When Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency of Syria from his father in 2000, a large portion of Syrians welcomed that young doctor who studied ophthalmology in Britain, who was known to be into science and the Internet. He was not known in the public sphere but his age, elegance and education made many assume he would be different from his father, the army officer born in a small hut in the Alawite village of Qardaha, who lived in Syria as it transitioned from the French occupation to a volatile independence and who was the product of the Baath Party and the military institution and belonged to the Cold War era. Syrians were more optimistic after the speech Bashar gave following his presidential oath in which he promised a number of political and economic reforms that were bound to take Syria to an unprecedented boom.
It was against this backdrop that cultural forums and political activities started gaining ground in the capital Damascus in what later came to be known as “the Damascus Spring.” But later it turned out that that neither the young president’s qualifications nor the different context in which he came to power prevented him from being a replica of his father.
Bashar was known for taking trips in his car with his wife and guests in the streets of Damascus and the media did its best to focus on this one merit he might have had in an attempt to hide all other aspects of character which had to be hidden. Time has proven that the same man who used to eat in restaurants in the capital is ready to level the same capital to the ground with tanks and rockets.
Syria has remarkably deteriorated internally and externally during the time of Bashar al-Assad. The president, who claimed to be a symbol of resistance but never resisted, played a major role in prevalence of corruption in the country. It was during his time when the first countryside rebellion in Syria’s modern history took place. The regime separated urban and rural areas with the latter suffering from deplorable living conditions and that eventually ignited the revolution. He entered into a closed regional alliance with Iran and Hezbollah and isolated Syria on the Arab and regional levels. It was Bashar al-Assad who dragged Syria back to a series of regional and international conflicts, bringing it back to the time of Baath general Salah Jadid against whom Hafez al-Assad rebelled in 1970. At the time, Syria was going through what came to be commonly known as “the childish leftist era” that played a major role in Syria’s defeat in the 1967 war in which Israel occupied the Golan Heights. It was because of this type of leftist ideology that Syria was marginalized. It is ironic that Hafez al-Assad staged his coup at the time to restore Syria’s influence in the region and he managed to do so. Then came the heir, the son who decided to turn back time and turn Syria into what it had been before his father came to power. Bashar’s time will likely be called “the childish resistance era.”
Add to this that Bashar al-Assad is the only Syrian president to drag his country to a devastating civil war in the hope of retaining power. But when a president thinks of defeating his own people, he is approaching his end very fast. The president will never win in this war.
What, then, are the choices left for Bashar al-Assad and what drives him to insist on military escalation? He and his military leaders might have assumed that the military option would crush opposition and stop the protests. Yet, one-and-a-half years later this assumption has proven totally invalid. At the same time, there is no political way out for the regime. This has demonstrated the way the Syrian regime was based on the concept of fear and that is why the moment this fear dissipated the regime had no other means to respond but through violence. This wall the regime had erected between itself and its people was pulled down and there is no way of bringing it back.
Is Bashar al-Assad considering the Alawite state option as the last resort for himself and his family? This option would please Iran, for an Alawite state stranded in the middle of the mountains would, even if much weaker, would still maintain Iran’s influence in the region. But Bashar is not expected to opt for something that will turn him from a president to a sheer guard of Iranian interests on the Mediterranean. Is Bashar hoping that Iran will intervene at the last minute to save his regime from falling and consequently save its power in the region from dwindling? How would this intervention take place? Does Iran possess the military and logistic capabilities to embark on an operation of such a magnitude? Iran might fabricate a crisis in the Gulf region to divert the attention from its ally in Damascus, but Iran should know that doing so would mean a conflict with other regional and international powers that would in no way allow such an intervention in the first place. These include Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, the U.S., and Europe. The fact that Saudi Arabia adopted the last U.N. resolution that recommended speeding up the transition of power in Syria is quite revealing. The Saudi stance, the first of its kind, demonstrated the kingdom’s persistence in facing the challenges inherent in the fall of the regime in Syria. As for Iran, it would most probably avoid any confrontation with the West at the moment especially in the light of the already-exiting tension about its nuclear program. What is Iran’s priority now? Saving Assad’s regime or saving its nuclear program?
The Russian stance is of extreme significance, yet Syria will never jeopardize its ties with the United States and the European Union to save the Syrian regime. Russia is aware that Assad’s end is near and that his regime is now totally isolated. What confuses Russia more is that the West is leaving the Syrian regime to eat itself up knowing that if that doesn’t topple it, it will at least render it a crippled entity that does not deserve an intervention that is bound to provoke the Russian people.
Also how is Bashar dealing with the loss of some of Syria’s most important leadership in the Damascus explosion? His disappearance right after this incident proves that his security apparatus was infiltrated like it had never been since 1970. The president is apparently no longer confident that his security institutions are capable of guaranteeing his personal safety. He needs time alone to make more calculations. How is Bashar dealing with the death of his brother-in-law and closest aid Assef Shawkat? What is he thinking in the middle of this crisis that is surrounding him from all sides? What are the options he is considering as danger draws near very fast? Is he reconsidering his choices and alliances which have dragged him to where he is now? Has he realized that he cannot claim to stand for resistance then suppress his people in the most violent way possible and that only a failed or an immature politician would combine both? Maybe he is now aware that he was destined to inherit power to become its last tyrant in Syria or maybe in the entire region. People outside Egypt will forget about Mubarak, people outside Tunisia will forget about Ben Ali, and people outside Yemen will forget about Saleh, but everyone will remember Qaddafi and the same will happen with Bashar whose name will forever be associated with abhorrent massacres and the destruction of entire cities and towns.
By Khalid al-Dakhil
(The writer is a columnist with Al Hayat newspaper, where this article was first published on August 5, 2012.)