The Syrian leader has been successful in navigating turbulent waters with backing from Iran and Russia.
BASHAR ASSAD – he might find himself isolated.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria has seen many changes over the past half century. The one constant has been the last name Assad. A coup in late 1970 saw Hafez Assad seize power, and the family has been ruling the Middle Eastern nation with an iron grip ever since.
Hafez’s second oldest son and Syria’s current leader, Bashar Assad, took control in 2000 through an uncontested election that resembled a nepotistic transfer of power usually seen in hereditary monarchies. While the Assad dynasty has ruled Syria for 50 years, the past decade has seen the family’s power tested with the outbreak of the nation’s civil war.
The internal struggle has fragmented the country and given rise to a previously non-existent opposition. Many people have speculated on the downfall of Assad in past years, placing a six-month shelf life on his rule, but the Syrian leader has been successful in navigating turbulent waters with backing from Iran and Russia.
So what’s different now as talk about finding a replacement for Bashar Assad over the past few weeks has intensified? The most glaring problem is the Syrian economy.
The local currency has plummeted to record lows, and food prices have sky-rocketed. A decade of war and destruction, mass corruption, the loss of critical oil revenue and crippling US sanctions have taken their toll on the economy. Even regime loyalists are beginning to feel the pinch. Another major sign of change is the growing divide between Assad and his most powerful backer, Russia.
Moscow has recently been critical of Assad, citing corruption and his lack of financial rigor as major problems. The conflict has been expensive for Russia, with oil prices down, and Moscow wants to begin seeing a return on investment.
A series of reports highlighting the Kremlin’s frustration with the Syrian president’s inability to properly manage the country’s finances was followed by a very public display of tension within Assad’s inner circle. His cousin and Syria’s wealthiest man, Rami Makhlouf, released two confession-style videos asking Assad to be kinder to him and his entourage, or else.
The public nature of these veiled threats caused many to suspect there are serious intentions to push Assad out of power. The Russians also seem to be concerned with the bottle-neck in the political arena resulting from Assad’s inability to compromise. These two factors are vital for legitimizing Assad globally. Without that legitimization, much-needed international funds may never arrive, putting lucrative rebuilding contracts eyed by Russian oligarchs in limbo.
ANOTHER MAJOR player in Syria that would like to see Assad removed is Turkey. Until this year, the Turks, who back the Syrian opposition, have generally avoided direct military confrontation with the regime. However, a renewed regime offensive into the last rebel stronghold of Idlib changed Ankara’s military posturing toward Damascus.
Ankara, concerned that a collapse in Idlib could lead to a massive influx of refugees, launched an unprecedented drone campaign into the province, dealing a heavy blow to the Assad’s military capabilities. Turkey abruptly ended the successful military operation only after Putin invited his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Moscow to hammer out a ceasefire deal that remains intact but fragile after two months.
Ankara is also host to more than 3.5 million refugees who have been reluctant to return out of fear of retribution. The migrant issue has become a polarizing domestic problem and financial burden for Turkey, which views Assad as the biggest obstacle standing in the way of repatriation.
Refugee inflows are of great concern for the European Union as well. Brussels and Ankara experienced a diplomatic row earlier this year when Turkey, disappointed with a lack of support from the EU, decided to open its border with Greece to refugees who wanted entry into Europe. More than 10,000 migrants traveled to the border only to be met by Greek security services.
One of the countries that has benefited the most during Assad’s rule is Iran. By backing the beleaguered leader, Tehran as been able to expand the presence of Iranian-backed militia throughout the country, creating a land bridge from Iran to Lebanon. This development has caused a great deal of concern for Israel.
The Israeli Defense Forces have increased airstrikes in the past two years, targeting Iranian assets in Syria in an attempt to weaken Tehran’s ability to pose a threat to Tel Aviv. With the possibility of Syrian elections next year and the absence of millions of opposition voters who have fled the country, an Assad victory seems inevitable. An electoral win would strengthen Assad’s arguments for legitimization and consolidate the presence of Iranian-backed militias, creating a long-term national security concern for Israel.
While foreign actors jockey for a stronger position in Syria’s future, domestically the Syrian opposition was given a boost as rebel forces backed by Turkey displayed the ability to repel Assad’s army. The success of the campaign gave rise to voices that had been silenced, sparking small protests in regime-held areas.
Recent days have also seen many Syrians become more concerned and disgruntled as the coronavirus pandemic spreads among the population. Years of bombing hospitals have left the regime ill-equipped to deal with a public health crisis.
These factors coupled with the dire economy have created the ideal environment for questioning Assad’s future. If Russia, the Syrian leader’s main backer, finds an alternative that can jump-start a defunct political system and attract international funding for rebuilding, Assad might find himself isolated, with those he deems loyal plotting to oust him.
Yusuf Erim is the editor-at-large for Turkey’s public broadcaster TRT World. Obaida Hitto is a Syrian analyst.