The Blog

Why Is Syria's Bashir Al-Assad Still In Power?

In March 2008 Colonel Muammar Gaddafi addressed the Arab Leader's Summit in Syria. Gaddafi spoke without his trademark slurred speech and instead spoke with both passion and concern. Midway through his speech he turned his attention to what he perceived to be the injustices of the American intervention in Iraq: "an entire Arab leadership is killed and hanged on the gallows - why? In the future it is going to be your turn too". The majority of the audience including the President of Syria, Bashir Al-Assad, laughed at Gaddafi's paranoid warning.

Just three years later and Gadaffi was dead, killed at the hands of Libyan rebels. Tunisia's leader, Zine El Adidine Ben Ali, had been forced from office after a popular revolution. Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, had suffered a similar fate. Syria had erupted into civil war and the world watched, fully expecting that Bashir Al-Assad would be the next to fall.

It has been four years since the first protests in Syria. Assad still clings to power and his popularity has grown. How has Assad remained at Syria's helm despite a popular revolution, despite Western funding of the opposition and despite the arrival of well organised Jihadi forces?

Syria's military is well-equipped and well trained. Decades of Russian support means that Syria's Army can boast supersonic fighter jets, tactical missile systems, a powerful anti air defence, thousands of tanks, helicopters, heavy artillery and stockpiles of ammunition. Unlike in Iraq, Syria is not fighting superior militaries and unlike in Libya, Bashir Al-Assad's forces have not been directly targeted by NATO.

While Syria's military has not been strong enough to quell the determined revolution, it has proven itself strong enough to continue the conflict for enough time to allow Jihadi forces to mobilise and arrive. In 2013 it was estimated that foreign Jihadi fighters accounted for up-to 25% of rebels in Syria. Reports on how much of Syria's landmass is controlled by Daesh (ISIS) vary but it is estimated to be between one third and one half of Syria, including the strategically important city of Raqqa.

Assad has been able to capitalise on the arrival of Jihadi forces. It has resulted in a considerable change in how the Syrian regime is perceived, both domestically and internationally. The extreme brutality of the salafist factions, combined with their ultra-conservative way of life, has pushed a number of Syrians, such as the once dissenting Ismaili community, back into the arms of Bashir Al-Assad. He is now reluctantly recognised by many Syrians as having been a stabilising force in the country. In some ways, it is no more complicated than the old saying "better the Devil we know than the Devil we don't".

The Syrian regime has also been able to use the growth of Jihadism within its borders to its military advantage. Many foreign fighters are entering Syria via its northern border from Turkey or North Eastern border with Iraq. The north has typically been a rebel stronghold and now both the secular rebels and the Jihadis are fighting over the same territory.

The regime has been a little more shrewd than merely sitting back and letting the different rebel factions battle it out. In June 2015 the US accused the Syrian regime of actively supporting Daesh (ISIS) and intentionally using it's air-force to aid their advances. This sounds counter-intuitive but it's not. The Syrian regime is using the Jihadis to eradicate the secular movement. It can then count on inadvertent US support, who are currently attacking the Jihadi strongholds. The hoped end result for the regime is the collapse of both the secular rebels and the Jihadi forces.

None of this means that Bashir Al-Assad is out of the hot-water yet. The United Nations' Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, may have referred to Assad as "part of the solution" but he has also claimed that eventually Assad "must go". Equally, the United States and its allies have remained dogged in their arguments for Assad to step aside. If Assad does cede power he will almost certainly face charges of committing war-crimes and perhaps suffer a similar fate to Saddam Hussein.

The only potential saviour for Assad is the Russian Premier, Vladimir Putin. In recent weeks Putin has stepped up his support for the incumbent dictator and has confirmed that Russian troops are in Syria. Putin is quoted as having said "we are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers", he continued "we really want to create some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism". What is more likely to be the case is that Russia is using the Syrian situation to further its influence in neighbouring countries in preparation of what it perceives to be the development of a second 'Cold War' with Europe and the United States.

The military support from Russia, however, is only half of the story. It is unlikely to be what might ultimately save Assad from the noose. As a resolution to the crisis, Russia is promoting political reform in Syria. In June 2015, Putin vowed that he was "ready to push President Assad so that he engages in discussions with the 'healthy' opposition, with a view towards political reforms". This emulates what Bashir Al-Assad argued for back in 2011. If it goes ahead, it is likely to be a slow, arduous process starting at the bottom and only very eventually reaching the top. It is Assad's best chance at clutching to power and, more importantly, staying alive. With the world's television screens currently displaying pictures of a destroyed Syria, of crowds of refugees and of the black-flags of Daesh, it is quite possible that the world's Governments and populations might just be willing to eventually give political reform in Syria a go and leave Assad still in power for the moment.