A bloody three-month-old stalemate is widening in Syria, where neither the opposition nor the regime has prevailed. Yet a sectarian conflict following along the lines of its neighbors, Iraq and Lebanon—heralded in the repeated warnings of the embattled regime—is not the disease that the Assad family battles on life support.
The regime faces a more dire disease: the growing disenchantment of a younger generation excluded from any opportunity and denied any voice to change their position in the existing system. The regime has failed to offer any answers to its society’s growing predicament and this disease, fed by corruption, rots its rule.
As the Arab spring swept the region, the vision of Syria in the glossy pages of Vogue, the image of the elite’s modern luxurious Syria, was the only image Bashar Al-Assad could show to the world. Confidently resting his rule on his father’s achievements, the tired phrases of Arab nationalism and resistance to Israel, Assad believed that Syria could resist the region’s ailments even if his regime chose to ignore them.
Inheriting his father’s state in 2000, Assad let Syria decay. He let the economic interests of his family and the security establishment transform the state into a shadow of his father’s former rule, without providing any concrete vision for Syria’s future.
Bashar Al-Assad, the much lionized “reformer” president, when faced with popular demands to introduce reforms and take the state along a new path, showed he lacked the vision, the strength and the leadership to overcome the crippling inertia of the security regime and its mindset that has entrapped the Syrian state. Assad’s few words and late actions to assuage the situation fell on deaf ears, both within his regime and with his people. Small cosmetic weightless reforms, slowly unveiled, only showed how out of touch he was with the crisis in his country, and how incapable he was of safeguarding the regime.
As a result, the security-economic-political cabal cultivated by the Assad family, intoxicated by their own excesses of power and living in the luxury of their own false sense of stability, took control of the country and hit back with tools of terror: the army and security forces. As the civilian death toll climbs above 1,000, images of tortured teenagers’ bodies spread across the Internet, and military operations occur on a daily basis, the state that Hafez Al-Assad built lays broken.
In this brutal response, the Syria that has emerged since the Arab Spring did not spread democracy, but the contagion of family autocracy. The reformer President has not only lost his image but largely his unchallenged power. The Assad family and their allied interests moved to shore up the weakness of leadership displayed by the once vaunted “new Lion of Damascus.”
Assad is now only one of several members of his family— along with his younger brother, Maher al-Assad, who commands the elite fourth brigade of the army, and his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, the head of Syria’s telecommunications monopoly—who run the affairs of the state. Decisions are made largely collectively by the family.
The leadership change has ensured that the regime is now only guided by its own fight for survival. The economic, security, and political interests that rule the state have fortified themselves against change and a vision for Syria beyond its own security considerations is no longer on the agenda.
At the same time, the opposition, deepening its ranks slowly each day, is facing the challenge of not reaching the critical mass that forced Ben Ali and Mubarak out of power. Building unity and networks of cooperation in conflict, the opposition still lacks the capacity to bring about change.
The regime is now only guided by its own fight for survival
The army, a force multiplier of the success of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, firmly backs the Assad family. The regime benefits from a broad base of Syrian society not willing to throw its weight behind the opposition. The two most important centers of political and economic gravity in Syria, Aleppo and Damascus have remained largely quiet.
The opposition though, even if it is largely leaderless, is resilient. Time and time again the Assad regime has been confronted by its own people of all sects, connected through Facebook and Twitter, who come out on the streets to face bouts of mortar and gun fire.
A bloody, long hot summer awaits Syria and a cold winter will likely freeze the country in an even deeper state of paralysis. Even if the Assad family manages to wait out the protests, the family’s legitimacy has been fundamentally damaged. Syria’s President’s authority has been its largest casualty.
The regime, fighting for its own survival at the expense of the state, has the resources, buttressed by high oil prices, to hold on in the short-term to power, but fear, force, and submission are not a stable platform to ensure its long-term rule.
This protracted stalemate offers a bleak outlook for Syria. Severely weakened at home, with the possibility of a civil war erupting between the regime and its growing popular opposition, the reality is that instability in the Levant will dominate the politics of the region for the upcoming years. Syria’s position as a decisive actor in the Middle East is lost presently and the Assad regime has no strong leadership at the moment to chart Syria on a different course.