Regime survival depends on a tight grip on Damascus and a delicate manipulation of regional and international contradictions

Like Father Like Son?!

Bashar al-Assad built upon the legacy established by his father by tightening his grip over Damascus while playing on the contradictions between major superpowers to resist pressures on the Syrian regime. Until June 2012, Damascus was not touched by the insurgency, except for few explosions, and few pro al-Assad demonstrations. Aleppo, the capital of northern Syria also showed reservations on joining the insurgency. This provided al-Assad the possibility to rely on a solid base, while playing on internal and external contradictions. Hence, he was able to benefit from the Iranian, Russian, and Chinese support to withstand Western, Turkish, and Arab pressures. Then, he rushed to issue a series of decrees that aimed at containing the internal protests. His advisor, Buthaina Shaaban, announced on the 24th of March his intent to introduce political reforms that included the end of the state of emergency in effect in Syria since 1963. These decrees, initially, promised to combat and allowed the establishment of new parties, and gave more freedom to the media and press. In addition, it provided an increase in the salaries of the employees of the public sector, and promised to open new jobs in the state bureaucracy.[53] This was followed by releasing hundreds of prisoners, including a significant number of Islamists.[54] One decree granted the Syrian citizenship to thousands of Kurds.[55] Another one formed a new government, with a social welfare agenda, which reflected the intentions to eliminate the economic liberal reforms introduced by the government of Mohammad Naji Otari (r. 2003-2011) and his Deputy Abdullah al-Dardary.[56] Other decrees re-allowed women wearing the Islamic dress (niqab) to teach in public schools,[57] cancelled the state security supreme court,[58] and passed a new electoral law that promised to allow more political rights.[59]

Externally, al-Assad used the Alawi and Kurdish groups inside Turkey to put pressure on Erdogan. It is estimated that the Kurds in Turkey form 20% of the eighty million inhabitants and are concentrated in the areas of Diyarbakir and other regions in the eastern Anatolia while the Alawis are estimated to number around 15 million including Kurds, Arabs, and Turks. Turkey at the time was close to legislative elections which took place on the 10th of June and resulted in the victory of the Justice and Development Party with more than 50% of the electoral vote and with 3% more than the percentage it got in the previous elections. However, this increase did not reflect in the number of seats the party got in Parliament, which went down from 331 to 326. Erdogan was in need of 331 seats in order to introduce amendments to the constitution. Most of the Alawis had voted for the Republican People’s Party, the largest opposition party, and the far-right National Movement Party where the former garnered 26% of the votes and the latter around 13.2% while the number of members of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party rose to 36.[60] This outcome was serious because it obstructed Erdogan’s efforts to transform the Turkish regime into a Presidential one which would give him a lot of privileges in the future if he ran for president. In addition, the elections results showed that the region of Eastern Anatolia had become in its majority against the Erdogan’s Party, which reflected in itself the polarization of Turkish society. In Iraq, the resistance operations against U.S. occupation intensified, resulting in the death of 15 American soldiers in June 2011, the highest number of casualties among American troops since 2008.[61] Therefore, al-Assad appeared more confident and relaxed in his speech in front of the Syrian Parliament on the 20th of June 2011.[62]  Yet the crisis was far from over as the conflict in Syria already acquired regional and international dimensions that would need regional and international powers to agree on a settlement in the country.


The Syrian insurgency was caused by many factors, whether local, regional, or international, which interacted to destabilize the Syrian regime. This rebellion was caused by the need of the Syrian people for economic, civic, and political rights, and it happened at a time when the whole Arab region was subject to drastic changes. The invasion of Iraq by the U.S. in 2003 and the political developments that followed, leading to the establishment of a new political order in that country and to the withdrawal of U.S troops by the end of the 2011 affected one geopolitical center that influenced northeastern Syria. The Egyptian revolution and the collapse of the Mubarak regime led to the weakness of one geopolitical center that influenced southern Syria, at a time when Turkey was redefining its role in the Arab world by considering that Syria should fall within its sphere of influence, which had its impact on northwestern Syria. These regional developments were occurring at a time when the U.S. was getting prepared to face the potential challenge to its global hegemony posed by Russia, China and Iran. In response, it got into an alliance with the European Union and Turkey while focusing its attention on controlling the Middle East. All these factors led to the disruption of the regional and international balance that Syria had benefited from since the days of Hafez al-Assad to impose stability.

Bashar al-Assad, until June 2012, was able to prevent being toppled like what happened to Zeinelabedin Bin Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt,  and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. The two major factors that allowed him to survive until then were his ability to keep in control of Damascus, and his reliance on the conflict of interest between the U.S., E.U., and Turkey on one side and Russia, China, and Iran on the other. Russia and China were to block the western effort to issue U.N. resolutions that would allow military intervention in Syria by using the veto for three times, the last of which was in July 19, 2012.[63] Yet the biggest challenge to Bashar came on Wednesday July 18, 2012 when top Syrian officials were killed in a blast as they held a meeting of the “crisis cell”, formed as a reaction to the insurgency. Among the killed were the minister of Defense Dawood Rajha, his second in command Assaf Shawkat (he was also the brother in law of Bashar), the assistant vice President Hassan Turkmani, and the Director of the National Security Bureau Hisham Ikhtyar.[64] At the same time, thousands of insurgents attacked various parts of the capital and the grip of the Syrian regime on Damascus seemed about to falter.[65] Though the Syrian army was able to recapture most quarters that were lost to the insurgents, tens of thousands of Damascenes left the city in a mass exodus to Lebanon.[66]

After almost 19 months, the Damascene mercantile elite seemed to have endured a lot of economic losses, which might play a role in making it withdraw its support for the al-Assad regime. The Syrian authorities need to reassert its control over the city not only on the military level, but also on the socio-economic level. Al-Assad needs to rehabilitate the support to his regime among the Damascene elite, which was weakened due to the crisis. For losing control of Damascus would deprive the Syrian regime of its solid base from which it could direct policies aimed at playing on the contradictions between various Syrian social groups, regions, and ethnicities, and between various regional and international powers in a way that ensures its survival.  However, stability will be re-imposed in Syria only if the regional and international powers, competing over influence in Syria, would get into a compromise, otherwise the crisis would last for a long period.


[1] Special thanks to Professor Malek Abisaab of the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University, for assistance in proofreading and editing this essay.

[2] Philip S. Khoury, Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism-the Politics of Damascus 1860-1920, (Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 1983) 1.

[3] Zeine Zeine, TheStruggle for Arab Independence (Beirut: Khayat, 1960).

[4] Michael Province, The Great Syrian Revolt, and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 17.

[5] Kautsky as cited in Bassam Tibi, Arab Nationalism:, A Critical Enquiry(London: MacMillan Press, 1981), 19.

[6] Derek Hopwood, Syria 1945-1986, Politics and Society, (London: Unwin Hyman Limited, 1st edition, 1988), 77.

[7] R.D. Maclaurin, Muhammad Mughisuddin, and Abraham Wagner, Foreign Policy Making in the Middle East, Domestic Influences on Policy in Egypt, Iraq and Syria, (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1987), 241.

[8] Alasdair Drysdale, and Raymond Hinnebusch, Syria and the Middle East Peace Process, (New York: Council of Foreign Relations Press, 1991), 54.

[9] Abdul Hakim Amer was the commander in chief of the Egyptian army (r. 1954-1967). During Union between Egypt and Syria (United Arab Republic) he became the commander of both egyptian and Syrian armies and governor general of Syria that was considered as the northern District (al-Iqlim al-Shamali)

[10] Hanna Batatu, Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[11] Batatu, Hanna: Syria’s peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and their Politics.  p. 208.

[12] Volker Perthes, The Political Economy of Syria Under Assad, (London: Ib. Tauris, 1995), 4.

[13] Raymond Hinnebusch, “Does Syria want Peace? Syrian Policy in the Syrian Israeli Peace Negotiations,” Journal of Palestine Studies, no. 101, (Autumn 1996).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Patrick Seale, Al Assad, Al Siraa Ala Al Sharq Al Awsat (Al Muassassa Al Arabiya Lil Dirassat Wal Nashr, 1987), 319.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jaafar Qassem Mohammad, Souriya Wa Al Ittihad Al Sovieti, Dirasa fi Al Ilaqat Al Arabiya Al Sovietya, (London: Dar Najib Al Rayyes, 1987), 50.

[18] Ronald De McLaurin, Mohammed Mughisuddin, Abraham R. Wagner, Foreign policy making in the Middle East: domestic influences on policy in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, and Syria (Praeger Publishers Inc.  1977), 254

[19] Samir Amin, “Ba’da Harb Al Khaleej, Al Haymana Al Amirkiya Ila Ayn?”, Al Mustaqbal Al Arabi, No. 170, April 1993, 15.

[20] Zbignew Brezhinski, Ruq’at Al Shataranj Al Kubra, tr. Amal Al Charfi, (Amman: Al Ahliya Lil Nashr, 1st ed., 1991), 12.

[21] Ibid., 47.

[22] Ibid., 48.

[23] Peter Rodman, “Middle East Policy after the Gulf War”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 70, Spring 1991, 223.

[24] Graham E.Fuller, “Moscow and the Gulf war”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 70, Spring 1991, 65.

[25] Karawan, Ibrahim A., “Arab Dilemas in the 1990’s: Breaking taboos and searching for signposts”, Middle East Journal, vol.48, no.3 Summer 1994, 434.

[26] Atherton Alfred Leroy, “The Shifting Sands of the Middle East Peace”, Foreign Policy, no.83, Spring 1992, 129.

[27] Richard LaBeviere, Al Tahawoul Al Kabir (The Great Transformation), (Baghdad-Beirut: Dar Al Farabi, 2008), 92-93.

[28] Vincent Nouzille, Dans le Secret Des Presidents, (Paris: Fayard, 2010), 395-408.

[29] Ibid., 409-419.

[30] Ibid., 444-449.

[31] Ibid., 450-451.

[32] Ahmet Davutoglu, Al Umq Al Istratiji (Strategic depth: Turkey’s position and role on the international arena). Tr. to Arabic by Mohammad Thalgi and Tarek Abdeljalil, (Doha: El Dar Al Arabiyya lil ‘Oloom Nasheroon, 2010), 75-81.

[33] Ibid., 146-150.

[34] Ibid., 150-155.

[35] Ibid., 155-158.

[36] Assafir Newspaper, 21 June 2011

[37] Ibid.

[38] Assafir Newspaper, 15 May 2011, and Assafir Newspaper, 23 June 2011.

[39] Assafir Newspaper, 18 April 2011.

[40] “Barack Obama’s speech on Middle East – full transcript”, The Guardian, May 19, 2011 (accessed on July 25, 2012)

[41] “Ankara envoy supports Damascus reforms,” Now Lebanon, April 6, 2011, (accessed on July 25, 2012)

[42]  Assafir June11, 2011

[43] Ibid.

[44] Assafir Newspaper, 17 June 2011.

[45] Louis Charbonneau, “EU powers push U.N. council to condemn Syria: envoy”, Reuters, April 25 2011. (accessed on July 25, 2012)

[46] “Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson blames conspirators for Syria’s protests”, Now Lebanon April 12, 2011 (accessed on July 25, 2012)

[47] Assafir Newspaper, 10 June 2011.

[48] Assafir Newspaper, 15 June 2011.

[49] Assafir Newspaper, 26 June 2011.

[50] Assafir Newspaper, 30 May 2011.

[51] Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, (London: Bantam Press, 2003).

[52] Assafir Newspaper, May 13 2011

[53] Assafir Newspaper, 25 March 2011.

[54] Assafir Newspaper, 28 March 2011.

[55] Assafir Newspaper, 1 April 2011.

[56] Assafir Newspaper, 4 April 2011.

[57] Assafir Newspaper, 7 April 2011.

[58] Assafir Newspaper, 22 April 2011.

[59] Assafir Newspaper, 12 May 2011.

[60] Jürgen Gottschlich, “Erdogan Falls Short of Goal in Turkish Elections-The AKP’s Disappointing Victory”, Spiegel Online International, June 13, 2011 (accessed on July 25, 2012)

[61] Tim Arango, “June Was Deadliest Month for U.S. in Iraq Since”, New York Times, June 30, 2011 (accessed on July 25, 2012)

[62] Assafir Newspaper, 21 June 2011.

[63] Assafir Newspaper, 20 July 2012.

[64] Assafir Newspaper, July 19 2012.

[65] Ibid

[66] Assafir Newspaper, July 21 2012.