The Coming Fall of Bashar al-Assad
If you had to put a face to the Syrian uprising, it would probably belong to Hamza ‘Ali al-Khateeb. The 13 year-old child was not simply killed by Bashar al-Assad’s security forces; his body was broken in every way. The details are too terrible, too well known to repeat.
Less well known is the price his father paid for speaking up. Vanished into police custody, he was last seen escorted before State Television. Why? To praise the man whose servants tortured his son to death.
President Assad, he said, “has overwhelmed us with his kindness, what more can I say? He is the best president there is and the best president we have.”
For over five months the Syrian army, the mukhabarat, and armed thugs of the shabbiha have attempted to break an entire country as they broke Hamza and his father. At least 2,000 civilians have been killed, 8,000 have fled to Turkish refugee camps, and as many as 30,000 have been imprisoned.
Yet the protests continue to grow. In Damascus, once safely pro-regime, massive protests have become commonplace. By late July, Assad had lost effective control of several major Syrian cities. These included Hama (the country’s fourth largest city) and Deir Ez-Zor (the key to the eastern half of Syria). Together they have hosted over 1.2 million protestors. Proportionate to Syria’s population, that is more than twice the size of Tahrir square protests at their height.
For a while, the regime looked to be fighting a rearguard action. According to one activist, “Bashar is dividing the country between those places the government can fight for now—and those he will come back for.”
Until two weeks ago. Hours before Ramadan began, Assad’s tanks and artillery smashed into Hama and Deir Ez-Zor. Over 500 were killed. Navy gunships bombarded the mixed Sunni-Alawite city of Lattakia, where reports speak of regime forces ethnically cleansing Sunni and Palestinian residents.
The price has been a final break with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the West. Saudi Arabia, whose financial support was once mooted as a possible lifeline to the regime, now denounces Assad’s “killing machine.” And in Turkey, AKP-friendly commentators are openly mulling the possibility of military intervention if the refugee flow resumes.
These rifts will only worsen with time.
For Erdoğan and Abdullah, self-consciously Muslim rulers with vehemently Sunni constituencies, the sights of Syria’s crackdown could intensify domestic radicalism: mostly Alawite gangs murdering unarmed Sunni civilians, demolishing mosques, and beating protesters into swearing “There is no god but Bashar al-Assad.” And all during Ramadan.
Yet it is doubtful the regime has the manpower to pacify all three cities and suppress mushrooming demonstrations and enforce quiet in areas that have not yet joined the uprising. By contrast, the protestors radiate optimism. Organizers named the latest Friday protests “Harbingers of Victory.” Assad, they say, has no control beyond the shadows of his tanks. And his tanks cannot be everywhere.
The death blow, when it comes, will land from a disintegrating Army or a cratering economy. Already the protests have brought the Syrian economy to a halt: it is projected to contract by 5 percent this year. The Damascus stock market has already crashed by over 40 percent. Tourism, once 12 percent of the economy, has evaporated.
In order to keep fence sitters docile, Assad increased subsidies. In order to suppress the committed, he began hiring thugs at $100-a-day (an astronomical sum for Syria). As a result, the deficit has exploded and foreign currency reserves have been depleted. To make mattes worse, the EU has just announced punishing sanctions on Syria’s oil sector, responsible for 30 percent of government revenues. Enormous infusions of Iranian cash are the only reason the Syrian lira has not yet collapsed.
That collapse, when it comes, will cripple Assad’s ability to pay his security forces. Already the Army cannot be wholly relied upon. Instead the regime has come to depend ever more heavily on select units dominated by Alawites and the shabbiha. These must be shuffled constantly around the country to suppress demonstrations. And according to recent reports in the Arabic press, some are threatening mutiny for want of pay.
In effect, the process by which Hafiz al-Assad co-opted Syria’s Sunni majority is being reversed. The Syrian army is becoming an extended tribal militia; its base is loyal, but small and shrinking. Defections, once few and confined to the lower ranks, are claiming larger units and reaching into the officer corps. Scenes of Syrian soldiers shot by the shabbiha or other army units are spreading.
The regime’s response, characteristically depraved and pathetic, has been to fill Syrian television with funerals of soldiers killed by the ubiquitous but never-seen “infiltrators.” Officers march solemnly in full dress uniform, women throw flower petals, hymns are mournfully sung. Poetry is read to “the heroic martyrs massacred by the terrorist gangs . . . with your blood you have protected our children’s smiles.”
Incredible as it may seem, this merchandise has ready buyers. Yes, the security forces have made “mistakes,” as they call them. But without the regime to enforce order, Syrians would eat each another raw. Look at Lebanon, they say. Look at Iraq. Even some of Syria’s most progressive voices, the ones who ought to know better, issue panicked denunciations of the non-existent “terrorist gangs” that justify the crackdown.
Many of Syria’s minorities live in the grip of terrors bordering on the hysterical. Historical syllogisms cannot fuel dread of such intensity. Memories can. Most Alawites dread returning to the days when their families survived by selling their daughters to wealthy Sunnis as indentured servants. “We were nothing until [the Assads] came,” as one regime supporter put it. “So I am with them, right or wrong. They are my guys and I am theirs. Right or wrong. Because they are our only hope.”
For almost a year, I lived and studied in Damascus surrounded by Assad partisans of all sects. Most had their loyalties chosen for them by birth and family. Nothing about their fear is feigned. Its fervor commands respect; its desperation summons pity. Even so, Bashar al-Assad has permanently alienated the large majority of his subjects. His regime cannot endure long, and Americans have no reason to mourn its passing. May its end come swiftly and in our days.