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Majid Rafizadeh Headshot

Will Assad Survive?

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Since the beginning of the Syrian uprisings, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been blessed with several fortuities and coincidences that have allowed him, not only to survive, but to maintain his hold on power. The first of this series of coincidences led to Assad's rise to power in 2001. Basil al-Assad, who was supposed to succeed his father, Hafez Al Assad, died before his father's death, leaving Bashar al-Assad heir to the Syrian presidency.

Second, Syria's revolts happened to erupt, post-Libya, in a climate where the international community's efforts and resources were largely focused on Libya. This gave Assad the perfect opportunity to unleash his security forces on the Syrian people, without the fear of international intervention. Third, relative to neighboring Arab nations, Syria is a highly diverse, multi-religious, multi-ethnic polity which has made the United Nations hesitant to intervene for fears that disruption in the status quo will lead to a post-Assad, civil-war scenario led by an empowered group of Islamists.

In order to assess the probability of the survival of the Assad regime, the following three questions must be addressed. First, in what ways are opposition groups working to bring down the Syrian regime? Second, what roles are Turkey and Iran playing regarding the Syrian uprisings? Thirdly, how has the alliance between the Syrian elite (specifically that of Damascus and Aleppo) affected Assad's hold on power?

International Involvement

Unlike the Libyan rebels who were emboldened by improvements in their training and military communications by NATO forces, Syrian opposition groups are not being organized under strong leadership. Though the Libyans received arms, they were also not operating under any leadership. The Libyan fighters coordinated and executed a strategy of weakening the loyalist by stretching geographically the defense. In contrast, the Syrian resistance took on a spontaneous form, erupting in various places and cities in Syria such as Rastan, Baniyas, Jisr-Alshghur, Daraa, Douma, Homs, Deir al-Zor, Hama, Talkalakh, and some parts of Damascus. Despite widespread resistance, there is a severe lack of coordination between the various pockets of upheavals. Meanwhile, Christian, Shi'a, Druze, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugee minorities, which make up a quarter of Syria's population, have been asking what, exactly, is the agenda of opposition groups and will the resistance assure the security of minorities in a post-Assad scenario? Minorities are worried about the potential development of a pre-Assad era situation characterized by constant insecurity, frequent military coups, and systematic minority persecution.

Issues of regional vs international pressure must be taken into account. For instance, how will the actions of Iran and Turkey impact Assad's future as president of Syria? Will Turkey and Iran join the rank of nations who have taken a robust and critical stance against Bashar al-Assad as they did with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak? Or will they pursue their own strategic, politico-economic, and national interests instead? Since the ascension of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and Bashar al-Assad's inheritance of the Syrian presidency, relations between Turkey and Syria have improved dramatically. Over the past decade, Turkey has invested enormous financial and political capital in Syria, established a Levantine free trade zone and distanced itself from Israel. As part of a larger strategy to become a key player in the Middle East, Turkey has opted for a more "soft power" approach. Following his re-election in 2011 , Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to be a force that promotes "justice, the rule of law... freedom and democracy" in the Middle East. However, ongoing uprisings in Syria have posed a serious challenge to Turkey's initial ambitions. Hence, several questions remain regarding Turkeys position in the Arab Spring. Is Turkey's role as a mediator between opposition groups and the Assad regime allowing for the regimes survival? Or has Turkey added fuel to the fire by providing shelter to Syrian refugees and opposition groups?

Syrian Elite

The role of the Syrian elite will play a determining factor in the fall of the regime. As of now the elite remains in a tight alliance with the Assad regime, making it extremely challenging to imagine the regimes demise. During his decade in power, Assad significantly strengthened ties between the urban, Sunni, merchant class and the Alawite-dominated military. Being of a privileged Damascus upbringing, Assad shares more in common with the capital's elite than he does with the Alawites of the north-west mountains ranges of Syria. Sunni business families have been incorporated into Syria's formal power structures while disfavored Alawis have seen their privileged status demoted. When Assad took office in 2000, he initiated a series of policies that led to the gradual liberalization of Syria's economy. Syria became a much more comfortable place for the wealthy, business class -- mainly Sunni merchants and Alawite army officers. However, for the majority of Syria's population, little has changed save for a remarkable increase in the disparity between Syria's rich and poor classes.

Future Projections

If the international community expects to witness the fall of the Assad regime, three crucial steps should be considered. First, a split will likely take place between Syria's elite, which consists of two main groups -- Alawite security forces and the Sunni business class. This split can be achieved through the implementation of more robust, joint economic sanctions against the Syrian regime for its ongoing human rights violations. Robust sanctions will indirectly target the loyalty of the Syrian upper class to the Assad regime. Only then will the Syrian business class -- mainly interested in protecting their foreign business assets -- take steps to stabilize the country and retain power. Second, the international community and United Nations should elevate and normalize relations with key leaders in the opposition movement, both at home and abroad. They must help the opposition better organize its ranks, as well as to develop a publicly articulated vision for Syria's future that is tolerant, pluralist, and democratic. Third, the best potential source of leverage against the Assad regime resides in regional nations that have been an important source of foreign direct investment in Syria in recent years. In particular, there is a need to put substantial pressure on Gulf Nations and Turkey to join the growing coalition of states that are calling for an end to Assad's tyranny.