The election was managed to artificially prolong the Assad regime's lifespan, even though its grip on power is at its weakest point.
On May 20, voting polls opened up in a number of countries ostensibly to permit Syrians to partake in presidential elections. In Syria, voting was scheduled to take place within areas nominally controlled by the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad on May 26. The results of these fraudulent elections, which are in violation of UNSC Resolution 2254, are a foregone conclusion that will assuredly end in victory for Assad. However, after 50 years of degenerative authoritarian governance, ten of which have been mired in conflict, it is worth exploring whether or not the regime is capable of surviving in the long run.
A tale of two anecdotes
On January 21, 1994, Mohammad Makhlouf and Ali Duba entered the office of Hafez al Assad, then president of Syria. Duba, head of the regime’s Military Intelligence Directorate and Hafez’ right-hand man, and Makhlouf, his brother-in-law, were believed to be the only individuals in the state who were permitted to knock on his door without obtaining prior consent. Sensing the urgency of their visit, Hafez is rumoured to have anxiously looked onto their adjacent faces and asked one question: Has there been a coup?
The two men had arrived to inform him of the death in a car accident of his first and favourite son, Bassel, whom he had been grooming for presidential succession.
Funeral processions for Bassel were held first in the capital, Damascus, then in the Assad clan’s ancestral village of Al Qardaha, where the regime received delegations from across the Middle East. During one such visit, diplomatic representatives from Lebanon took off their shoes before entering the mosque where prayers were taking place, as is customary in the Islamic tradition. Upon exiting, they found that their shoes, in addition to some of their cars, had been stolen by members of the shabiha (armed smuggling gangs) linked to the president’s extended family, embarrassing Hafez to no end.
Beyond their value as entertaining anecdotes, however, these two stories beg the question of whether or not the Assad regime is living on borrowed time. Can a regime borne of such crippling levels of paranoia and corruption ultimately sustain its own longevity? Can it be saved from itself?
A dysfunctional foundation
In 1970, Hafez orchestrated a coup alongside a number of officers. Rebranded the ‘Corrective’ Movement by Hafez and his proponents, the mutiny saw the young secretary of defence hijack the Ba’ath Party and seize the state, declaring himself the secretary-general of the former and the ‘eternal leader’ of the latter.
Consumed by authoritarian paranoia, Hafez immediately sought to consolidate power. He began by targeting the two main pillars on which his ascension had been made possible – the Ba’ath Party apparatus through which he claimed legitimacy and the Alawite community from which he hailed – systematically neutralizing both of figures who resisted his reign. Organized opposition movements were quelled, the first among them were those with secular platforms that enjoyed high Alawite membership.
To augment this, Hafez strategically manufactured buy-in to his regime by securing the allegiance of the segments of society that had been alienated by the radical socialist policies of his predecessor, Salah Jadid. A degree of privatization pacified the Sunni bourgeoisie, particularly in Damascus, while tacit acceptance with regards to the exploitation of office and theft of public coffers sustained the allegiance of the cross-confessional entourage of officers who helped him ascend to power, as well as his extended clan.
Additionally, the Ba’ath Party expanded membership, with all its perks, to anyone willing to demonstrate absolute loyalty. This forged an institutional landscape absent of genuine doctrine and merit – and submerged in political opportunism. Securing material privileges trumped all other considerations. Corruption became endemic, as positions in office were sought out for access to clientelist networks. So mismanaged was the economy that inflation varied significantly by the year throughout Hafez’ reign, even peaking to 60 percent in 1987.
To curtail contestation from the state’s coercive machinery, the military and security apparatus were structurally and systematically coup-proofed. Allegiance to the ruler displaced professionalism in the armed forces, while the construction of multiple chains of command – including the development of elite ‘praetorian guard’ units that operated chiefly as parallel militaries to be leveraged against the regular forces – fomented a deeply dysfunctional army. Abuse of power was normalized, and personnel, from border guards and customs agents to prestigious commanders, pursued self-enrichment opportunities wherever possible. Smuggling – from artefacts to oil, drugs, arms, and merchandise – and bribery forged lucrative relationships between officers, the shabiha, and the business class.
Moreover, an intelligence infrastructure marked with several rival security agencies, collectively known as the mukhabarat, was produced, tasked with monitoring the populace, the armed forces, and one another. Autonomous inter-agency communication was largely prohibited, with each organization reporting directly to Hafez. With its army of informants, the mukhabarat became synonymous with state terror – and kept soldiers, agents, and officers perpetually distrustful of one another.
This distrust was compounded by a system of sectarian checks and balances. The power centers of the coercive forces, such as the officer corps, the commanders of the elite units, and the intelligence, were predominantly stacked with Alawites (roughly 12 percent of the population), the top echelons of which were generally dictated by kinship ties that composed the core of the regime. Conversely, Syria’s Arab Sunnis, though constituting the country’s largest ethnoreligious demographic at over 60 percent (and thus the majority of military conscripts), were underrepresented both among career soldiers and the officer class, particularly the top brass.
Thousands take to streets in rebel-held city of Idlib in a boisterous rally against the disputed Syrian presidential election, guaranteed to give regime leader Bashar al Assad a fourth seven-year term https://t.co/jwUzwS2yip— TRT World (@trtworld) May 26, 2021
Aside from the sectarian hierarchy within the military-intelligence complex, the regime’s political and diplomatic class was largely staffed with Sunnis.
The institutional exploitation of communal cleavages was a key component of Hafez’ paranoia-laden political-security architecture, designed with the view that these divisions, when counterbalanced, would neutralize the capacity of potential challengers to form a united bloc capable of dethroning him. This formula served to keep the Alawite-dominated security sector and Sunni politicians perpetually apprehensive of one another’s motives, given where each was situated within the state’s structure.
For example, when Hafez temporarily stepped down from governing in 1983 due to illness, he appointed a six-member committee, all of whom were Sunni, to run the country. The manoeuvre was deliberately executed with the knowledge that, absent the allegiance of the Alawite officer corps, these men could not contemplate challenging Hafez. Though his brother, Rif’at, tried to use the Defense Companies – the overwhelmingly-Alawite praetorian unit he commanded – to seize power, other praetorian forces were rapidly mobilized to halt his advance, the most important of which was the Special Forces.
Yet, in 1994, when its commander Major Gen. Ali Haydar objected to Hafez’s decision to prepare Bashar al Assad for presidential succession in the wake of Bassel’s death, he was immediately relieved of his position and arrested shortly after. Although his loyal forces were among the most specialized in their airborne assault training, they were nevertheless divided and subjected to considerable reshuffling.
Under Hafez, an economically mismanaged police state took form, ruled by a clique of his cronies and their surrogates who viewed the state as an avenue for self-enrichment. Coercion, co-option, and division were tools utilized to indefinitely preserve a system that benefitted them while the tacit understanding regarding the prospect of imprisonment should anyone deviate from Hafez’ official line became an unspoken fear colouring the daily life of ordinary Syrians. The Assad regime’s trade-off – merit for loyalty – along with its divisive tactics, fashioned a state apparatus in which incompetence was the defining feature across institutions. This came at the expense of state cohesion.
Like father, like son? Bashar’s “reformist” dysfunction
"Cuba congratulates Syrian President Bashar al Assad on his re-election.— teleSUR English (@telesurenglish) May 28, 2021
We ratify the deep friendship and solidarity between our peoples and governments." https://t.co/mlBq7QCcmL
Distrustful of the old guard, Bashar modified this system upon inheriting the presidency in 2000. The regime’s clientelist networks became more nepotistic as his half-baked liberal economic reforms ushered in a new era of crony capitalism. These “reforms” resulted in the further integration of the top officer brass, occupied by members of the Assad-Makhlouf-Shalish clans, with the business elite while decimating Syria’s agricultural sector. Members of his inner circle, such as first cousin, now-disgraced business mogul Rami Makhlouf, exploited economic liberalization to de facto monopolize a nascent private sector and amass surreal volumes of wealth. Financial inequality grew substantially, as did poverty.
Additionally, Bashar sidelined the army even further and shuffled experienced officers – often under the pretext of combating corruption – who once kept their positions indefinitely under Hafez. As a result, officers now sought to accrue as much wealth, as quickly as possible, during their tenure, while kicking back lesser rewards to their subordinates.
When the uprising began militarizing in mid-2011, the gradual disintegration of the military against a few lightly armed rebels, initially receiving little foreign support, represented the first sign of the internal unravelling of this structure. Systemic corruption expedited this dynamic, as regime officers often exploited the fog of war to traffic weapons and rent out checkpoints to an array of actors, including the rebels. Even as the balance of power shifted and the regime visibly faced strain, corrupt officers reportedly sold re-captured land back to the rebels. In addition to bribery, ransom, another lucrative business, fueled forced disappearances at checkpoints manned by intelligence officers and the notorious shabiha.
Meanwhile, defections and desertions swelled, mostly among Sunni conscripts and junior officers, as well as elements of the political class. Viewed suspiciously by the Alawite elite, Sunni troops were often confined to isolated barracks. This paradoxically facilitated their defection and desertion while accelerating the advance of the rebels – a dynamic that was heightened by the well-established rent-generating practice among officers of taking bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to troop absenteeism. Alawite troops viewed as loyal were often dispatched into rebellious zones in armoured vehicles without infantry support. As a result, an estimated 25 percent of the military’s armoured vehicular arsenal was destroyed in the first two years of the conflict, in addition to accelerating the attrition of the military by limiting the number of deployable troops and disproportionately relying on specialized divisions stacked with Alawites.
Khalid died defending #Syria's heritage. His death was a testament to his love for his country's historical and cultural roots. Yet regime apologists have co-opted his legacy while omitting an important detail: The shabiha/mukhabarat have looted #Syrian artifacts for decades. https://t.co/mzFcVCUsqf— Nizar Faysal Mohamad نزار فيصل (@NizarMohamad1) February 7, 2021
These dysfunctional features precipitated the 'militiafication' of the armed forces, and by early 2013, many pro-government militias (PGMs) were formally mobilized under the banner of the National Defence Forces (NDF). The formation of the NDF partially institutionalized warlordism by absorbing an amalgamation of popular defensive committees, irregular auxiliaries, and shabiha into relatively cohesive units that were often trained and equipped by Tehran. As the regime continued to erode, Iran mobilized PGMs from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, in addition to Lebanese Hezbollah, all of which acted as a lifeline to buttress the growingly disintegrating security forces.
The metastatic expansion of PGMs nevertheless failed to definitively reinforce the regime, which by the spring of 2015, had nearly collapsed. To compensate, it increasingly welcomed Iranian and Russian intervention while significantly elevating the use of repression. Due to its internal contradictions, the regime decayed, its economy crumbled as the war raged, and its capacity for self-sufficiency dissolved.
A regime on life support
Today, the Assad regime is on life support, requiring ongoing political, security, and economic assistance from a host of exogenous actors.
Moscow, Tehran, Hezbollah, and a nexus of war profiteers and militias help the regime maintain a pulse amid economic corrosion and unprecedented loyalist resentment. Iran and Russia provide the regime with a stream of credit imports, with Moscow reportedly delivering millions of tonnes of wheat over the past few years. Moreover, their combined role in facilitating smuggling processes has thus far enabled Damascus to circumvent sanctions in order to secure oil via Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and the semi-autonomous Kurdish-dominated region in northeastern Syria, which controls most of Syria’s oil and wheat fields.
With their help, Syria has also become one of the world’s leading narco-states, exporting captagon and hashish across the region to a tune of billions. Its captagon trade alone is estimated to financially account for seven times the volume of its formal economy, meaning that the majority of its foreign currency is derived from revenue generated due to illicit activity.
In spite of all this, the regime remains unable to definitively stave off the spectre of famine for populations over which it presides. Amid the ongoing debilitation of state institutions, its scramble to provide services and maintain supply chains is expected to persist because its productive economic zones remain outside of its territorial grasp. The implementation of a new round of sanctions by the United States under the Caesar Act has exacerbated this. The Syrian currency, now in ruins, is estimated to have lost 97 percent of its pre-war value.
Additionally, the collective military prowess of the regime’s backers has hardly strengthened the cohesiveness of its security forces. The army’s capacity to independently launch offensives has proven limited – evidenced in its poor performance on the frontlines in Idlib, Latakia, and Hama – as has its ability to stem ISIS’ growing insurgent operations in central Syria’s Badia region. So depleted is the security sector that it has even resorted to advertising sensitive intelligence positions, once reserved for carefully vetted insiders, on Facebook.
Archbishop Atallah Hanna❤️, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of #Jerusalem, salutes the Syrian people who stood by their leadership and army in these difficult days, and congratulates them on their great leader, President Bashar al-Assad 🇸🇾✝️#SyrianPresidentialElections2021 pic.twitter.com/ieGYGTmcl2— Hanan Shamoun 🎗🇸🇾 (@HananShamounNL) May 28, 2021
The point of no return?
Though this system of support helps the regime remain intact, it is also highly problematic.
Should the regime seek to definitively reassert its sovereignty in a post-conflict Syria, it is doubtful that Bashar can conceivably rein in these networks, especially those linked to Tehran. As part of its forward deterrence strategy against Israel, Iran has sought to leverage these relationships to establish proxies that bypass the authority of Damascus and cement its entrenchment in the state.
Iran’s campaigns to convert and indoctrinate impoverished Shias, and to a lesser extent Sunnis and Alawites, with militant Khomeinist ideologies is a dangerous development for the regime, particularly as it has been pressured to issue citizenship to foreign fighters and their families. This risks forging sectarian pockets of the population whose politicized identities are incongruent with the cult of Assadism – itself a contradictory mix of theatrical rhetoric that borrows from Ba’athism, emotional nationalism, and increasingly, conservative Sunni Islam.
Against this backdrop, Bashar seems to lack the mechanisms to effectively curb corruption and preclude his cronies from contributing to rising temperatures in regime-held areas. Officers reportedly continue to exploit wheat and fuel shortages to help merchants sell subsidized commodities, such as bread and gasoline, on the black market in Damascus, Daraa, and Suweida. Furthermore, an emboldened generation of shabiha operates unchecked, abusing local populations, with impunity, from Latakia to Aleppo.
As populations in these territories approach the threshold of starvation, it remains to be seen how the Assad regime can reconcile the allegiance of its corrosive networks with its social base, specifically its discontented Alawite constituency. In January, bold rebukes from community members prompted the regime to launch a campaign of arrests aimed at high-profile critics, including a television anchor. Unlike with Syria’s other demographics, however, Bashar cannot afford to continue alienating the Alawites, whose disproportionate representation in the state complicates the regime’s ability to resort to public, widespread repression against them without risking political backlash.
At every stage of the war, the Assad regime’s backers have managed to artificially prolong its lifespan. Their methods have been creative, and their moral red lines non-existent. Yet, given the regime’s internal contradictions, it is not clear that it can be saved from itself. Even as posters of Bashar flood the capital, only one thing beyond his re-election seems certain: Absent a meaningful transition to democratic governance, the current system can only perpetuate chaos, instability, and suffering for the Syrian people.
Nizar Mohamad is a freelance Middle East analyst based in Toronto, Canada, who specializes in Syrian politics and security. He has previously written for The New Arab and Mondoweiss, in addition to working on Canada’s Syrian refugee project.
Copyright © 2021 TRT World