Returning to Hafiz al-Assad’s Syria: Bashar Heads Back to the Future in 2020

Bashar and Hafiz al-Assad

President Bashar al-Assad was the main catalyst for reform in Syria’s economy and to a lesser degree in its political institutions before the 2011 uprising. The Civil War has caused Assad to return to his father’s domestic and regional policies.

 By Aiman Mansour* and Joshua Landis

When president Bashar al-Assad assumed power in July 2000, he led Syria on a trajectory of gradual and limited reform. He eased restrictions on the economy. He allowed for greater foreign influence in Syria by encouraging foreign investment, licensing private banks, and pushing tourism. He let considerable light into Syrian society by legalizing satellite dishes, the internet, and relaxing restrictions on the media. To set these reforms in motion, he had to clip the wings of the security bosses, who frowned at his willingness to open the doors of the country. They complained that they would be the ones expected to clean things up once trouble started. They pointed to the Damascus Spring as an early example of how things could go badly wrong. But Bashar al-Assad was convinced that he could win the loyalty of the Syrian public, particularly its youth, if he could modernize along the lines of Turkey or China. To this end, he alternated between two development plans: one was the Five Seas Vision that he elaborated after a visit to Turkey in 2004. It was to turn Syria into the key transport and trading hub of the region. The other was a version of the China Model that was designed to build a “social market” economy that would allow Assad and the Baath Party to retain political control.

Syrian authorities also loosened their grip on society for a number of reasons completely beyond their control. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and its promise to reform the Greater Middle East dealt a major blow to regional stability. By 2004, Washington was demanding that Syria relinquish its traditional control over Lebanon, cease interference its elections, stop supplying arms to Hizbollah, and withdraw troops that had been stationed in the country since the 1976. Damascus viewed this U.S. effort to roll back Syrian regional influence and cut it off from its allies to be made in Israel, as it seemed design to end pressure on Israel to return of the Golan Heights. Even more ominous, it seemed to be a prelude to destabilizing the country and regime-change, if not a full on invasion.

To contain U.S. military intervention in the region to Iraq, Assad opened his country to the hundreds of Salafi-Jihadists who were seeking a way into Iraq to fight the American occupiers. Damascus’ new permissiveness toward Islamists would have the effect of awakening the Islamist currents in Syrian society that had been so violently suppressed in the 1980s. Young Syrians from every walk of life, whether university students or farmers, became mesmerized by the new jihad in Iraq that championed heroic narratives of adventure, revolution, and revenge. Youth were electrified. Students at the University of Damascus, eager to show solidarity with the fighters in Iraq, began to dress in Afghan garb. Washington’s pressure campaign on Syria led to its forced withdrawal from Lebanon on the heels of the Hariri assassination.

A devastating draught that led to the displacement of a million Syrians, combined with the failure of Syria’s state-controlled economy to produce jobs and revenue forced neo-liberal reforms. The down side to these changes was the creation of a yawning income gap and expanding corruption at every level of Syrian society. These changes, whether produced by reform, the expanding U.S. role in the region, or economic weakness and corruption produced social, religious and class discontent that exploded to the surface of society in 2011.

The worst drought on record in the Fertile Crescent killed livestock, drove up food prices, and forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria’s jam-packed cities

Because of the civil war, Syria’s leaders were left with a single option: to survive. In order to do so, they returned to the policies of Hafiz al-Assad. Syria, haunted by distrust of the international community, plagued by internal divisions, and hemmed in by Western sanctions, has reverted to the inward looking policies it pursued in the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties.

Once the threat of a rebel victory began to recede in 2016, Damascus took steps to tighten its grip on the deteriorating state institutions as well as to restore its regional status.

To tightening control over economic transactions in the country, it limited dollar use in the local market in order to shore up the pound. Police have arrested merchants who continue to trade in foreign currencies and have attacked several leading figures in Syria’s private sector by confiscating their assets. The government seeks to revive key industrial areas, such as Shiekh Najar in Aleppo and Adra in Damascus. These policies are designed to restore vitality to small and medium businesses, which operate in the industrial areas. Despite the need for more foreign investment, the Syrian government will likely hesitate to allow projects led by Turkish or Qatari businessmen for fear that they will enrich and embolden members of the political opposition. During the first decade of this century, the government’s desire to attract Turkish and Gulf investors caused it to turn a blind eye to the growing sympathy of many Syrians outside of the capital felt towards political Islam. During his first ten years in power, Bashar al-Assad permitted the rapid proliferation of mosques throughout the country. Fearing a repeat of this phenomenon, Syrian authorities are likely to insist on investments from secular countries such as Russia and China and from the regional adversaries of political Islam, such as the UAE and Egypt, who prefer maintaining the political status quo and are willing to do business with the Assad government.

The ruling Baath Party, which had been neglected during the first decade of Bashar’s rule, is regaining influence and even dominance in national politics. Despite decisions made to sideline it, such as in the election campaign of 2007, or to encourage greater party freedoms, such as those laid out in the constitutional reforms of 2012, the Baath Party is becoming more visible in both the economy and politics. President Assad is also becoming more involved in running the Party, a role he all but abandoned in his first decade in power.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians gather for a pro-government rally at the central bank square in Damascus March 29, 2011. REUTERS/Wael Hmedan

Syria’s infamous intelligence agencies are also being revived. The four main organizations, the GID (General Intelligence Directorate), PSD (Political Security Directorate), MID (Military Intelligence Directorate) and (AFI) Air Force Intelligence Directorate languished during Bashar’s early years. Today, their authority as the central pillar of stability has been respected. As with the Baath Party, Assad has rediscovered the importance of his intelligence agencies.  Through his National Security Adviser, General Ali Mamluk, Assad is becoming more involved in the matters of these security organizations.

At the regional level, Syria is gradually regaining influence in Lebanon. Syria has long viewed Lebanon as its backyard. During the civil war, the loss of the mountainous border region separating Lebanon and Syria had a devastating impact on Damascus for guns, money and fighters could be funneled in to the rebels attacking the capital. It sparked a long and difficult battle to regain control of the border region, called the battle of Qalamoun (2013–14). It underscored to Damascus authorities just how key Lebanon is to its national defense.

Lebanon is not only important geographically, but it also serves as a lung for the Syrian economy. The recent banking crisis in Lebanon caused the collapse of the Syrian pound and gutted the savings of many Syrians who traditionally park their money in Lebanon. Lebanon is where Syrian businessmen buy their dollars and squirrel away their profits, while its banks issued the letters of credit and facilitated transactions that Syrian traders depended on.

Since the onset of the Lebanese civil war and the demise of Lebanon’s westward-looking Maronite leadership, Syria became the dominant power in Lebanon. Lebanon’s fragmented leaders, including those of Hizbullah at certain points, have decried the heavy hand of Damascus. All the same, they have remained too mired in their internecine squabbles to slip the bonds of their dependence. It should be remembered that Bashar was sent to Lebanon by his father in the 1990s to become schooled in the dark art of divide-and-rule. Since the international sanctions were imposed and the domestic conflict escalated to a full-fledged civil war, Syria’s focus on Lebanon become almost entirely economic. As Damascus regained its footing with the defeat of insurgents, its rulers are becoming more and more involved in Lebanese politics, supporting the block that eventually won the 2019 elections. Later, Damascus seems to be the main backer of the recently formed technocratic government, which was formed after Hariri’s resignation, most probably to the discomfort of Hizbullah who is interested in maintaining his dominance in his home turf. The economic crisis that Lebanon is undergoing will not diminish Syria’s interest in it. On the contrary, this will only encourage the Syrians to exploit its neighbor’s weakness and deepen divisions to further cement its influence, with the hope that a certain point, the Lebanese economy will start to recover in a way that will positively impact the fragile Syrian economic.

Through its growing influence in Lebanon, Syria is hoping to recalibrate its relationship with Iran which had descended from one of partnership into one of dependence and even vassalage during the civil war. Syria’s restored leverage in Lebanon, acquired largely through diplomatic and political means, is designed to put Damascus back onto an even footing with both Hizballah and Iran. Damascus’s suspicion of Iran has grown most recently as Assad has struggled with Turkey to retake its lost territory in the country’s north, whether in Idlib, north Aleppo, or east of the Euphrates. Tehran’s unwillingness or inability to come to Syria’s aid against Turkey underscored the dangers of relying too heavily on Iran. Putin stepped into the breech to help Damascus face down Turkey, but in the final analysis, Syria will have no substitute for its own military strength if it wishes to roll back Turkey’s military presence.

Syrian forces quit Lebanon after 29 years – China Daily: 

As regards Russia, President Assad’s policy toward the Kremlin is the continuation of his father’s. Hafiz al-Assad relied on and enjoyed the strategic-military support of USSR/Russia, that sent military experts to Syria and equipped it with weapon systems. In 1983 the Russians even sent anti-aircraft systems with Russian operators (which were turned over later to the Syrians). Assad allowed the USSR to expand the use of the Tartus naval base and use the T4 air base. Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader and General Secretary of the Communist Party, said in the1980s that he would not allow anybody to defeat Hafiz. Today, President Putin is providing the same strategic shield to Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad has offered Russia a 49-year lease of the Tartus naval base and a free hand in its use of the Hmeimim air base.  Today, Assad relies more heavily on Russia for the survival of the regime than it does on Iran. Russian air power was decisive in turning back the opposition militias and restoring the Syrian Arab Army’s control over Syrian territory. So too was Russian ground support, which included both regular forces and private contractors, made Damascus more dependent on Moscow than on Tehran.

Despite, Assad’s reliance on Russia, he has been careful not to allow Russia a free hand in reforming the military to become a “highly institutionalized, depoliticized, nonideological, and nonsectarian force.” He has been careful to ensure that the loyalty of its commanders to him and the Assad family remains undiluted.1 Patrimonialism has been the key to the regime’s survival. Nevertheless, both Russia and President Assad share a common interest in restoring more centralized, state-controlled military structures.2 The militification of loyalist forces, that was encouraged by the government during the nadir of Assad’s fortunes to counterbalance the mobilization of antigovernment forces, is today seen as a distinct liability. They challenge state authority; some may be more loyal to Tehran than to Damascus.  Assad shares Moscow’s interested in reeling in the multitude of quasi-independent militias, but he has always been careful not to all foreign countries, even Russia, to undo the tight bonds of loyalty between him and his security commanders. If Bashar al-Assad has stayed true to any principle of his father’s regime, it is to the primacy of traditional loyalties. Regime survival depends on it.

In conclusion, Bashar al-Assad’s present policies seem designed to restore a modified version of his father’s Syria. This will not be a full return to a state-controlled economy or the “communism” of the late Hafiz, but it will lead Syria to step back from many of the neo-liberal measures that guided reform before the war. The major lesson that Bashar seems to have taken away from the devastating civil war is that reforms, even those focused primarily on the economy, were too fast and destabilizing. Thus, he is reinvigorating the Baath Party and restoring the security agencies’ control over the daily lives of Syrian citizens. Syria’s regional role, so skillfully built up by his father, was key to national security. To regain some modicum of regional leverage, Bashar is focused on regaining primacy in Lebanon and a more balanced relationship with Hizballah and Iran.  

*Aiman Mansour is a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. Until Nov 2019, he served as the Head of the Middle East and Africa Division of Israel’s National Security Council. He was previously Liaison Officer and Assistant to the Special Envoy of the Prime Minister, and Director for Syria and Lebanon, NSC.

Sources

Khlebnikov, Alexey, “Russia and Syrian Military Reform: Challenges and Opportunities,” March 26, 2020, Carnegie Middle East Center. https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/03/26/russia-and-syrian-military-reform-challenges-and-opportunities-pub-81154

Landis, Joshua, “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime is Likely to Survive to 2013,” in Middle East Policy, Vol. XIX, No. 1 (2012). https://mepc.org/syrian-uprising-2011-why-asad-regime-likely-survive-2013

Lund, Aron, “Gangs of Latakia: The Militiafication of the Assad Regime,” Syria Comment, July 23, 2013. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-militiafication-of-the-assad-regime/

Sayigh, Yazid, “Syrian Politics Trump Russian Military Reforms,” March 26, 2020, Carnegie Middle East Center.
https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/03/26/syrian-politics-trump-russian-military-reforms-pub-81149

Comments (5)


Willy Van Damme said:

Working with a member of the Zionist war machine comes as a shock to me. And him being a non-Jew is even more shocking. His position makes it impossible to make an unbiased and serious analysis.

April 2nd, 2020, 6:56 am

 

Wim Roffel said:

I had understood that the recent Idlib offensive by the Syrian Army became possible because Iran had changed its position after the murder of Suleimani. Until then it hadn’t been willing to let the militias it controls to fight in the north but afterwards that changed.

If this not correct?

April 9th, 2020, 3:59 pm

 

Willy Van Damme said:

Not at all. Russian, Syrian and Iranian policy is very logical as they for very good reason want every jihadi if possible death. Remember Chechnya. The policy of Israel and it’s western partners has been maybe the biggest failure since WWII. They did send maybe 100.000 jihadi to the country, spend tens of billions and see what it brought them: A loss. And 5 years from now the country will be recovered and Bashar al Assad will be considered the true Arab Hero. And Donald Trump? A joke.

April 9th, 2020, 5:17 pm

 

Eric Blair said:

The battle for Idlib can not be won using military means alone. There is a very large elephant in the room, namely what to do about all the people there? The countries where the foreign jihadis and their families originate from don’t want them back and the Turks, who have no qualms about using them as cannon fodder for their geopolitical aims, certainly aren’t going to invite them to settle down in Turkey.

The anti-government Syrians there, fighters and civilians, can to some extent be reintegrated into a unified Syria but it will not be an easy task.

So far I don’t hear anyone talking about this. The Russians and the Turks squabble about ceasefires, “deconfliction zones” and which opposition factions are to be labelled “terrorists”, the Iranians are mostly silent and the Syrians pipe up from time to time, but are at the mercy of whatever their benefactors decide.

If Russia’s actions in Ukraine are anything to go by, their goal for Idlib is an indefinitely frozen conflict. Publicly they say that only a Syria unified within its 2011 borders is acceptable but they don’t seem to have a plan to get to that point.

It is easy for armchair generals to say “kill all the jihadis” but everyone with a modicum of intelligence knows that is not a realistic solution. Even if, hypothetically, all opposition combatants are killed (this will never happen of course), that still leaves their wives and children and the many civilians living there.

Until this issue is seriously dealt with, Idlib will remain an open sore that cannot heal.

April 12th, 2020, 1:46 am

 

Talk shows said:

The battle for Idlib can not be won using military means alone. There is a very large elephant in the room, namely what to do about all the people there? The countries where the foreign jihadis and their families originate from don’t want them back and the Turks, who have no qualms about using them as cannon fodder for their geopolitical aims, certainly aren’t going to invite them to settle down in Turkey.

August 16th, 2020, 8:07 am

 

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