Thursday, May 15, 2014

Which foundations for postwar Syria?

The announcement that Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy on Syria, would step down at the end of this month raised a number of interesting questions.

Brahimi’s departure is to a large extent a consequence of President Bashar Assad’s decision to stand again for the presidency in June, which undermines efforts to negotiate a transition in Syria. This makes Brahimi’s role redundant.

But beyond what it means for a negotiated settlement in Syria, Assad’s decision to seek re-election poses a more profound question. In the highly unlikely event that the Syrian president can defeat the uprising against his rule, on what foundations might he build a postwar Syria?

The question is hardly an academic one, as Hafez Assad understood all too well. He knew that a minority-led regime needed ideological cover to sustain its domination. The late Syrian president used Arab nationalism, in the guise of Baath Socialism, to do such a thing. By the time he died in 2000, Baathism had lost most of its ideological luster, but it still represented something tangible for an interest group that had benefited from the regime’s socio-economic policies.

Bashar pretty much destroyed what his father spent decades building up, and now he promises to come back for more. But under what heading will a new Assad presidency be placed? If Bashar imagines that he will anchor his legitimacy in the claim that he spearheaded a successful war against terrorism, then he is drinking from the regime’s fountain of propaganda.

Many Syrians will welcome an end to a conflict that has been the ruin of their country. But when reality has had time to sink in, when people look back on the past three years of carnage and determine responsibility, the Syrian president will not be spared. He will need more than brutality and the phony claim that what he was fighting in 2011 was “armed terrorist groups” to persuade Syrians that his leadership is valid.

The reality is that Bashar’s sole barometer for staying on as president is the power equation: Unless his foes defeat him, he’s staying put. That may be acceptable in the context of war, but the Syrian president will find it almost impossible to govern a postwar Syria on such a principle. If his aim is to return to reliance on the security services to preserve his regime, as he did before 2011, then Syria will never completely emerge from its conflict, and Bashar himself may become disposable.

Assuming the regime manages to consolidate itself in a postwar period, then the imperative to keep Bashar in office will no longer be quite the same. Bashar may emerge stronger from the maelstrom, for having survived in the face of a withering revolt, but the impulse to be rid of him may prove just as compelling. Even the Alawite community could come to see an advantage in removing the man who personifies its original sin.

For now, the prospect of an Assad victory in the Syrian war appears all but absurd. The regime simply doesn’t have the manpower necessary to recapture and control Syria, and its strategy today is centered on political survival. But if the regime can slowly expand the areas under its control – and that’s a big “if” – until the point where it can realistically contemplate victory, such a “victory” will be pyrrhic for having come through the slaughter of tens of thousands of its own citizens.

Bashar seems unperturbed by this, and there are other examples to encourage him in this attitude. The Algerian military-led regime survived a terrible civil war during the 1990s, one in which its ferociousness could not be denied. Yet only a few weeks ago, its debilitated presidential candidate, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was re-elected for a fourth term.

Perhaps, but the Algerian leadership was not controlled by a religious minority, and the country did not become a regional playing field in the same way that Syria has. Those countries that have bolstered Bashar, Iran and Russia above all, must be aware that keeping the Syrian president in power is only the first stage. Unless his regime is placed on sounder foundations, their efforts may have been for nothing.

So what might these foundations be? Baathism is dead. A Greater Syria scheme sounds preposterous when Bashar has alienated a substantial portion of his population, and all that is left is a regime upholding sectarianism and supported principally by Syria’s minorities. The fact is that the Assad regime has nothing in which to anchor its rule beyond continued terrorization.

Even after a vast campaign of purges, Joseph Stalin yet had communist ideology to uphold the autocratic Soviet system. When World War II began, he fell back on Russian nationalism to mobilize his society against Nazi Germany. Bashar has no such instruments at his disposal. He has only the gun.

The Assad regime offers desolation to Syrian society. It may survive for now, but the gates that Hafez Assad sensibly sought to keep closed have all been opened, unleashing the very forces that the late president was always careful to keep in check. It is not Bashar Assad who will be able to close them again.

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