The Fading Hope of Regime-Change
If the events of the past decade are any guide, Assad’s grip on power seems nigh unbreakable. In early 2011, the Assadist regime was arguably at its lowest point. The Arab Spring swept across the region and the threat of Western intervention loomed large after the toppling of Gaddafi in Libya. Assad was facing down a wave of pro-democratic protests, backed by international consensus. In a bid to fortify his dynastic power, Assad refused compromise, plunging Syria into a devastating conflict. As the war progressed, and the likelihood of full-scale foreign intervention became ever slimmer, the Baathist regime grew increasingly brazen. After a 2013 chemical attack that claimed over 1,400 civilian casualties, Assad’s standing seemed shaken. US and Russian diplomats carved out a deal requiring the Syrian government to relinquish its chemical weapons arsenal and commit to de-escalation. Assad, while symbolically accepting the agreement, ramped up his brutal campaign of consolidation, ignoring all pledges to disarm. In 2016, Assad, emboldened by growing support from his Russian and Iranian backers, used the cover of a UN-brokered ceasefire to attack the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, capturing the city after a bloody siege. In mid-2018, the Baathist regime once again violated truce terms, striking at US-backed forces in the south-west of the country.
Faced with the failure of diplomatic efforts, the US imposed severe sanctions upon Syria in an effort to bring Assad to the negotiating table. America’s campaign of economic warfare exacted a heavy toll on the Middle Eastern nation, deepening its destitution. Since late-2019, the Syrian currency depreciated by about 250% compared to the US dollar. The situation was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and crisis in Lebanon, which is tightly economically intertwined with Syria. The Baathist regime mostly succeeded in transmitting the fiscal strain of sanctions and general economic downturn downwards, with ordinary Syrians suffering worsening fuel and food shortages. Meanwhile, Assad, standing at the helm of a fractured, desolate country, retains and strengthens his grip on power.
During the Trump era, US disillusionment with past regime-change efforts translated into a strategic shift. America took steps to fortify the Syrian regions lying outside Assad’s reach, essentially freezing the conflict in place. Trump increased backing to the SDF, the Kurdish-led anti-Assad militia group, and took steps to expand oil extraction in the SDF’s powerbase to foster the region’s economic emancipation. Trump’s efforts were jeopardized by his refusal to back the Syrian Kurds in their struggle against Turkey, preventing the emergence of a stable, north-Syrian autonomy under the SDF. Trump’s passivity in the face of the Turkish invasion signaled a broader shift in US posture vis-à-vis the broader region. The US is no longer acting as a guarantor of Middle Eastern peace; the White House tolerates proxy wars between regional powers as long as their ambitions are kept mutually in check, ensuring equilibrium. Turkish involvement in Syria countervails Assad’s power, preventing the entrenchment of Russian and Iranian influence. As the situation stands, US-backed rebels and the Turkey-aligned Syrian National Army control around 30% of Syrian territory, and the chances of a decisive Assadist victory are slim as the battlelines grow increasingly settled.
More than a decade after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, hopes of regime-change seem fainter than ever. Bashar al-Assad’s embattled government has proved intractable in the face of diplomatic pressure, resisting liberalizing and peacemaking initiatives. In shredding his diplomatic credibility, Assad has increasingly embraced his role as an international pariah. The Syrian regime engages in drug and weapons trafficking, sponsors terrorist activities across the region, and welcomes the presence of Russian and Iranian expeditionary forces on its soil. As dust settles over war-torn Syria, the country is headed for a new period of normalization and authoritarian consolidation.
Syria’s depopulation and economic devastation is not a side-effect of Assad’s rule, but its fundamental feature. Across the country, Assad has forced rebellious regions into submission through blockades and indiscriminate bombardment. Assadist forces and their Russo-Iranian allies have reduced whole cities to rubble to prevent them from ever rising up again. Rebel-controlled areas have forced into reconciliation deals that drove millions of Syrians out of their homes. Assad’s campaign of expulsion is part of a broader effort to populate formerly Sunni-dominated areas with Shia settlers, tipping the ethno-religious composition of the Syrian population in the regime’s favor. More than 13 million Syrians are currently refugees, accounting for around half of the nation’s total population. Assad shows little interest in repatriation efforts; according to Lebanese authorities, only 20% of the refugees willing to return to Syria have been granted permits by the Baathist regime. For Assad, the return of refugees, many of whom come outside of Baathist-aligned areas, entails an impermissible threat of instability. For the same reasons, Assad is slow to push for the reintegration of separatist regions, despite their obvious economic value. Assad is willing to sacrifice half of Syria’s population and possibly even a large chunk of key oil- and food-producing territories to secure his grip on power. For the Baathist regime, refugees are more useful when kept abroad as a diplomatic bargaining chip.
Assad is also taking steps to unify the Baathist Party and eliminate internal challengers. Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar’s uncle, and former prominent opposition leader has been allowed to re-enter Syria after a long period of exile. His return was conditioned by a pledge of loyalty to the regime, solidifying Bashar’s place at the helm of the Assad dynasty. As Syria’s economic crisis deepened around 2019, Assad has moved against his cousin and long-term ally, Rami Makhlouf. Makhlouf was a prominent business mogul and militia leader, whose holdings accounted for around half of Syria’s total economic output. Rami Makhlouf’s empire – from his extensive network of charities to the telecom conglomerate Syriatel – was dismantled and overtaken by Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma. Thus, Baathist control over Syria’s economy is now concentrated in the hands of the President’s closest family circle.
Resignation and Reintegration
Assad’s rule is increasingly accepted as a fact of life by regional powers. The memories of the Islamic State’s peak power in the mid-2010s weigh heavily on the minds of Middle Eastern leaders. Assad projects an image of stability, positioning his oppressive regime as a bulwark against further turmoil. Jordan, desperate to get rid of its vast refugee population, has reopened its border with Syria. In October 2021, King Abdulah II met Bashar al-Asad for the first time since 2011, heralding a new era of rapprochement. Diplomats from the UAE have flown to Damascus to discuss the prospects of economic co-operation, and Egypt is pushing for Syria to be readmitted into the Arab League. Qatar and the Saudis have made overtures of their own. Even the UN is tacitly acknowledging the new normal in Syria. The resolution on cross-border assistance, approved by the security council in a rare show of consensus, called for projects to rebuild Syria’s civilian infrastructure, marking a clear shift of framing away from war-time relief and towards post-war reconstruction.
The US also tacitly condones Syria’s reintegration into regional diplomatic structures. American diplomats struck a deal with Assad to channel Egyptian gas across Syria and into Lebanon to alleviate the nation’s ongoing energy crisis. These efforts are a far cry from a formal recognition of Assad’s regime. Nevertheless, it seems that the US is open to cooperating with the Syrian President on issues of regional security. Reaching out directly to Assad is a way for the US to undermine foreign influence in the country. If the choice is between an autonomous Baathist Syria, and a Russo-Iranian outpost on the Mediterranean coast, the White House will inevitably opt for the former. The Syrian regime has already demonstrated a seemingly inexhaustible casualty tolerance, and a remarkable resilience to economic strain. US sanctions only serve to deepen the plight of Syria’s population, rendering them nigh indefensible on humanitarian grounds, and set for eventual termination.
The continued presence of jihadi fighters in the country’s northern regions provides a strong argument for US-Syrian rapprochment. The rebel-held enclave of Idlib serves as refuge for a number of high-profile terrorist leaders. The raid on the hideout of Islamic State chief al-Qurayshi in February 2022 is the latest in a long string of US-orchestrated strikes against al-Qaeda and ISIL targets in Idlib. The region is ruled by HTS, a former al-Qaeda branch that has since rebranded as a pro-democratic militia. Despite official proclamations, the loyalties of HTS fighters and commanders remain dubious, with the group’s continued survival owed largely to Turkish support. Despite nominally backing US counterterrorism efforts, Turkey mainly seeks to amplify its regional influence, and is thus bound to reject any steps that would undermine the HTS. Rather than propping up the status quo and waging a perpetual campaign of containment, the Biden administration might instead back Syria’s push for territorial consolidation, shifting the burden of anti-jihadism onto Assad.
Assad’s Place in the Middle East
Given the legacy of Syrian foreign policy, stabilization might prove a false hope. The Baathist regime has a long-documented history of political assassinations and subversive activities. Hafez al-Assad, established an interwoven nexus of non-state actors and entities, aimed at projecting Syrian influence across the Middle East, which the current President further built on. In 2005, the Syrian government orchestrated the killing of Lebanese opposition leader Rafic Hariri, and until the outbreak of the civil war, Assad was channeling material and finances to anti-US jihadists in Iraq. As the civil war winds down, the Baathist regime will strive to revive its terrorist networks in a bid to recapture its past standing. The vast refugee diasporas in neighboring Arab countries will serve as a new instrument in Assad’s toolbox; with the Syrian leader wielding promises of repatriation to secure economic and diplomatic concessions. The Assadist resurgence is bound to spawn a new round of tensions. To retain his grip on power, Assad was forced to surrender his autonomy to Russia and Iran. However, as immediate threats to the Baathist regime subside, Syria will seek to chart an independent path. Assad’s attempts to shake off the influence of his foreign backers, root out remaining rebel forces, and reassert his power in Lebanon and on the Israeli frontier will further disrupt peace in the region.
After a decade of civil war, Syria re-emerges into a region much transformed. The Middle East is no longer defined by US hegemony. In the vacuum produced by America’s gradual withdrawal, various mid-sized powers are jockeying for influence. Assad strives to position himself as an independent mediator between the emerging Middle Eastern powerblocks. However, in this, he must contend with the continual decline of Syria’s significance. Between Russia, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States, Assad will have to perform an elaborate balancing act to claim his place in the sun. The Lebanese Hezbollah, which has formerly acted as an extended arm of the Baathist regime, has grown in power, and become more closely aligned with Iran. Simultaneously, Syria has involuntarily become a battlefield in a proxy war between Turkey and the loose Russo-Iranian coalition. Turkish presence in the north of the country will continue to undermine Assad’s standing, reinforcing his reliance on Russian and Iranian support. In Libya, the Baathist regime is backing Khalifa Haftar’s faction in an effort to counterbalance Turkish influence. Assad’s support for Haftar is a component of his effort to ingratiate himself with Egypt and the UAE. Nevertheless, in participating in the Libyan conflict, Syria is, in part inadvertently, aiding Russia in its efforts to contain Turkish influence. Assad has managed to cling on to the Presidential seat, but years of warfare transformed his nation from regional powerbroker into a chip in the games of others.
For the US, pushing Syria more firmly towards the Arab League is perhaps the most promising path to preventing the solidification of Russian and Iranian influence in the country. To attain this, the US should lift its sanctions, and encourage Arab-assisted reconstruction efforts. The withdrawal of US forces should not be conditioned by Syria’s internal liberalization, but by its diplomatic alignment. As long as Syria’s resurgence will bring it into conflict with US rivals in the region, it should be tolerated. Assad is an unreliable partner, and his focus on stabilization conceals a drive to regain the status of a regional power. Nevertheless, if Assad’s ambitions can be contained by his solidifying ties to US-aligned actors such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the normalization of his regime constitutes the best path towards the eventual termination of American presence. This will mean abandoning the Kurds along with the other remaining pro-Western rebel forces to the Baathists. However, the only other alternative is a perpetual maintenance of US ground troops on Syrian soil, a course of action that would prove indefensible both on the international and on the domestic stage. A decade since the eruption of the Arab Spring, the best option America can hope for is a strong Assadist Syria.
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Written by Matyáš Knol