x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Forty-one years after the coup, the Assad grip is fragile at best

The Baath party and the Assad family have marked 41 years in power in Syria. But the regime's grip on the country is weak and getting weaker.

Yesterday marked 41 years since a young and ambitious Syrian defence minister and air force officer executed a bloodless coup, taking over the post of prime minister. It was the 10th coup in 17 years in a country riven by factionalism and bitter disputes among senior military officers. Less than a year later, he was anointed president.

That defence minister was Hafez Al Assad. There have been no other coups since. He led Syria for the next three decades, employing a mix of shrewd regional statecraft, skilful cultivation of state security services and the military and brutal internal control. He created a mukhabarat state based on a domestic intelligence security apparatus, riding a wave of Arab nationalism rooted in resistance to Israel and anti-imperialism, and sinking his tentacles deep into neighbouring Lebanon.

His son Bashar inherited the position in 2000 after his father's death. An ophthalmologist and a computer buff, the younger Al Assad's arrival was accompanied by renewed hope. He spoke the language of reform and had lived in Europe. There were expectations that the 35-year-old scion would reform the mukhabarat state, open the country to foreign investment, take steps toward peace, reorder the Syrian bureaucracy and ease pressure on Lebanon.

But that was not to be. Reform efforts were halting, human rights abuses continued, Lebanon continued to be seen as Syria's prized "possession" and Al Assad the younger never seemed to emerge from the shadow of the elder who - although brutal - was credited with being a shrewd regional tactician. Today, the dynasty is on the ropes, battered by a robust rebellion that is growing in force even as the government wages war on it. Some 3,500 people have died in the past eight months, thousands have been injured, tens of thousands have become refugees and key rebel cities have become humanitarian disaster zones.

While November was the month that brought the Assads into power 41 years ago, this November might one day be seen as the month that led to its demise. Three key events this month will shake the regime's hold on power and pose considerable medium-term problems for the Assads' survival.

The first is the dramatic, near-unanimous Arab League move on Saturday towards suspending Syria - a founding member of the League - from the group and threaten political and economic sanctions against a state once seen, alongside Egypt, as a twin heart of Arab nationalism. This move from the Arab League - which includes three new governments that overthrew their own mukhabarat states recently - further shatters Syria's carefully cultivated image as a hub of "resistance" and Arab nationalism. US and European Union sanctions and censure are one thing, but a suspension by fellow Arab states - some of whom don't have much of a track record on human rights themselves - reflects the growing international outrage at Syria's actions, and the further isolation it faces.

Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim was quick to note that the Arab League move should not be interpreted as a green light for a no-fly zone. But it does send a message to China and Russia, which have consistently defended Syria from censure at the UN Security Council, and it strengthens the warning that Syria's erstwhile ally, Turkey, has been giving to Damascus for the past two months.

The second key November moment was the Eid Al Adha siege of the central city of Homs. Security forces fired on protesting crowds during the religious holiday, leaving dozens dead. All told, more than 100 people reportedly died in the Eid siege. The Assad regime has crossed many red lines over the past eight months, but this was perhaps the worst of them of all.

Finally, the third November event that will imperil the regime will begin to be implemented: the European Union oil embargo. In September, the EU announced an embargo on purchases of Syrian oil. That embargo begins this week.

While Syria is not a major oil exporter, crude receipts have become an increasingly important hard currency earner, particularly in a severely stressed economic environment. Some 95 per cent of Syria's oil exports went to Europe, and the state has ordered major foreign producers to cut production and is scrambling to find new buyers, offering discounts and storing oil in tankers, according to oil industry sources.

Meanwhile, tomorrow's deadline for submissions to Syria's oil ministry for participation in new offshore blocks is likely to pass without much major interest given current conditions.

This will only exacerbate Syria's economic decline, one that is prompting members of one of the Assads' key constituencies - merchant communities of Damascus and Allepo - to abandon the regime, as The National columnist Hassan Hassan has noted.

Bashar Al Assad faces a tough winter ahead: increasing isolation, a rebellion that has not lost steam, dwindling cash reserves and looming economic crisis. Even his wily father would find it difficult to handle all of these pressures at once.


Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior adviser for Oxford Analytica