What is Syrian President Bashar Assad thinking?
Over the past several weeks, his regime has escalated military operations throughout the country – shelling neighborhoods in previously loyal cities, using airplanes to drop what rebel fighters call “TNT barrels” containing hundreds of kilograms worth of explosives, and unleashing its militias to commit gruesome massacres such as the one in the city of Daraya, where more than 400 people were slaughtered last last month. Approximately 5,000 Syrians were killed in August – making it the deadliest month of the 17-month conflict.
At the same time, the Syrian regime has embarked on a PR offensive. Damascus invited the Independent’s Robert Fisk into the country – allowing him to interview Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, embed with Syrian forces battling insurgents in Aleppo, and interview imprisoned foreign fighters and Syria jihadists. Most prominently, Assad himself granted an interview to the pro-regime Addounia TV, insisting “Syria will return to the Syria before the crisis.”
Western and Arab media dismissed the interview as detached from reality: Assad’s comments appeared to be directed to an outside audience, and he did not offer any concessions to the opposition. But the interview merits a closer look, as it can offer insights into a recent shift in the regime’s thinking and tactics.
In the interview, Assad explained that a recent “public understanding” has allowed the regime to escalate its offensive, unlike during the early stages of the uprising. “Some wanted us to handle that stage as we handle the stage today,” he said. “This is illogical. The stage was different, their (rebels’) modus operandi was different, even the public understanding of what’s happening was different.”
There is of course no public consent as such, but some of Syria’s internal dynamics have shifted in favor of the regime. Many in Syria have made up their minds about standing with the regime until the end. Though some do not support the violence, they believe that blood is a price that has to be paid to prevent the country from lapsing into chaos. Others want a decisive end to the conflict, regardless of who delivers, and currently see the opposition as unable to tip the balance.
The country is more divided than ever. Syrians have largely split into two camps, whereas before there had been a large group in the middle that supported neither the regime nor the opposition. Slipping into the regime camp are mainly minority groups that were previously on the fence – Christians, Druze, and Ismailis – but have grown disenchanted with the rebels. Bassam Haddad, a Syrian commentator and director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, addressed this theme in a recent article, writing that “both camps have solidified into two concrete walls, crushing nuance and humanity.”
The opposition, having clearly failed to unite, to present a viable alternative to Assad and to reassure the country’s minorities, is partly to blame for the impasse. Last month, the opposition Syrian National Council was attacked by the Joint Military Council, which claims to represent around 60 percent of fighters, for failing to unite the opposition behind a coherent political alternative. The rebels have also engaged in some atrocious sectarian violence, such as the killing of five Alawite officers in a police station outside Damascus, while sparing the rest – which three days later led the regime’s militias to slaughter at least 20 of the town’s residents on Aug. 1. International media have also reported extensively on the rise of extremism among the opposition’s fighters, a trend the regime had long highlighted even before it became true.
The regime has also proven resilient, bouncing back from a July 18 bombing that killed four top security officials, as well as the defections of numerous other top generals and officials. Assad dismissed these defections as part of the regime’s “self-cleaning” mechanism, claiming that the regime had facilitated the departure of certain unworthy individuals.
“Practically, this process is positive,” he said.
Assad’s statement was not only meant to reassure his supporters, but also likely to make the point that defections can be seen as a way to shield his rule from any internal threats. From Assad’s perspective, it is probably better to have a small, committed core of officials committed to crushing the revolt than a broader regime infiltrated by traitors.
By making regular Syrians suffer greatly for hosting rebels in their neighborhoods, the regime hopes residents will reject fighters – a tactic that has already succeeded in several areas across the country. In Hajin, a city in eastern Syria bordering Iraq, residents told me they had recently asked fighters to leave the town after being shelled for at least three weeks. Similar scenarios occurred in various towns and neighborhoods in Damascus, Homs and Hama. The regime believes the political opposition is losing popularity, and its support will not endure if the situation lingers on.
Analysis of the nature of the clampdown in Syria has so far focused largely on how the top leadership of the regime thinks, but the calculations of low- and mid-level security officers may be more important. According to one Syrian official, these officers have leeway to execute “directives” given by the top leadership without having to communicate with their superiors. While this policy increases the risk of massacres, it also grants ground forces impressive agility and flexibility. This explains the apparent discrepancies in the regime’s clampdown in different areas across the country, and it is probably what Assad means when he reiterated in the interview, “mistakes have been made.”
These bottom-up dynamics are important to explaining the situation on the ground. Rank-and-file security officers and ragtag shabbiha militias, which represent the tip of the regime’s spear, believe in extreme violence and have little regard for compromise. They think the regime has been too lenient, should have acted decisively from day one, and that Assad failed where his father succeeded in crushing a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the early 1980s.
The regime had tried in the beginning to balance between “public understanding” and these elements. But even if Assad wanted to shift his strategy, these elements would now make it difficult to stop the violence.
Given the regime’s new tactics, what is the way forward for Syria’s rebels? If they continue to “bring problems” to neighborhoods, as many Syrians have started to complain, then time will be on Assad’s side and his regime will maintain the upper hand. In light of the regime’s reprisals on rebel hideouts inside the cities, the rebels either have to operate outside neighborhoods or be able to protect them from the regime’s retribution.
The opposition must also treat the battle against the regime as one struggle, and not focus on one city or another as “the final battle” while neglecting other fronts, as it has consistently done. This misguided tactic has bolstered the regime standing in people’s minds – after all, it has survived all the “final” battles so far.
It is also important to convince Syria’s minorities and those fearful of rising extremism that their future is not tied to Assad. That can only be done with a truly representative political body. Over the past few months, many Syrians have given up on the Syrian National Council’s ability to usher in a viable alternative to Assad. The council’s stagnation is part of the problem and plays into Assad’s hands in weakening support for the uprising.
The international community also has a role to play. In the absence of consensus on the U.N. Security Council, the United States and its allies in the region should provide military and financial assistance to the rebels that will allow them to repel catastrophic attacks, whether from land or air, on neighborhoods from which the fighters operate.
At the beginning of the uprising last year, the regime sought to justify its clampdown by claiming the civilian protests were militarized. It was a self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy. Assad will find that it is much easier to force people to pick up arms than to force them to lay them down. But it is not impossible.Hassan Hassan is an editorial writer for The National newspaper, based in the United Arab Emirates. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.