Withstands Pressure That Toppled Other Arab Leaders
March 16, 2012
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's long-trusted military helped force him from
office. In Libya, top officials scrambled to distance themselves from
Moammar Gadhafi almost from the start. Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
fled his country within weeks, while in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh took
his time. But he, too, prodded by neighboring countries, is now in
Syria's president, on the other hand, shows few signs of going anywhere.
As his military routs rebel forces in Homs and Idlib, intercepted emails
appear to reveal his wife furniture shopping for their Damascus home.
Ruthless system built to last
Assad may derive some of his confidence from a system built by his
father, Hafez al-Assad, that has let the family stay in power for the
past 40 years.
“This regime came about as a result of a coup in 1970 and was designed
from the beginning to resist rebellion, to resist coups,” explains Paul
Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The elder Assad established an intricate web of often overlapping
intelligence services, separate entities that means even the watchers
are being watched. Like his son, he staffed key positions with members
of his Alawite minority, warning them, as well as minority Christians
and Druze, of the perils of an unleashed Sunni majority.
The result, so far, has been a coherent center, with the highest
civilian defection being a deputy oil minister this month, nearly a year
into the uprising.
“Its internal intelligence service keeps an eye on officers and
officials that might defect, and tries to prevent them or to block that
from happening. So, indeed, the defections are still quite minor,” Salem
Defections only at lower levels
Where there have been defections is from the lower ranks of the
military, often Sunni conscripts unwilling to shoot civilians in
villages and cities much like their own. These defectors make up the
bulk of the rebels' Free Syrian Army, a group that leading opposition
member Haitham al-Maleh said is the only one capable of taking on the
“They want to defend themselves and there is no way this regime will not
stop by politics, by peaceful [means]. They must be stopped by force,”
With the international community at odds about even political
condemnations of the Assad regime, the chances of a U.N.-backed
intervention as in Libya appear slim. Al-Maleh argues the least the
international community can do is give the Free Syrian Army weapons.
Abdul Aziz Saqr, head of the Gulf Research Council, said weapons are
important, but are only part of the equation.
“You can't fight an organized military with a Kalashnikov [Russian
rifle, AK-47] or a pistol. You need to have anti-tank missiles, you need
to have real reconnaissance and intelligence information," says Saqr.
"If the Russian satellite reconnaissance has been supplying the Syrian
military with a lot of reconnaissance, the Free Army needs to have real
intelligence information to be able to help them organize their
Russia plays prominent role
The role of Russia, a major arms supplier to the Syrian government,
highlights what is likely one of the biggest differences in Syria's
uprising - the heightened stakes of players both regionally and
globally. Syria is one of Russia's last allies in the region, and is
loathe to let the U.S. or Western powers take the lead again as they did
“For us in the region, we believe Russia winning over Syria is Russia
winning over the U.S. in Syria,” Saqr says.
And Washington, while supporting the opposition with words, has been
slow to act, warning of the complexities of intervention, including the
lack even of front lines.
conflict also comes as the U.S. tries to deal with nuclear and other
issues with Iran, which supports Syria as a linchpin of non-Sunni
influence in the region and a gateway to Iranian proxy Hezbollah.
Vested interests in the status quo can be found in other nations in the
region, including Israel, which fears a fundamentalist takeover in Syria
should Assad go.
“Syria is a strong military domestic security regime with a neighborhood
that is not willing to take a position against it, like Jordan, Lebanon,
Iraq, Turkey. So the geopolitics and the relations with the neighborhood
have also played a significant role for not making it easy for any
military or external effort," said Saqr.
Last year, predictions that Assad's government would go the way of his
counterparts in Egypt and elsewhere were common: “inevitable” and
“imminent” were words often bandied about. Inevitable is still used by
many, but imminent has all but disappeared.