To paraphrase Shakespeare, some are born into fame and others have it thrust upon them. Such must have been the case when, in 1994, an unassuming ophthalmology student was recalled from London to eventually take the reins of government in Syria. The country was a family business, and Bashar al-Assad had become the unlikely heir. Over twenty years later, the Assad family are still in power in Syria. But the nature of their control has changed. The Syria of the past, a closed shop run and tightly controlled by father and sons, has been replaced by a geopolitical hotspot host to a catastrophic civil war that has forced the affairs of the Middle Eastern state almost perpetually onto the world stage. In this changed country Assad remains president, but in order to understand his authority it must be ascertained whether he is better described as a puppet master or pawn in this new international frontier.
Assad control, the enduring core of which was secured by Bashar’s father Hafez, comes via family and religious networks at the top of what was arguably the region’s most powerful police state. The Assad leaders rely disproportionately on their own minority Alawite religious sect, a branch of Shia Islam. This dynamic of the regime cannot be understood in the same sense as government structures like Iran, as the Assad government is resolutely secular, arguably utilising Alawites in key positions more as a strong network than an ideological move. Restructuring the Syrian political system around himself and his family, Hafez took the important step of ensuring that nobody, not even his immediate relations, would be trusted with enough power to threaten his rule. When his brother Rifaat attempted a coup after Hafez suffered a major heart attack, the dictator made a forced recovery in time to put down the revolt and cast Rifaat into permanent exile in 1984. A careful balance was retained even in religion, with Alawite influence diluted by a number of close Sunni confidantes to the President. It was this balance that allowed Assad to pull off his secular image, important to a Shia ruler in a Sunni-majority state. The Assad-controlled military were also heavily integrated into government, creating a complex web of loyalties. This balance alone, however, would never have been enough to protect Assad from his rivals. Most of his authority was imposed by a simple willingness to use brute force without refrain. Bashar’s succession bears witness to this. Initially perceived as a reformist, he lifted several of his father’s measures like the ban on mobile phones (in 2016, 72 per centof Syrians held mobile subscriptions), also releasing a wave of political prisoners. While continuing these measures, Assad did however retain the pillars of the Syrian police state that had enforced Hafez’s absolute authority. Yet allowing the Syrian population to link into globalised social networks galvanised protests after the very visible fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, serving to coordinate disparate movements against the still intense civic restrictions of the regime. Yet Doctor Assad also saw the cause as the cure, using the power of the armed forces and secret service to attempt to curtail unrest by force. In the years of civil war that followed, this attitude, perhaps the defining characteristic of the Assad presidents, remains the hardline approach of Bashar as he clings onto the presidency.
The war has made Syria an undeniably globalised country in political terms. As Korea was the battleground for competing Cold War powers, Syria has become the vessel for Russian and Iranian tensions with the West. The state’s border with Turkey, the gateway to Europe, makes it critical to EU and NATO politics, lying near the Sunni and Shia powerhouses of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Assad’s dominion has therefore become the theatre for two closely linked proxy wars on the international stage, which entirely disregards the deadly sectarian conflicts within its own borders. It is understandable to claim that the reason for the regime’s early survival was US-led intervention in Iraq, the legacy of which caused the US and Britain to cancel and reject airstrike plans respectively. Successfully facing down the West would be a major coup for any dictator, and would have given Assad more freedom to employ force in quelling unrest. In addition, it will allow him in the future, should he wishes, to roll back the reforms of his early tenure and even to intensify his father’s security setup. Knowledge that Former President Obama was unlikely to intervene due to the mistakes of Iraq emboldened the Syrian leadership. Indeed, such a test of US resolve might do much to embolden the Middle East’s remaining autocrats, as well as providing impetus for secessionist groups and combative religious sects. Whilst President Trump’s Syria policy seems more aggressive, the crucial period when Assad could have been humbled by the West has passed. Bashar has been given enough time to bolster his domestic authority and conduct a conventional war against the rebels without fear of large-scale reprisals, something that gives him ever more bargaining power in any resolution to the conflict.
Assad’s authority within his borders was strengthened by Western inaction, but truly made by Russia. President Putin’s dramatic increase in military support for the regime came at a time of crisis for Assad, with rebel forces moving on the strategically crucial port of Latakia. Intervention has been a double-edged sword for the Syrian regime, objectively saving the Syrian army from collapse and turning the tide such that the government now securely controls the majority of the country. However, Assad’s fate is now irrevocably bound to Russia and its allies. Syria has in this sense become part of the ‘new Cold War’, a Russian proxy in which Assad would have little real power in the postwar region. It poses the question of how Assad might be Putin’s gateway into Middle Eastern politics, and the Russian-Iranian alliance formed over the Syrian conflict brings Putin into line with Shia powers. Expansion of Russian ‘hard influence’ in a peacetime Syria under Assad would almost certainly provoke a reaction of some kind from the West and its Saudi allies, steadfast opponents of the Iranians. In this sense, Bashar al-Assad serves as the lynchpin to a possible dangerous new form of Middle Eastern geopolitics, where religious divides begin to merge with secular powers. Yet the President himself would arguably have little influence in this. Whilst his position and allegiances would be important in the inception of this politics, his domestic authority would be negligible on the international arena. In a Syria dominated by Saudi-Arabian tensions, Assad would also have little choice but to abandon the secular state upheld by his father, which has enabled Assad to claim a war solely against terror, and plays a major role in calming sectarian tensions among government supporters.
It is becoming inevitable that when the Syrian civil war finally rumbles to a close, Bashar al-Assad will still be in power. The grip of the godfather-style dynasty will have loosened, but their hold on the state and its executive bodies will be, as now, fundamentally unbroken. This does not, however, mean that the power of the President will continue as before, or even the nature of it. Syria is now a shop window for international tensions, and it will be these tensions that define it after the war. Before the war, the Assad family enjoyed relative freedom in their international relations, mainly confining their diplomatic ambitions to the Middle East. In the future, what Assad says will be heavily influenced by the long shadows of Russia and Iran, and their focus lies on the West as much as Syria’s neighbours. It is likely that Assad’s government will remain secular, but his options will again be limited by the very evident sectarian hatred which has erupted within his borders. All in all, Bashar al-Assad’s career seems about to make its third transformation. The London eye doctor turned head of a powerful Middle Eastern dynasty was forced in 2011 to become a general-cum-war leader. After the war, the elaborate alliance systems that played their part in its expansion will direct how he performs as an international spokesman and probable proxy, although perhaps eroding the Assad family’s control of their own affairs. Whether or not he could be said to gain power is moot; whilst in a globalised world an increased platform is power in its truest sense, the Syrian state is one designed to cope with isolation. It will certainly be hard to force the reformist genie back into its bottle, although it looks more likely that Bashar will choose his father’s style of governance over concessions. Whatever happens, the direction of the Assad dynasty is uncertain. Ina somewhat ironic twist of fate, all eyes are now on the ophthalmologist.