During the Arab Spring many Arab dictators and their regime collapsed like Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, while in Syria the Assad regime is still in power. So why is President Bashar Assad still in power until today, despite the mass killings and displacement his regime did to the Syrian people? This question comes to mind of many people after five years since the Syrian people rose up against the Assad regime in 2011. There are many reasons which are political, social and economic that led to the survival of the Assad regime.
No one can deny the existence of a popular support for the Assad regime inside Syria, and this support comes in two main forms:
Syria’s majority –President Bashar Assad still has some support from a good number of the Sunni population in Syria that stood beside his regime since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, where some of them supported him because of economic reasons. Assad’s business tycoon cousin Rami Makhlouf had undisclosed trade partnership and agreements with wealthy businessmen from Aleppo and Damascus before the start of the Syrian uprising, were the Assad regime allowed them to have trade privileges in the Syrian market, that means their fortunes are tied to the Assad regime, and if it falls, so will their fortunes. Until now they are still betting on Assad’s survival.
Apart from the upper class Sunnis, there are middle and working class Sunni Syrians who stood with President Assad for economic and ideological reasons and had refused to join the anti-Assad uprising and instead were serving as militants in a pro-regime neighborhood and also deployed in battle against the armed opposition groups. Also they served his regime in parliament, media centers and other public institutions. There are economic factors that forced many to accept his rule because they are simply fighting for a living wage in Syria’s disastrous economy. Syria’s Sunni support for the Assad regime is still small comparing to the anti-Assad Sunnis strong support for the Syrian revolution were they are considered to be the driving force behind Syria’s uprising against President Assad and his regime.
Syria’s minority – During this conflict the Assad regime was supported by the majority of the minorities in Syria, this is due to regime’s propaganda over the last decides claiming to be the “protector of minorities” in Syria in order to strengthen the regime’s image, this claim was successfully manipulated inside Syria and worldwide especially in the western world. Presence of Jihadists in the ranks of the armed rebellion was one of the reasons why many minorities decided to remain on neutrality or stand by the Assad regime.
When Hafez Assad took power in 1970, he placed the Alawites on high positions in his regime like ministers, political officials and military generals. The vast majority of Alawites supported President Assad and his regime’s brutal crackdown on the members of the revolution. They were the main source for Assad regime’s manpower where they occupied important positions in the military and in the intelligence services. Alawites supported the Assad regime for sectarian reasons as they were not willing to be ruled by Syria’s majority the Sunnis, fear from Jihadists is also another factor for not joining the uprising since they were many occasions where jihadists called for indiscriminate attacks on the Alawites. While there are Alawite activists opposed to Assad regime but they are very small in number.
A large number of Christians have emigrated from Syria to nearby countries and some left for Europe and United States. Those who stayed in Syria are all present in regime held territories are supporting the Assad regime militarily since they are involved in many pro-regime militias. Christians are largely in favour of the Assad regime because it claimed that they believe their survival is linked to his largely secular government, also numerous Syrian churches declared their official supported the Assad regime.
Assad regime decreased the value of the Syrian pound on purpose, and today a U.S. dollar will fetch ten times as many Syrian pounds as it did before the uprising began in 2011. Part of its decline because the Assad regime has printed money to fund its shortages, driving inflation steeply upwards, Syrian pound’s value seems to be determined by the perceived likelihood of President Assad’s holding on to his position. Syrian Economy relies upon inherently unreliable revenue sources such as dwindling customs and income taxes which are heavily bolstered by lines of credit from Iranian government.
The regime of Assad also receives domestic financial support from Syria’s richest man Rami Makhlouf and his wealthy business partners from Damascus and Aleppo. Externally, Russia has played an important role in Syria’s monetary system. Since 2012, Russia has been printing Syrian pounds and flying them to Syria to allow the regime to pay public sector salaries in spite of rapidly declining reserves. Additionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin has channelled billions of dollars to the Syrian regime to prevent a financial collapse. Iran is believed to spend more than $6 billion USD a year on the Assad regime’s institutions and military during this on-going war.
The Syrian Centre for Policy Research estimated that, for the whole country, the destruction of physical infrastructure amounted to $75 billion. The UN estimated that it would need an investment of $180 billion to bring Syrian GDP back to pre-conflict levels.
Since Syria’s uprising started in 2011, Iran quickly sided with the Assad regime and it was quick to label the anti-Assad uprising as a “terrorist movement backed United States” trying to overthrow the legitimate Assad regime which is part of an anti-western alliance called Axis of Resistance.
Since 2012 Iran has provided the Assad’s government with financial, technical, and military support, including training their military and sending its combat units and Shiite Jihadists to combat against the Syrian armed opposition. At the moment there are around 5,000 IRGC operatives including 30,000 Shiite transnational jihadists fighting alongside the weakening Syrian armed forces. All Iranian units and Shiite jihadist groups are under the command of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani, who is also is in charge of President Assad’s security portfolio.
Russia has supported the Assad regime politically and militarily since the uprising started in 2011, Since October 2011, Russia along China, as both permanent member of the UN Security Council, repeatedly vetoed against Western sponsored draft resolutions in the UN Security Council that were designed to demand resignation of president Bashar Assad and open the possibility of UN sanctions against his regime.
In the first half of 2015, Syrian armed forces and Iranian backed – Shiite jihadists suffered a series of major setbacks by Syrian armed opposition groups. In July 2015, President Bashar Assad made a formal request to Russia to send in its airforce and other military assistance. On 30 September 2015, Russia intervened military in Syria with a large aircraft arsenal and 4,000 troops. Russia conducted its first airstrikes targeting the positions of the Syrian armed opposition. After a year from Russia’s military intervention it has managed to capture around 4% of the Syria’s opposition held-territories including helping the Syrian army and its Iranian allies capturing many settlements including opposition’s main stronghold in Eastern Aleppo.
Dis-unity of the Syrian armed opposition groups is one of the factors the managed President Assad to continue his stay in power. Opposition group’s failure to unite into a single military body created a lot of factionalism among the opposition groups which resulted into deep division and infighting between them. They didn’t create new military strategy to overcome the power of the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies. Armed opposition groups are not attacking on multiple fronts against the Assad regime like they used to do before, which allowed the Syrian and its allies to isolate the opposition held territories into separate pockets far from each other and then make siege or launch an offensive to re-capture it.
Rise of the Islamic State
President Bashar Assad has long had a pragmatic approach to the Islamic State. In 2011-2012, during the early stages of the armed rebellion against the President Assad, the Assad regime released many Islamist and jihadist prisoners from jail mainly from Sednaya prison. A portion of these freed jihadists rose up to become commanders of ISIS and other jihadist militant groups. With their assistance, ISIS has managed captured oil fields in eastern Syria from Nusra Front and then sold the oil to the Assad regime, which effectively funded the terror group’s activities in Syria before entering Iraq in 2014.
In 2013 when ISIS was relatively a small jihadist group, it was launching attacks against Syrian armed opposition while they were combating against the Syrian army and it’s Iranian allies, this made the battle situation for the Syrian armed opposition even harder were they had to concentrate on two different fronts, one against the Syrian army and its backers in north-western and south of Syria, and Islamic State from the eastern side of Syria. Syrian Airforce was targeting opposition territories while ignoring ISIS fighters on the ground. This resulted in ISIS capturing a large part of territories from the armed opposition groups mainly in the east and northern suburbs of Aleppo resulting in ISIS holding more territories than the Syrian opposition.
Assad’s goal was to convince the Western powers that he is combating against terrorist groups and helping him is essential to end terrorism in Syria hoping to earn back the lost recognition of legitimacy from the international community especially in the West. The rise of ISIS led to the United States forming a coalition and intervene in Syria to combat against them. In the Western media stream Assad regime was labelled as a “lesser evil” because he fights a common enemy with the Western powers.
A Syrian Sunni businessman with close ties to the Assad regime revealed to TIME in detail that the Assad regime contributed to the rise of Islamic State from the early days of the Syrian war. Assad regime purchased fuel from ISIS-controlled oil facilities in the east of Syria, and it has maintained that relationship throughout the war. He also reveals that Assad does not see ISIS as his primary problem but rather his opponents from FSA and Nusra Front. He concluded by saying “The more powerful ISIS grows, the more they are useful for the regime”.