Bachar al-Assad: ‘rampart against radical Islamism’ ?

Laura RUFALCO, trainee, GREMMO.

July 16, 2014.

Today is the date when Bachar al-Assad will give his inauguration speech for his new ‘presidential mandate’, following his expected ‘victory’ in the latest Syrian ‘presidential elections’. The Assad regime strictly controlled Syria for more than four decades. The years previous to the Arab Spring, the western media presented Bachar al-Assad as a moderate ruler in comparison with his father, Hafez al-Assad. It was this ‘moderate’ ruler, however, who brutally repressed demonstrators asking for change in the regime and plunged Syria in an atrocious, bloody civil war. First believed to follow the path of Kaddafi, Bachar al-Assad was nonetheless able to regain control over an important part of the Syrian territory thanks to two factors: Iranian and Russian support and the lack of coordination between the different rebel groups opposing him.

Previous to the civil war, the Ba’ath party was a clientelist network lacking a strong organization and with a faded ideology. The war urged the party and the Syrian administration – corrupted and inefficient, to restructure itself in order to survive. The regime had to tighten itself to “a core of Assad family members and staunch loyalists in the military, security, and intelligence establishment”. The core of Assad’s regime is therefore composed by a limited number of people having strong ties with Bachar al-Assad, notably his family members. In the center of the regime we have six important figures: Maher al-Assad, Assad’s brother and commander of the Fourth Armored division of the Syrian Army; Mohammed Makhlouf, Assad’s uncle and advisor, and his two sons, Rami Makhlouf and Havez Makhlouf, head of Damascus security; Thou al Himmah Shaleesh, head of presidential security and cousin of Bachar al-Assad, and Ali Mamlouk, director of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate and head of national security.

If the government was able to restructure itself and to form alliances with some minorities groups living within Syria, such as the Kurds, the same cannot be said for the opposition. Lacking coordination and common goals, they became an easy prey to the Syrian Army, backed by Russia, Hezbollah and Iran. The so-called moderate opposition also became a target for hard-line Islamist groups, and internal war destroyed the opposition. Assad’s regime, at the beginning of the conflict, refused to reform itself and justified its disproportional use of force and stubbornness to stay in power as a way to protect Syria from a latent Islamist menace. If at the beginning of the protest this menace was implausible, nowadays with the rise of the ISIS this became a self-fulfilling prophecy: soon enough Bachar al-Assad will be faced with an ISIS that was able to expel its rivals from Syria. As the Islamist menace grows, so does, in a way, the popularity of Bachar al-Assad, nationally and internationally. The USA seems to accept the possibility of Assad staying in power, while the Syrian population allegedly fears the rise of the ISIS – a poll affirms that about one third of Syrians believe that Assad is the best alternative for Syria.

The presidential election was a sham, but the fear of the ISIS is real. In this context of gruesome war, Assad is nowadays presented as the ‘less of two evils’. The same president that incessantly attacked its own population is now considered as a rampart against hard-line Islamism and extremism in Syria. His centralized and monolithic government lacked organization and was corrupted to all levels, but the rebel forces were yet more disorganized, giving the advantage to Bachar al-Assad. In a short-term scenario, it seems reasonable to imagine that Assad will stay in power – he is even expected to put in place a few reforms. Some say he might have to accommodate a few moderate national opposition members in his old-new regime. However, these reforms may not be completely genuine and effective, and the Assad government will probably reduce itself even more into a core of loyalists to the Regime, as a way of avoiding any risks and to reward those who supported him. It is difficult to imagine how Syria will be in a long-term scenario, but by now we can affirm that the Assad regime will continue to struggle to continue to exist: Bachar al-Assad already demonstrated his inflexibility and his obstinacy to remain president, even if it means controlling a devastated Syria.

Bibliography:

Author unknown. 4% des Syriens se reconnaissent dans l’EIIL. Le Figaro, 07/09/2014, on http://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/2014/07/09/97001-20140709FILWWW00034-4-des-syriens-se-reconnaissent-dans-l-eiil.php

Author unknown. Syria Files: The Regime. Syria Deeply. http://www.syriadeeply.org/background/regime/

AZIZ, Jean. Will Assad reach out to ‘national opposition’ in Syria? Al Monitor, 06/27/2014, on http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/06/syria-assad-inaugural-speech-messages-reform-rapprochement.html

LUND, Aron. Awaiting Assad’s Inauguration Speech. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 07/15/2014, on http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=56155


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