Four Pillars of Support for Assad Regime

Article Summary
Four pillars underpin the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime: the loyalty of the armed forces, its identity as a protector of minorities, the weakness of the opposition, and protection from foreign intervention. Nevertheless, the deteriorating economic situation could still undermine the regime, says Ufuk Ulutas.

The 1982 Hama massacre was one of the worst in Middle Eastern history. The Assad family used violence to consolidate their regime and their minority rule over Syria. The majority of Syrians went on with their lives with a “losers’ mentality,” or the shame of having [their ideals] suppressed by violence. The Syrian regime has [since then] based itself on the notion that “if used in adequate quantities, violence works,” and in this way maintained a culture of violence through the troika of the [Ba’ath] party, the army and the intelligence services. Coercion has been a central pillar of the regime’s survival.

Today, the regime cements its future and its grip on power through four principal means:

  • The regime believes that the Syrian army will be loyal to it until the very end. Commanders are systemically appointed to key posts, and as they are linked to the regime through sectarian and blood ties, they will not waver in their loyalty. The fact that none of them has deserted since the beginning of the uprising in March [2011] reinforces this view.
  • The regime holds the card of sectarian stability. By declaring himself the protector of his own [Alawite] community and other minorities, [Bashar al-Assad] has secured their support. By blackmailing the merchant class with the threat of further chaos, he also receives the conditional support of this class, as it requires stability. All [Alawites] - from those in the army to those in the intelligence services, from the street thugs to the passersby on the street - believe they are fighting an existential war. This further aggravates the sectarian components of the strife. In other words, the regime is trying to transform a popular movement for basic rights into a sectarian war, and is making use of this strategy for its survival.
  • The Syrian regime derives some power from the weaknesses in the opposition. Syrians - who have been denied political activity for decades - are finding it difficult to form a solid, unified movement. The regime keeps the opposition off balance with meaningless calls for dialogue, promises of cooperation with the Arab League and occasional chats with certain opposition groups.
  • The regime believes that it has survived by violence, and that its demise can only result from violence originating beyond [Syria’s borders]. Although it may be perturbed by the emergence of the Free Syrian Army, the regime does not see it as an existential threat. Although it is wary of external intervention, the regime does not believe that there is any imminent danger of this taking place.

In other words, the regime does not feel endangered as long as external intervention is kept off of the agenda, and it still maintains Russian support at the international level and Iranian support at the regional level. [Domestically], it has some popular support because [it has convinced part of the population] that it is the guardian of [minority] sects and the protector of stability. Moreover, the opposition has yet to mature and the state still monopolizes the tools of violence.

Nevertheless, there are signs that this could all change in the medium term. The fact that the Arab League has taken its efforts to the UN is one these signs. Although it may not satisfy the regime and certain circles within the opposition, calls for Assad to turn over power to [Vice President] Farouk al-Sharaa, set up a transitional national dialogue government, draft a new constitution and prepare for free elections indeed appear to be the least bloody solution [to the conflict].

The regime will also be forced to recognize that the opposition is working out a modus vivendi, despite [its current divisions]. Its popular base is expanding and slowly institutionalizing itself. This growing popular base and its increasing international legitimacy will turn this opposition into an existential threat to the regime in the medium term. Moreover, the economic crisis the regime is trying to conceal will eventually encourage the merchant class - which supports the regime not for sectarian motives but in the interest of stability - to side with the opposition. A recent large scale evaluation [revealed] shortages of basic foodstuffs and diesel fuel. [What’s more], economic sanctions are going to spur major shifts in the ranks of the opposition.

Such developments may well push forward the “expiry date” of the Assad regime without the need for external intervention. Unfortunately it is not difficult to see that the change will be bloody unless Assad regime wants it otherwise. Nevertheless, as “non-violent”  developments multiply, the amount of blood spilled in the future will diminish.

Found in: syria, alawites

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