Continuity and consistency have their virtues as do changes. This is the third summer that I am writing the same about Syria. After 30 brutal months of internecine conflict, what is it that keeps Syrian President Bashar Assad, the discredited “butcher of Damascus” and scion of a small minority religious grouping to boot, in power? The key is the all-pervasive system his father created and which he inherited in 2000. The security forces, the ruling Assad family, the minority Alawites and the Ba’ath Party are so ingrained in all aspects of Syrian life that it is impossible to exaggerate the degree of their control or their vested interest in continuance of the status quo.
The system is so entrenched that even if Assad were to be shunted aside, a new president would probably not make a significant difference. During his 13 years in office, Assad gained the respect of his Alawite brethren and the Ba’ath party by not challenging their spheres of influence, and they supported him as a means of perpetuating their untrammeled power and privileges. In much the same way, Assad reinforced the symbiotic relationship between the presidency and the military. Whereas in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the Arab Spring downfall of the leaders was a consequence of the lack of support of the generals and the system, in Syria the generals are fully behind the president and the president backs the system unreservedly.
Crucially, loyalty to the regime and the system goes well beyond the generals. At the start of the civil-war there were a few defections by soldiers and some junior officers, but this has ceased. Significantly, none of the defectors were key members of the inner-decision making elite. Furthermore, the army is held in check by four security directorates: Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, State Security and Political Security – all under Assad’s Alawite control.
Army elites also maintain a relatively high social standing in Syrian society. Officers see the army as a socio-economic safety net. The salaries of junior and middle ranking officers are supplemented by subsidized food, housing and social clubs, coupled with graft on the side to guarantee a superior quality of life. Consequently, the security forces have not indicated any interest in overturning the current system. They have little reason to expect that supporting rebels would lead to any improvement in their position. Further, they are scared to death of what might happen if Alawite control comes to an end. For all these reasons, the president and the military are bound together in their fate. Any new president and any new system could scarcely offer the same lifestyle.
For the third year the Syrian generals and soldiers, therefore, are committed to Assad’s plan to wear out the rebels in a fierce summer battle and then blockade them in their villages through the winter. The intention is that by next summer the rebels will be weaker, or defeated through exhaustion, battle or hunger. The plan is progressively succeeding. There are all indications that Assad’s regime is gaining ground each summer and not losing any during the winter. The tactics are the same as those used successfully against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s.
The opposition and rebels have apparently accepted that they cannot win a war against the Syrian army and are trying instead to target Assad and/or create small local fiefdoms. No-one is engaging in international diplomatic efforts at negotiation and there is no indication that the UN, NATO, the USA or anyone else will intervene sufficiently to change the tide of the battle. Assad is in a better regional position now than he was last year at the same time or even three months ago. Last year he was involved in border clashes with Turkey which are now well out of crises and memory. Three months ago the UNDOF force monitoring the 1973 disengagement of forces with Israel was on the verge of collapse. It is now at full strength with Syria and the UN, and Israel, having agreed to new force contributing countries. This is without any new UN mandate or any Security Council Resolution linking it to the Syrian civil-war.
Civil-war in Syria is a known and consistent event, where continuity has its virtues. It is possible for Israel to prepare for and to counter the consistent and continuous because it is known. However changes do happen, and soon Syria may be a fragmented state and/or without any central leadership and with no economic or other improvements for the population, but without Assad leadership. In brutal civil wars change is usually for the better locally but this also introduces unknowns that presents challenges for neighbors such as Israel. Hence there are pros and cons to continuity, consistency and change.
Dr Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication