Fifty is the age when some men decide to buy a Harley Davidson, have affairs with much-younger women, and adopt a lopsided comb-over. Getting older is never easy, but it sure is a lot easier than getting younger.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who turns fifty today, has a full head of hair and is still a babyfaced kid by the hoary standards of Middle Eastern rulers. Whether or not he has a mistress has been the subject of salacious speculation in British and Arab tabloids and as for the Harley Davidson, the Syrian president instead seems to have wished for a BTR-82A.
The top-of-the-line Russian armored personnel carrier started showing up in Syria during the summer. When one was filmed by members of the pro-regime National Defense Forces militia in August, what drew most attention was the fact that in the background someone seemed to be barking orders in Russian.
Soon, reports of a stepped-up Russian intervention in Syria were all over the news with some of the more sensational claims suggesting that the Kremlin had secretly dispatched ground forces to fight alongside Assad’s army. Those claims seem overblown, judging by what little information is available. There have apparently been deliveries of high-end equipment, expansion of the old Russian naval depot in Tartous, construction of living quarters for a future transfer of personnel into Syria, and technical teams looking to upgrade certain military airports. But what this looks like is logistics being put in place for a potential future surge in support, perhaps in the form of aerial intervention. Russian President Vladimir Putin has, as usual, kept a perfect poker face, coyly dismissing the talk of a military move into Syria as “premature.”
Assad’s Withering Power Base
Russian military intervention must have been very high on Bashar al-Assad’s birthday wish list. The Syrian army has suffered a long row of setbacks in 2015, losing towns like Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, and Bosra al-Sham. An insurgent offensive against the badly exposed southern city of Daraa was seemingly aborted or delayed on orders of opposition backers in Jordan, who remain distrustful of their rebel clients. In the north, al-Qaeda captured the long-besieged Abu Duhour airfield just the other day. Further west, another motley crew of Islamist-led rebels are pushing down the Ghab Plains, inching deeper into Assad-held territory and unsettling areas previously thought safe by the regime.
Most importantly, the state economy has continued to sputter and contract for a full year, despite renewed Iranian support, while trouble has been brewing on the home front. Simmering Alawite frustration was on clear display when an Assad relative murdered a military officer in a traffic dispute this July. In an unprecedented move, the regime had the culprit arrested and Syria’s information minster was even quizzed about the affair on national television where the rampant criminality of lower-ranking figures in the Assad clan has always been a taboo topic. The recent assassination of dissident Druze cleric Wahid Balous, which set off a storm of accusations and localized protest in southern Syria, is just the most recent sign of how strained the situation has become.
An Intransigent Regime
But Bashar al-Assad has had bad birthdays before—like that time he turned thirty-six and celebrations were interrupted by the news that an airliner had slammed into the World Trade Center in New York. A full decade of Middle Eastern conflict ensued.
Despite its poor prospects for the future, the Syrian regime remains as intransigent as it was on day one of the uprising. Not once during the past four and a half years has Assad or any of his associates given anyone a reason to think that they could ever accept a solution involving the president’s resignation. The words Souria al-Assad, meaning “Assad’s Syria,” are prominently displayed on public buildings throughout Syria, summarizing the nature of this regime—and it will be just that, “Assad’s Syria”, or it will not be at all.
This does not solely come down to the president being bullheaded. The fact that Islamist hardliners have seized the reins of the opposition in nearly all areas of Syria makes a compromise difficult to imagine, even for those government loyalists that were otherwise tempted by the idea. In addition, the U.S.-led war on the self-proclaimed Islamic State has fueled loyalist hopes that the regime will one day regain favor with the international community, Assad and all.
The Waiting Game
It is not as far-fetched as it sounds—it’s what daddy always did. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor as president, remains his only known role model, and Hafez’s life provides one single lesson: persevere. If you never give up, others will. That was the elder Assad’s strategy for thirty years and it worked so well for him that he became the first Syrian ruler to peacefully die in office. Not only that, he was even able to leave power to his son.
Hafez al-Assad turned fifty in 1980. That year, he was trapped in the worst crisis of his lifetime, battling an Islamist insurgency in Syria while also stuck in an intractable war against Lebanese militias and the Israeli army in Lebanon, even as he was sanctioned and ostracized by the Arab Gulf states and the West. Within years, his health would fail and his most powerful lieutenant—his brother Refaat—would turn on him.
Hafez al-Assad survived these years by staying true to his concept of politics: never back down from a challenge, never fail to exploit an opening, never flinch from atrocity. Heavily armed security forces were unleashed upon the population to do anything necessary to break the back of the rebellion, massacring civilians and prisoners in Jisr al-Shughur and Palmyra in 1980 and Hama in 1982.
Today, his son is trapped in a far-bloodier conflict, which makes the Syrian 1980s pale in comparison. The strategy remains the same. In a major policy speech on July 26, Assad laid out the road ahead: retreats may be necessary, and defeats are as inevitable as they are reversible, but there will be no compromise with “terrorists.” He spoke little about the prospects for ultimate victory, yet showed a grim determination to never surrender.
But while Hafez al-Assad’s waiting game may have served him well, his son does not seem as fortunate. The decay of his regime has progressed far and is not an easily reversible process. The bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, mass migration, and sectarian hatreds unleashed by this war make it unlikely that Syria can be put back into a cohesive whole again, much less restored to the status quo ante of Bashar’s first decade in power. Souria al-Assad is gone and buried, its particular model of authoritarian governance now long past its expiration date.
And yet, like their opponents, Syria’s Assad loyalists have an unbroken record of trusting in the next miracle, with every little glimpse of opportunity instantly turned into hope for the impossible.
The most recent such sign was UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond suggesting that Assad could stay on as head of a transitional government for a six-month period or so. But the regime remains unwilling and probably incapable of imagining any changes concerning the presidency. Every attempt at political thinking in Damascus seems to grind to a halt once the name “Assad” is uttered. Thus, instead of seizing the opportunity, Assad’s information minister immediately went on record to condemn and ridicule Hammond for even having an opinion about the length of the president’s mandate. Clearly, on the current course there will be no compromise—what remains is only more of the same and less of Syria.
And so, this morning in a fortified room somewhere in Damascus, Syria’s president may have blown out the candles on a cake and made a wish. For what, we don’t know. But in the words of one of his favorite bands, the British soft symphony rockers of Electric Light Orchestra, it might have gone something like this:
Remember the good old 1980s?
When things were so uncomplicated?
I wish I could go back there again
And everything could be the same.