are rapidly becoming unsustainable. Before the outbreak of the revolution, the government was already borrowing heavily in order to pay both the salaries of its countless employees and energy subsidies. With no ability to borrow, the government will have to reduce expenses by cutting what subsidies remain and by halting salary payments. To raise revenues, it will impose draconian taxes on the remaining Syrians of means. It will also print money, which will lead to inflation and the eventual collapse of the Syrian pound. As one Syrian banker explained, « The banking system will soon be hit with a wave of defaults at both the corporate and retail levels, as deferred payments can no longer be ignored. »

How Long?

The economy is not going to collapse overnight. Even as it unravels, the Asad regime may survive for some time, if no alternative forces organize to destroy and replace it. It may be able to live off the fat of the land for a while. It is worth keeping in mind that Saddam Hussein’s regime did not fall due to the deep economic crisis brought on by war and sanctions in the 1990s, despite the deaths of some 300,000 Iraqis, according to UN estimates. But, of course, Syria is not Iraq. It does not have its energy resources, and its people are in full rebellion.

All the same, Syria continues to have friends. Most of its neighbors are unwilling to ban trade. Iraq, its second-largest trade partner after the EU, is supportive; so is Lebanon. Even Jordan refuses to join sanctions. Some of Lebanon’s banks are likely to act as a haven for Syrian money. The Asad regime says it will look to other countries, such as China and Russia, for trade and support. Iran will undoubtedly pitch in, so long as its own economy can stand up to Western sanctions.

Collapsing institutions and the state’s inability to provide basic services should play into the hands of the opposition. The regime gave the business elites and middle class a piece of the pie and stability. Today, it can offer neither incentive. All the same, the Baathist regime will be a tough nut to crack. Alawis and religious minorities view the failure of the regime with great apprehension. So do Sunni Baathists and those who fear chaos.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is the opposition. Its lack of leadership was an asset during the first months of the revolution, but today it is a liability. Without it, the opposition will have difficulties inspiring more Syrians to take the sorts of risks and exhibit the courage of those already protesting.

So far, however, there is no force that has the might, unity or leadership to bring down the regime, at least none that is yet discernible. One must conclude that the Asad regime will remain in power until such a force emerges.

1 Interview with Mohammed Riad Al-Shaqfa by Mohammed Al Shafey, « Bashar al-Asad Is Mentally Unbalanced — Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Chief, » Asharq Al-Awsat, May, 12, 2011, news.asp?section=1&id=27573.

2 Hanna Batatu, « Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling, Military Group and the Causes for its Dominance, » The Middle East Journal 35 (Summer 1981): 341.

3 Nikolaos Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’th Party (I. B. Tauris, 2011).

4 Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, « Assessing Asad: The Syrian Leader Isn’t Crazy. He’s Just Doing Whatever It Takes to Survive, » Foreign Policy online, December, 20, 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy. com/articles/2011/12/20/is_Asad_crazy_or_just_ruthless?page=full. Alasdair Drysdale and Raymond A. Hinnebusch wrote in 1991: « Since the Baathi regime ultimately owes its position to the loyalty of the armed forces, Alawis are disproportionately represented in the armed forces. By one estimate Sunni officers only commanded between 25 and 30 percent of armed units between 1965 and 1971, » Nevertheless, the contention that the Syrian military is an exclusive preserve of the Alawis is false and simplistic. » Council on Foreign Relations « Syria and the Middle East Peace Process, » 1991.

5 Hurriyet, November 17, 2011. Under the Sunni Arab president of Syria, Adib Shishakli, minorities, in particular the Druze, were discriminated against in key government positions. The U.S. ambassador wrote in 1953: « Recognizing the clannishness of the Druze community, its secret religion, and social differentiation from the rest of Syria, General Shishakli has appeared to follow a policy of limiting the number of Druzes holding key positions. » In the ranks of the Foreign Service, for example, the only Druze to hold an important post was the ambassador to Washington, Farid Zayn al-Din, and he was a Lebanese Druze who had officially converted to Sunni Islam. Druze members of the Syrian diplomatic corps complained bitterly that they had abandoned all hope of career advancement because the « authorities would not permit two Druzes to serve at the same Foreign Service post, » presumably because of their traditional unreliability. See Joshua Landis, « Shishakli and the Druzes: Integration and Intransigence, » in T. Philipp & B. Schäbler, The Syrian Land: Processes of Integration and Fragmentation (Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998), 369-396.

6 Yahya Sadowski, « Patronage and the Ba’th: Corruption and Control in Contemporary Syria, » Arab Studies Quarterly 9, no. 4 (1987): 442-461; and Volker Perthes, Political Economy of Syria under Asad (I. B. Tauris, 1995), 181.

7 « What Do Sunnis Intend for Alawis following Regime Change? », Syria Comment, August 30, 2006, http:// The anonymous author of this article is an Alawi whose father served as a minister under Bashar.

8 « Syrian Sunni Cleric Threatens: ‘We Shall Mince [The Alawis] in Meat Grinders,' » Memri videos, accessed December 1, 2011,

9 Interview with Mohammed Riad Al-Shaqfa, « Asad is mentally unbalanced. »

10 « Assessing the Risks of Military Intervention » (January 5, 2012) posted on the Syrian National Council website, accessed January 5, 2012.

11 Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, « Inside Syria: The Rebel Call for Arms and Ammunition, » Guardian, December, 11, 2011.

12 Dan Bilefsky, « Factional Splits Hinder Drive to Topple Syria Leader, » New York Times, December 8, 2011.

13 Al Jazeera interviews Nir Rosen, Uploaded by Al Jazeera English on January 10, 2012, accessed January 11, 2012,

14 « Syria Opposition Leader Interview Transcript, ‘Stop the Killing Machine,' » Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011,

15 Email communication with Ausama Munajed, December 2011.

16 « A Member of the Syrian National Council: ‘Bashar Uses Ghalioun, and the NCB Are Mukhabarat,' » Syria Politics, accessed January 8, 2012,

17 « Lies in the Announcement of Burhan, » NCB website, accessed January 3, 2012, See the criticism of the union on al-Jazeera English by Ashraf al-Muqdad of the Damascus Declaration. He claims most opposition members want foreign military intervention. Interview on al-Jazeera, Dec 31, 2011, http://

18 Ashish Kumar Sen, « Syrian Opposition Row over Foreign Military Action Nixes Unity Effort, » Washington Times, January 6, 2012.

19 The best report on the Kurdish parties and their attitude toward the uprising is « Report: Who Is the Syrian-Kurdish Opposition? The Development of Kurdish Parties, 1956-2011, » Kurdwatch, European Center for Kurdish Studies, December 31, 2011, accessed December 31, 2012, newsletter_en_311211.html.

20 See the « Syrian Revolution News Round-up: Day 278: Saturday, 17 Dec 2011, » The Strategic Research and Communications Centre (SRCC),

21 Syrian National Council Announcement, accessed December 21, 2011,

22 Ariel I. Ahram, « State-Breaking and the Crisis of Arab Authoritarianism » (unpublished: 2011); Tarik Yousef, « Development, Growth, and Policy Reform in the Middle East and North Africa since 1950, » Journal of Economic Perspectives 19, no.3 (2004); Steve Heydemann, « Social Pacts and the Persistence of Authoritarianism in the Middle East, » in Oliver Schlumberger, ed., Debating Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Non-Democratic Regimes (Stanford University Press, 2007). For an excellent history of the region’s political-economic transition, see Alan Richards and John Waterbury, A Political Economy of the Middle East (Westview, 2007 [3rd edition]); Stephen King, The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa (Indiana University Press, 2009).

23 Dalia Haidar, « Drawing the Poverty Line, » Syria Today, (May 2010), accessed December 29, 2011,

24 « Drought Had Significant Impact on Syria’s Northeast, UN Official Says, » Syria Report, September 13, 2010, accessed December, 12, 2011. Abigail Fielding-Smith, « Uprising Exposes Syria’s Economic Weaknesses, » Financial Times, April 26 2011.

25 David Biello, « Are High Food Prices Fueling Revolution in Egypt? » Scientific American, February 1, 2011, accessed January 4, 2012,

26 Armand Hurault, « Syria: It’s the Economy, Stupid! » Transnational Crisis Project, posted on 11/11/2011, accessed January 4, 2012,

27 Nader Kabbani, « Arab Youth Unemployment: Roots, Risks and Responses, » Director of Research, Syria Trust for Development. Presented at the Conference on Arab Youth Unemployment: Roots, Risks and Responses, Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut, Lebanon, February 10, 2011. Accessed January 3, 2012,

28 Ragui Asad and Farzaney Roudi-Fahimi, « Youth in the Middle East and North Africa: Demographic Opportunity or Challenge? » Population Reference Bureau, 2007, (accessed December 29, 2011).

29 He said the new findings were the result of a field survey conducted by his administration. Jihad Yazigi, « Syrian Unemployment at Twice Previously Estimated Level, » Syria Report, December 19, 2011, accessed Jan 2, 2012

30 Liz Sly, « Syria’s Economy Is Key to Asad’s Future, » Washington Post, November 14, 2011, accessed November 14, 2011,

31 Ibid.; Phil Sands, « Syria Sees Tourist Numbers Leap 40%, » The National, January 25, 2011, accessed January 5, 2012,

32 « Sanctions against Syria As Effective As Bullets, Maybe, » Economist, December 3, 2011.

33 Sly, « Syria’s Economy. »

34 Dr. Elias Najma as quoted in « To Cover a Budget Deficit of syr. 500, a Financial Expert Advises the Government to Require Rich Businessmen to Pay Extraordinary Levies, » Syria Steps, December 28, 2011, accessed December 28, 2011

35 Sly, « Syrian Economy. »

36 Interviewee asked not to be named, January 2, 2011.

© 2013 Middle East Policy Council

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