Gaming the Syrian Endgame
Why Assad will and must remain in power, and how Russia, Iran, Israel and the US can bring the civil war to a close
For more than seven years, the Assad government has been fighting for its survival. The struggle began with a genuine protest against the government in Damascus but has spread into a brutal civil war that has displaced almost seven million within Syria, with nearly half a million dead and 5.6 million having fled abroad. Will Assad survive? In what form, and under which conditions? And what’s to be done, besides?
For nearly half a century, the Assad family has been governing Syria – first under Hafez al-Assad until 2000, and then under his son Bashar al-Assad, the current Syrian president, leader of the ruling Baath Party, and commander-in-chief of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces.
In 1971, Hafez al-Assad became president of Syria – the first Alawi president in Syrian history. As a member of the Alawi minority sect in a country with a Sunni majority, he faced significant obstacles in legitimizing his rule in Syria. The Alawi community in Syria has traditionally lived at the geographic periphery of the country – in the mountains, coastal areas and lower plains. Today, the overwhelming majority of the country’s Alawis are still concentrated in the coastal Latakia province.
When Syria gained independence in 1946, Alawis were seen as outsiders – ‘imperfect Arabs,’ as it were – by other Syrians. Nevertheless, in the 1940s and 1950s, the Alawis were able to integrate into Syrian society and even enter the political mainstream and government institutions. Reforms in Syrian education and the economy paved the way for a mobilized and educated Alawi sect that eventually dominated Syrian political echelons.
The Alawis’ path to power in Syrian political life was articulated through the military and the Baath Party – a political party whose platform brought together Arab nationalism and socialism. When Syria and Egypt combined to form the United Arab Republic in 1958, Assad, then an officer in the Syrian army, alongside fellow officers Muhammad Umran and Salah Jadid, decided to create a secret military committee to protest the civilian leadership of the Syrian Baath Party. In particular, the committee’s members resented Egypt’s firm control over the new union state – a state that would dissolve after only three years of existence.
The three officers led a successful coup that brought the Baath Party to power in 1963. Three years later, Assad and Jadid successfully overthrew the civilian leadership and toppled the government of Amin al-Hafiz. By the late 1960s, tensions would emerge between Assad and Jadid, stemming mostly from the failures of the 1967 war against Israel and from disagreements in respect of the Syrian intervention in the Jordanian-Palestinian Black September conflict. By the time Jadid realized the threat from Assad and his loyalists, it was too late. In 1970, they launched a bloodless coup, which would later be called the Syrian Corrective Movement. Assad put his loyalists in key government posts and, with Jadid jailed, became president of Syria on February 22nd, 1971.
In the early years of his rule, Assad was busy consolidating his power. In order to quell any opposition, he formed the Progressive National Front, which brought all of his political rivals together under one umbrella. However, he still faced challenges of a religious nature. In 1973, Syria adopted a new constitution that eliminated the stipulation that the president must be a Sunni Muslim. Indeed, the constitution omitted all references to Islam, and specifically to Islam as the official religion of the state. This outraged the Sunni population. Protests broke out and general strikes shut down Hama, Homs and Aleppo. Taken aback by the popular protest, Assad inserted an amendment into the constitution that stated the president must be a Muslim.
Assad still had to address the critical issue of the Alawis being viewed as non-Muslims by Syria’s Sunnis – a view that, to be sure, affected Assad’s own status as a Muslim. The solution appeared to come from an imam in Lebanon named Musa al-Sadr – an Iranian-Lebanese imam of the Twelver branch of Shia Islam. Al-Sadr wanted to unite all Muslims under one umbrella. This included bringing the Alawis in Lebanon and Syria under the banner of Islam. But the religious leaders of Assad’s own Alawi community in Syria, fearing the loss of influence among their followers, opposed the initiative.
The violence that ensued after Assad unveiled the draft constitution unsettled the Alawi elite and middle class. The elite, comprised of individuals who benefitted from the educational reforms of the 1950s, sensed that if Assad did not triumph, they would lose their newly come social status in Syrian society. They pressured the religious sheikhs to acquiesce to the agreement between al-Sadr and Assad. In 1973, Sadr issued a fatwa declaring the Alawi sect to be an offshoot of Shia Islam. The fatwa also declared that Assad was a Muslim. Hafez al-Assad would govern the country until his death in 2000. In that same year, his son Bashar took over from his late father. He has ruled Syria ever since.
Where are we now? At the time of this writing, the Syrian government is, in the context of the country’s ongoing civil war, successfully pushing the Salafi jihadis – Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), Ahrar al-Sham, Daesh and many others linked, directly or indirectly, to Al Qaeda – out of Syria. These jihadis have as their goal to create a (Sunni) Islamic State, which would put many Alawis, Christians and other minorities in Syria at risk of slaughter. There are still pockets of the country – namely in Idlib – where the jihadis remain, but over the last three years the Syrian Arab Armed Forces have made significant gains, in large part due to assistance from Russia and Syria’s other partners in the region.
Still, the Syrian government is clearly not as strong as it was before the revolution began in 2011. As a government headed by a minority, it had always protected other minorities, including the Druze, Christians and even Jews. And yet the current structure of the Baath Party as the permanent governing party militates manifestly against fair governance in Syria. As the civil war approaches a potential dénouement, all belligerents and parties, within and outside of Syria, would be wise to avoid the mistakes of Iraq (or even Libya and Afghanistan). Unilateral de-Baathification would be foolish. To the contrary, the Syrian Baath Party should be preserved and allowed to partake in elections along with other future political parties in Syria.
Even if Bashar al-Assad bears a significant share of the blame for the Syrian tragedy, his leadership and government remain – seven years into the civil war – firmly part of the solution. Countries like Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are actively working to come to a solution. The Astana Process and the Sochi National Dialogue Congress have played a major role in this regard. The Astana Process, led by Russia from 2017, has been critical in driving ceasefires between the Syrian government and armed opposition groups as the government began slowly to retake lost territory.
Moscow created the Sochi National Dialogue Congress in the hope of resolving differences between the Syrian government and the limited Syrian opposition present in Sochi. The Sochi Congress agreed that a new Syrian constitution should be created, and urged the UN-led Geneva process to include the ‘Sochi conditions’ in any final agreement. (The now defunct Geneva peace talks, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, excluded the Assad government because it was thought to be on its last legs.)
A new Syrian constitution is being actively discussed, consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. These constitutional discussions include Iran, Turkey and Russia, while Saudi Arabia remains absent – both because its archenemy Iran is at the table, and given that Riyadh continues to contest the presumption that the Assad government should remain in power.
Critical to bringing the Saudis to the table is an amelioration in relations between Washington and Moscow – something that would reduce tensions between Riyadh and Tehran in the context of future constitution-making for the next Syrian republic. Any future agreement on governance must include a strong voice for all sects and confessions – Sunni (the majority) and Shia Muslims, Alawis, Druze, Christians, Kurds and Yazidis – and the leader of the country must be required and able to protect them all, consistent with the nearly four decade-long compact between the Assad government, Syria’s minorities and the Sunni elite. Absent such a logic, no government can command legitimacy in Syria, and the country will disintegrate altogether, leading only to further bloodshed.
The power-sharing framework in today’s Lebanon, while highly imperfect, offers a possible future exit for Syria. The Lebanese system, which finds its roots in late Ottoman rule, requires that different positions of government be allocated to different confessions – in the event, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. A percentage of seats in the national parliament, elected by the people, is allocated to each confession.
The percentage allocation in Lebanon’s parliament is famously determined by the census of 1932. That census is by now, evidently, not at all representative of Lebanon’s demographic reality among the confessions. To avoid Lebanon’s well-documented problems in this regard, the new Syrian republic should have a functioning census every few years, supported by annual national demographic estimates to ensure that parliament and, by extension, the executive branch are stably representative of the various confessions.
All of this clearly presumes that the Salafi jihadist organizations are removed from Syrian politics, and that the country’s population more generally accepts this new constitutional arrangement. Speed of implementation will also be important, as the ‘Lebanese model’ as a serious governance regime in Syria only has a chance in the context of the present military dynamics on the ground. A brute reversion to one-party rule by Assad or conspicuous changes in the balance of military power on the ground would quickly extinguish the opportunity for a new Syrian constitutionalism. Domestic instability in any of the key external capitals – from Moscow to Tehran, Riyadh and Washington – would also play a role in potentially disrupting this balance of power.
Of course, the near-term survival and stability of the Assad government turn fundamentally on the continued military support of Russia and Iran. While Moscow and the Assad government appear to have little appetite for Iranian and Iranian-backed forces to remain in Syria for the long run, they are effectively willing – because of Assad’s essential weakness and Moscow’s lack of decisive influence over Tehran – to accept their short-run presence in order to remove the various Salafi organizations operating in Syria. Bref, as long as the civil war endures, both Moscow and Tehran intend to keep forces in Syria, and both will be influential in the decision-making of Damascus after the war ends.
Whether Moscow and Tehran want Assad in power over the long run is difficult to assess, but both countries understand that there is no serious alternative in the short run. As for Israel, although it is happy to unofficially accept the Assad government in the short run if it is willing to not destabilize the Golan Heights border, the continued presence of Iranian and Iranian-backed forces doubtless risks future Israeli and Israeli-backed interventions in the Syrian theatre. And yet such interventions run counter to the logic of Russia being the senior external player in the Syrian theatre – that is, the one that will, for all practical intents and purposes, dictate the macro rules of the endgame, including in respect of any opportunities for Israeli strikes or disruption.
In the meantime, the rhetoric in the West and Israel to the effect that ‘Assad must go’ should cease. Even if certain powerful voices and interests in Brussels and Washington still wish to see the back of him, the Syrian president and the Baath party will, pragmatism oblige, almost certainly have to remain in power until the next election, and stand for election along with other candidates and parties in Syria. There is a legitimate role for key outside countries in creating an international body to observe the elections, or otherwise to support the UN as the best-placed institution to oversee the transition from wartime emergency to reasonably representative civilian national government in the coming years.
Whoever oversees the transition in Syria, cooperation among the major global and regional powers will be critical to delivering the humanitarian relief and resources for reconstruction that are so desperately needed. The US, EU, Russia and regional countries can help to create a fund, under the supervision of an international organization, to assist the many families that have lost their homes and sources of income as a result of the civil war. Finally, although this was never tried under Hafez or Bashar al-Assad, a reconciliation panel and process should be launched to begin the healing from the wounds – individual, familial and confessional alike – that have been opened wide over the course of Syria’s national tragedy.
Finally, if the US, as appears to be the instinct of President Trump, quits its role as military disrupter in respect of what appears to be the endgame in Syria – that of a Syrian government victory followed by a new constitution and new elections, accompanied by a reconciliation process – then Washington would be an important partner in the peace process. This would be particularly true in terms of the financial resources needed to rebuild Syria for this new century. For the next Syrian government, whatever its head and form, will require massive financial assistance, and will, as with the foreign military forces on the ground, be existentially dependent on the suppliers of this assistance. And even then, given the blood on everyone’s hands, it is unlikely to be a very stable government for generations to come.
Zach Battat is a Junior Editor of Global Brief.