The Future of Assad’s Syria: The Land of the Hopeless

Prior to the revolution, the Syrian regime’s extensive authoritarian toolkit combined many functions, including the provision of governmental subsidiaries, employment, universal health and education, and security. While the services provided by the regime-run state were mediocre, they offered the minimum required for a large previously deprived population and sucesfuly sold the poor the dream of ascension to the middle class. For the middle class and businessmen, the regime promised a mix of security provisions and the maintenance of a laisser-faire environment to conduct business freely with minimum effort and maximum reward. In exchange, the regime demanded obedience from all, but only expected loyalty from the poorer classes. As from the rich, the regime expected a partnership and a return of its investment for letting them grow and expand. Assad struggled the most with the urban middle class until he figured out that modernity and liberalism may be the promise they yearned for.

This strategy proved somehow efficient, and Assad’s popularity did grow in Damascus and Aleppo, but it alienated the bases upon which his father built his rule. If the poor Alevites remained faithful to the regime despite Bashar’s neglect, the Sunni rural and poor population did not have any reason to endure its authority. The Syrian revolution was a strong wake-up call for Assad, as he not only lost the support of his non-Alawite base, but the urban middle class also did not mobilize behind him, while the elite initially weighed their options before siding with the regime.

To survive, Assad fell back on his most reliable supporters to repress the revolution and was able to mobilize them only thanks to a loyalty forged by a fear of the unknown and a deep mistrust of others. Even though the loyalists’ zeal proved insufficient to repel the rebels, as Assad was only able to ultimately overthrow the opposition with Russian and Iranian intervention, their sacrifices were still enormous. If they were ready to jeopardize their relationship with the other Syrian communities in an existential conflict, the loyalists were compelled to accept the loss of their childrens’ lives, their livelihoods, slim savings, and access to essential services, as the state was consumed in its war against the revolutionary forces. Their primary fuel to persist was the promise of an eventual  return to everyday life after the war.

Today, the regime controls nearly 70% of Syrian territory, but for the majority of Syrians, including Assad’s most loyal subjects, the war is over and Assad has survived it. Whether against the Turkish-backed opposition in the northwest or the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast, any eventual military campaigns are expected to be swift. Moreover, these expectations are not only genuinely held at a popular level, but are also a reflection of the leadership’s beliefs.

Back to Square One

The May 26th presidential elections were an opportune occasion to affirm this belief. In contrast, Assad did not appeal to his constituency to demonstrate unity behind him with the previous elections. Instead, he re-endorsed the role of patriarch, the image of a leader stronger and healthier than anytime before, confident and assertive, indifferent and unyielding to all pressures. He tried to signal that the days of uncertainty are over, and now more than ever, “Hope is work.” Nevertheless, the real message that Assad wanted to convey through the predetermined elections was far more critical than the subtle images of authority he used during his campaign.

In his victory speech, Assad delivered no promise of a brighter future or reform, nor did he show any clemency towards his “defeated” detractors. He was faithful to himself. He vowed vengeance against the opposition and their backers and asked his constituency to work to survive hardships. His message to the international community was not of defiance but resilience, an indirect appeal to a return to the bases, and a renewed trust in his ability to lead and control the country.

The change in the international mood and previous support for the Arab uprisings did not occur overnight, but was gradual and demonstrating each time a growing indifference to the political outcome of the region’s struggle for freedom. The regime consequently quickly adapted itself and its strategy in dealing with the domestic opposition. The changing political and security priorities in Western capitals encouraged Damascus to increase the ferocity of its military campaigns on the ground against the already embattled opposition and further resist any significant attempts at making breakthroughs at the negotiating table.

UN Security Council resolution number 2254 stipulated a timeframe for a political transition in Syria. Even though it intentionally neglected to address the fate of Bashar al-Assad, it put forth a series of structural transformations in governance and political institutes to ensure a meaningful resolution to the conflict. The regime took advantage of ISIS’s rise to first introduce a security aspect to the negotiations, thus diluting its other more impactful topics. Assad then engaged in endless technical discussions with the UN to buy enough time to reverse the military situation on the field, rendering all talks to implement a national ceasefire obsolete and useless. Finally, Damascus took advantage of the West’s apathy towards the outcome of the political process to turn the negotiations with the opposition to a mere nonbinding dialogue over the Syrian constitution with no clear timeline or guaranteed results.

With the evident yet undeclared international disengagement from pursuing any form of political transition in Syria, Assad changed his gears and is currently seeking a complete reset in his international and regional role. While Russia and Iran’s support during the conflict has allowed him to overcome the opposition, it is his re-engagement with the West and the Arab block that is essential to win the war. He aims first to cut off all shapes and forms of support to the opposition regardless of its size and significance, and secondly to gain access to indispensable resources for Syria’s recovery.

Normalization and Rehabilitation

Taking a page from his father’s book, Assad is very sensitive to the regional and international mood and thrives on exploiting his neighbors’ insecurities to rehabilitate himself. Whether it is countering Turkey’s growing regional influence to appeal to the Arab block, positing himself as an authoritarian anti-Islamist force to appease European security concerns, or flirting with the idea of restraining Kurdish autonomy aspirations to ease Turkey’s fears, Assad is eager to reinitiate any dialogue with his foes before allies to end his isolation. The only actor oblivious to the regime’s advances is the United States (US). However, Washington’s growing disinterest in the region plays in its favor, and Moscow handles its interaction with the regime.

Nevertheless, even if the regime succeeds in regional and international normalization, that will not necessarily solve its internal challenges. If some Arab countries are eager to reengage with Damascus, their ability to match their political will with substantial recovery aid is limited. The wealthy Gulf countries are consumed by the cost of their transitions in anticipation of a post-oil future, and the rest of Syria’s direct and indirect neighbors are themselves looking for foreign assistance to answer their economic challenges. The regime’s most likely angle of attack is Lebanon. Its western neighbor’s recent banking crisis has plunged it into perpetual crisis. Even though a renewed civil conflict is highly improbable due to Hezbollah’s unmatched military strength, its governance and fragile state structure is on the verge of complete collapse.

Similar to its discourse in the 80s, the Syrian regime thrives on framing itself as a stabilizing actor in Lebanon. Despite the initial international and Arab hesitance to support Syria’s intervention in the Lebanese war, the regime detractors ended up accepting its role of policeman. Hafez al-Assad’s positioning brought him financial dividends, but also political recognition in times of internal turbulence. Today, Damascus is actively seeking a similar role in answering the latest Lebanese distress and conundrum. Its invitation to regional technical talks around procurement of Egyptian gas to Lebanon through the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) running through its territory acted as the first chapter of its renewed engagement in Lebanese affairs. The economic impact of the AGP reopening is negligible, but it  is the political significance that Damascus is seeking.

The other lever the regime is attempting to activate is the Syrian people’s own economic and financial crisis. For instance, the Covid-19 sanitary crisis has prompted the US to temporarily lift some of its restrictions on the procurement of vaccines in Syria. The country received no shipments of US-produced or financed vaccines, but Damascus appreciated its political implications. Similarly, Moscow and indirectly Damascus have agreed to extend the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) mandate for border crossing for humanitarian aid to Syria on July 9th, despite the initial resistance to facilitate front crossing aid delivery from Damascus. In contrast to its positioning in 2019 and 2020 when delivery through Al Yarubiyah, Al-Ramtha, and Bab Al-Salameh were respectively suspended, Russia decided to accommodate the West’s demands for the extension of the UNSC resolution number 2165, authorizing the UN to deliver cross-border humanitarian aid without the consent of the Syrian government.

The apparent Russian soft stance was motivated by two purposes, first to encourage the recently elected US administration to pursue a softer political trajectory in dealing with Damascus, and second to build a case for internal front crossing aid delivery annulling all border crossing in 2022. Here  again the stakes are political more than economic. Indeed, the regime would financially benefit from all UN aid coming through Damascus, but it is instead the partial lift of sanctions it could entail that could benefit the regime even more. This possibility is growing as it matches the new US administration’s tendency towards reviewing the previous administration’s sanctions policies.

Reality and Expectations

While the US and European Union economic sanctions have undeniably affected Assad, they have mainly impacted the civilian population and the small and medium businesses unable to circumvent their implications. Moreover, the regime’s close clique were able to adapt and find new ventures to enrich themselves further. Nevertheless, a partial, gradual, or complete easing of sanctions would benefit the regime financially and be perceived as a political victory for Assad. As for the civilians or businessmen, their lifting would not yield significant change anymore, as their financial capacity has been considerably reduced and cannot be restored without considerable international funds pouring into the country. Indeed, a change in the sanction regime on Syria is not  synonymous with an international “Marshal” plan to reconstruct the destroyed Syrian economy.

After ten years of intense fights for its survival, the Syrian authoritarian toolkit has been reduced to only terror. The state capacity to vital subsidy products, offer universal health care or education, provide access to employment in the state bureaucracy is thinning and barely existing anymore. Syrians are left to their own devices to survive, either by depending on remittances, scratching from the few still functioning businesses in service industries, or working with regime warlords and figures in their illicit affairs.

While the business portfolios of the clique close to the regime include legitimate verticals such as trade and services, they are also heavily dependent on trafficking, smuggling, extortion, and narcotics. State institutions are also engaged in these new activities either through facilitation or by direct contribution. The regime’s 4th Division is notoriously known for its direct implication in all sorts of illicit businesses. The pace upon which this tendency is spreading across the country has not gone unnoticed, as shipments of narcotics produced in Syria and Lebanon have been caught in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Libya, and Italy. With the lack of feasible alternatives, Syria is transforming into a drug cartel state with connections across the Middle East and Mediterranean basin under Damascus’s central supervision and the blessing of its regional allies.

The persisting economic degradation could effectively end what is left of Syrian state capacity. It would, however, retain the appearance of an operative body mainly through its law enforcement and regulatory functions. Moreover, the lack of commitment to impose a meaningful change in Damascus would ultimately allow the regime to survive as its ability to control the Syrian population would always outweight their ability to claim autonomy. Some experts predict a forceful transition towards a decentralized model of governance, which would theoretically allow local communities to grow their agency. However, these predictions have unfortunately ignored the regime’s knack to manipulate these dynamics, and have grossly overestimated what is left of the Syrian people’s aptitude to challenge the current status quo.

A regime change without foreign intervention is still possible, but not over the short to midterm. Alternatively, the ordinary Syrian citizen will witness the further deterioration of his civil rights, safety, living conditions, and access to vital services. For many, risking their lives on their way out of the regime-controlled areas is far more rewarding than patiently waiting for change at home. Youth from every sect and origin, including Alawites, are tempted to leave the country, even if though the Ha’yat Tahrir Al-Sham-controlled Idlib or the Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled northeast. If there is one reality upon which the Syrian people all agree, it is that Assadistan is the land of the hopeless.