For the last decade or so, western analysts puzzled over the portrayal of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, trying to understand his beliefs on important issues and how much real power he exercised within a regime that his father built and nurtured for over 30 years. The lack of consensus on whether he was “a neophyte”, “a closet reformer” or “a loyal son” exacerbated the lack of consensus on the appropriate course for policy towards Syria.
This debate began in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, almost a year into Assad’s first term, intensified after the American invasion of Iraq and became most notable following the Hariri assassination in Lebanon in 2005. More than 10 years into his reign, Bashar Al-Assad can no longer be seen as a neophyte and has done very little to advance reform and democracy in Syria. The “loyal son” has proven to be a force for continuity and stasis in Syrian domestic and foreign policy. An absolute product of the system his father built up, whose principal goal is to protect the core constituencies of the regime and preserve the main elements of its foreign policy.
Today, as the echoes of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen reverberate across the Middle East, the voices of Syrian dissidents – silenced for over 40 years by the Assad regime – are given an audience and used as the backdrop of an international coalition to topple young Bashar. The brittle system in Damascus is in a fight to keep intact its old ways of control. This makes him very much part of the “problem” in Syria rather than a prospective part of the solution.
Over the past few weeks, we have seen US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with a number of European leaders call on President Bashar Al-Assad to “step down” and “go out of the way”. This represents quite a shift, at least in US policy, towards the Assad regime and an end to the conditional engagement adopted by the previous administration; an engagement that has obviously failed to yield the desired results. Under Bashar’s watch, Syria continued to be on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of terrorism; it continued to be a threat to its neighbors and has proven time and again that democracy is not on its regime’s menu.
Most importantly, Bashar – unlike his father – has openly aligned himself with the Iranian camp in the Middle East region, not just rhetorically but also on the ground in Iraq and Lebanon. This Iranian-led anti-American camp includes today many Iraqi and Bahraini Shi’a-Muslim groups on the basis of sectarian affinity, the Shi’a-Muslim Hezbollah as a strategic arm in Lebanon and the Alawite (Shi’a sect) Assad’s regime as a willing ally in Syria. This alliance divested Bashar of the Saudi Arabian “laissez faire” afforded his dad for more than thirty years and with it the approval of the West. Gone is the steady hand of the old juggler, Hafez Al-Assad. Gone, too, is the tortured US diplomacy that had courted Damascus and catered to its sense of importance as a big player in the Fertile Crescent.
With his regime increasingly isolated and facing unprecedented pressure from within and on the outside, there is little that Bashar can do to weather the storm.