Special Report

Bashar the Survivor

The Mehlis report notwithstanding, Assad is here to stay.

By 10.25.05

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With Friday's release of the long-awaited Mehlis report, the speculation concerning the future of Bashar al-Assad and his nation has reached a fever pitch. Its publication is only the latest in a long line of scandals that have buffeted the regime in recent months, beginning with the murder of Rafik Hariri, continuing with the humiliating Syrian retreat from Lebanon, and taking a deadly turn two weeks ago with the assisted suicide of Assad-stalwart Ghazi Kana'an. This dizzying series of events -- taking place in the usually staid dictatorship of Syria -- has elicited a stream of prognostications that envision the Assad regime falling within months. Headlines scream of "siege," "panic," and "fear," while pundits breathlessly write Bashar's obituary in advance.

The reports of Bashar al-Assad's imminent demise are, unfortunately, far too optimistic, reflecting our hopes and desires more than the grim reality of Bashar's durability. The rising degree of "pressure" oft mentioned by the press is more indicative of the media's and the U.N.'s overestimation of their own relevance and ability rather than the actual burden being placed on the Assad regime. While CNN and Detlev Mehlis flail away at the Ba'athist edifice, Assad -- who cares little about "public opinion" -- need only mollify certain minute segments of his populace to retain control over everyday life in Syria.

Chief among any dictator's essential support network are the secret police and the armed forces. Bashar has worked assiduously since assuming the throne five years ago to ensure the abject loyalty of the Ba'athist security apparatus, placing acolytes and family members -- such as brother-in-law and Mehlis investigation chief suspect Asef Shawkat -- in positions of high authority. Such men rely on the unifying figure of Assad to cement their own legitimacy; why they would ever seek his ouster and threaten their own positions within the government is inexplicable. Bashar's absolute control over the police agencies was all but confirmed with the death of Ghazi Kana'an, whose influence within the government was thought to bestow upon him the status of an untouchable. His probable murder indicates that even powerful veterans of the Syrian security services cannot hope to challenge the domination of President Assad.

Bashar's rule is further ensured by the loyalty of a small but potent community of elites. Under his father, these figures -- mostly influential officials who control almost all national industries -- were given carte blanche to loot Syria's treasury and resources, an allowance that continued uninterrupted following the death of Hafiz. Although they may shake their heads ruefully at the blunders of Bashar, they are certainly aware of the absence of any leadership alternative that would both ensure national stability while also enabling them to continue bleeding the populace dry.

The diviners of Assad's fall have pointed to the disastrous state of the Syrian economy as an indication of his tenuous grip on power. While Syria's economy continues to lurch between decrepit and moribund, there is little evidence to suggest that a system-wide crash is in the offing. The Syrian economy has been a veritable basket case for decades, reliably posting anemic growth rates below the requisite levels needed to maintain an economically viable existence for Syria's rapidly growing population. This uninterrupted streak of disappointment has seemingly inured the population to its own poverty, at least in the short term. While popular dissatisfaction certainly runs rampant, it has yet to manifest itself in organized opposition, as Syria's various dissident groups remain fractured and inconsequential.

Syria's increasing diplomatic isolation is also used to cast doubt on Assad's permanence. Due to one of the most inept foreign policies ever enacted by any government, Bashar Assad has single-handedly managed to reinvigorate the Franco-American alliance, shatter Syria's long-standing occupation of Lebanon, and turn former allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt into irritated bystanders. In a democracy, such failure would virtually ensure a change in leadership; in Syria, it simply means quiet grumbling among the national elite. The idea of external Arab pressure serving as a credible catalyst for change inside Damascus is almost laughable, considering the fact that the Mubarak government in Cairo is attempting a leadership transition virtually identical to that carried out by the Assad dynasty five years ago. To ensure the support of a sizable portion of the Arab world, the Syrian spin machine is attempting to label the Mehlis report an invention of Israel and America, a line of reasoning that should appeal to large numbers of Arabs who have proven maddeningly susceptible to conspiracy theories in the past.

As previously noted, the public release of the Mehlis report has fueled new speculation concerning the future of the Assad dictatorship. Mehlis' account has been described by some optimists as a veritable bombshell that could shake the very foundations of the Syrian state. The report, while not referring to Bashar al-Assad by name, does effectively catalogue the relationships and machinations that culminated in the vicious murder of Hariri and the subsequent cover-up. What exactly the U.N. will do with the findings, however, is another matter entirely, given the world body's long record of idling in the face of tyranny and terrorism. No U.N. constabulary will descend on the Presidential Palace in Damascus with arrest warrants in hand, nor will Syria's enablers such as Iran, Russia, and China allow the passage of effective sanctions. The Mehlis report may simply become additional fodder for U.N. critics who decry Turtle Bay's role as an international debating society, where much is discussed but little of substance is accomplished.

The desirability of Bashar al-Assad's downfall is unquestionable; Bashar continues to fund Hezbollah and Hamas, aid the murderous insurgency in Iraq, and brutalize his own people. Regrettably for those who would like nothing better than to witness his overthrow, Bashar still has support in the quarters that are critical to the survival of any dictatorship -- the security services, the army, and the moneyed class. Until cracks appear in this bulwark -- hopefully incurred by strenuous and consistent American pressure of the hard-edged variety -- there is little reason to wish of regime change in Damascus anytime soon.

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About the Author

Patrick Devenny is the Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Email: patrick.devenny@gmail.com