After Ten Years of War, Who Rules Syria?

A Conversation with Daniel Neep

Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel, Associate Director for Research

April 8, 2021

Over the past decade, leaders of six Arab republics have been ousted—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan. Yet, despite a brutal civil war that has killed an estimated 600,000 people and displaced half of his country’s population, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad remains in power in Damascus. His rule has proven to be surprisingly durable; in the Arab world today, only the kings of Jordan and Morocco have been in office longer.

On the tenth anniversary of the start of the conflict in Syria, we spoke with Daniel Neep, non-resident fellow at the Crown Center and the American Druze Foundation Research Fellow in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, about its origins, potential conclusion, and the government that continues to rule. He is currently finishing his second book, The Nation Belongs to All: The Making of Modern Syria, which examines Syria’s political development in terms of global transformations, changing economic infrastructures, emerging political geographies, and waves of popular protest. Neep was a sabbatical fellow at the Crown Center in 2018-2019.

The conventional wisdom is that the civil war in Syria is in its final stages and that President Bashar al-Asad has won. Do you agree with that assessment?

It is true that the front lines of the Syrian conflict have stabilized over the last year. The biggest swath of territory—which includes Syria’s major urban centers and coast—is under the control of the Asad regime; territories to the northeast of the Euphrates are run by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD); while northwest Syria, including the governate of Idlib, is held by Turkish-backed militias and a rebel government backed by the Islamist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, or Organization for the Liberation of the Levant), which was largely built around a group that was originally an al-Qaeda affiliate. The last year also saw fewer deaths than any other year since the conflict began in 2011. Some analysts have consequently predicted that this “freezing” of the frontlines presages the near end of the civil war in Syria.

However, it is premature to declare the conflict to be in its final stages. The ceasefire brokered in March 2020 by Russia and Turkey has so far held in the northwest; Russia backs the forces of the Syrian government while Turkish soldiers are fighting in support of rebels in the area. But Turkey and Russia have radically different positions on HTS, which Moscow considers to be only a terrorist organization and not a provider of viable governance. For its part, the Syrian government has by no means abandoned its commitment to reclaim both Idlib and northeastern Syria. And while there seems to be no organized or viable alternative to the Asad regime inside government-held territories, there are serious difficulties there too: pockets of resistance in the southwestern Hawran region, tensions between Damascus and the local leadership in Suwaida, and the severe social stress and economic exhaustion resulting from a decade of brutal warfare. Sudden changes on any of these fronts could ignite a chain reaction leading to the reopening of hostilities throughout the country.

Whether President Bashar al-Asad has personally been victorious in the civil war also remains to be seen. Although Bashar remains first and foremost in the regime’s presentation of itself to the world, war weariness has fueled domestic resentment towards his family’s self-aggrandizement, most recently in the first lady’s acquisition of a business empire in addition to her portfolio of NGOs and charity work. Bashar’s “success” is less his own doing and more the product of his continued ability to satisfy the coalition of interests that comprise the regime as a whole.

Let’s discuss the regime as a whole. What have we learned over the past decade about how the Syrian regime works and Bashar’s place in it?

The longevity of monarchs and presidents across the Middle East and North Africa sometimes misdirects our attention to focus on the individuals at the top, rather than the structures and institutions that keep them there. Yet, in the Syrian regime, the figure of Bashar al-Asad is less important than the broader ecosystem of powerful individuals and interests that span the domains of the army, security services, business and industry, local militias, organized crime, and smuggling. “The regime” is better thought of not as an inner circle of trusted generals around Bashar calling the shots, but as the aggregate, emergent effect of all these networks operating in quasi-autonomous fashion.

This web-like system means that no one individual is essential to maintaining the structural integrity of the regime as a whole. Take, for example, the case of Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Bashar al-Asad who came to control as much as 60% of the Syrian economy over the last twenty years and whose personal wealth has been estimated at US$6-8 billion. Yet the regime found it relatively easy to sideline even a figure as weighty as Makhlouf, as happened in early 2020: His assets were frozen and his sources of income were redistributed with apparently few repercussions for regime stability. Makhlouf’s direct appeals to the regime via Facebook videos, in which he defended his political loyalty and denied accusations of tax evasion, appear to have elicited little sympathy or attention from vested interests in Syria.

Thinking of “the regime” as a decentralized array of interlocking networks also helps explain the difficulty of controlling the machinery of the state or having orders from the top successfully followed on the ground. After Bashar came to power in 2000, hundreds of reform initiatives were proclaimed but never implemented, a sign of both low institutional capacity and the inertia of institutional networks in the face of change. During the civil war, the regime’s seemingly irrational deployment of chemical weapons against civilians appears to have been motivated not by careful consideration by the inner circle of Bashar but by lower-level components of military networks following their own suppositions about what the interests of “the regime” were and how best to achieve them. These incidents—and the investigation into them—are described in Joby Warwick’s recent book on the subject, Red Line (2021).

In practical terms, what this means is that: (a) the Syrian regime is a remarkably adaptable system that can regenerate replacements for any individual figure; and (b) this adaptability makes wholesale systemic change extremely difficult, even if initiated from the very top. External demands for the Asad regime to reform itself—whether in terms of introducing electoral democracy, political pluralism, or even respect for human rights—cannot be delivered by the incumbent Syrian leadership. Even if the individuals at the apex of the system were changed, the system itself would continue to function along lines that have already been laid down. While Russian and Iranian military support since 2015 might have provided the Asad regime with essential existential support, it is this internal structure that explains why the Syrian regime takes the particular shape it does.

Syrian society is often described as a patchwork of ethnic and religious groups who historically struggled for supremacy. And the Syrian regime—particularly its security services—is often characterized as dominated by Alawis and supported by other minorities who fear oppression if Syria’s Sunni Arab Muslim majority took power. How important are ethnic and religious dynamics for understanding Syria, both historically and today?

This characterization of Syrian society overlooks some key facts. As it came into being throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Syrian regime was consolidated with the support of a coalition of workers and peasants, not a coalition of minorities. In many regions of strong support for the Ba‘th Party—such as Dera‘a, Hama, and Deir al-Zour—these peasants were overwhelmingly Sunni. Peasants from minority communities were concentrated in other regions, such as the coast and Suwaida. There was nothing intrinsically sectarian to regime support: It was first constituted as a coalition of class interests.

The fact that the 2011 revolution began in earnest in Dera‘a is of interest not because Dera‘a is predominantly Sunni, but because it was historically a key constituency for the Ba‘th Party. The region had provided prime ministers and high-ranking party officials; in absolute terms, its economy had weathered the misfortunes of the 2000s much better than the impoverished northeast, for example. So why did Dera‘a revolt? An often-missed part of the story is that the regime’s ostensibly liberalizing yet often kleptocratic reforms of the 2000s betrayed the social welfare commitments to peasants and workers that had anchored regime support for so many decades. In this respect, class rather than sect was a more salient feature of Syrian society at the outbreak of the uprising.

During a decade of civil warfare, the dynamics of Syrian society have radically altered. Parties to the conflict found it convenient to mobilize ethnic and sectarian identities for their own strategic purposes. Yet we know from other cases in the region—Lebanon and Iraq, for example—that enshrining communal and sectarian identities in the institutions of government or embedding them within formulas for political power-sharing has long-term negative effects. Such maneuvers simply prolong the tensions they are designed to mitigate and store up problems for the future. They should not be resurrected as a potential solution to be imposed on Syria by external powers.

It is sometimes said that, in effect, Iran today controls four Arab capitals, including Damascus. How have Syrian-Iranian relations changed as a result of the civil war? Why is a secular regime led by heterodox Shi‘a allied with the Islamic Republic?

The alliance between the Asad regime and Iran is entirely strategic. Its origins go back to 1979, when Hafiz al-Asad welcomed the Iranian Revolution that replaced the pro-Western, pro-Israel conservative monarchy of the shah with a regime built on populist support (much as Syria’s own Ba‘thist “revolution” had overthrown the traditional bourgeoisie with a regime that claimed to act for the popular classes). Hafiz al-Asad calculated that the regional geopolitical balance was not in his favor or the Arabs’ in their conflict with Israel: Egypt had been chiseled away from the Arab camp by the Camp David Accords, while Saddam Hussein had led Iraq down the rabbit hole of rivalry with Damascus and then war with Iran, which directed attention away from the conflict with Israel. In this context, the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran presented a unique opportunity to rebalance the regional scales. The Syria-Iran alliance was hugely unpopular in the Arab world—especially once the Iran-Iraq War broke out—but Hafiz al-Asad nevertheless maintained fidelity to this geostrategic vision for the next two decades, cemented as it was by the mounting importance of the Tehran-Damascus-Hizbullah link and Syria’s ongoing occupation of Lebanon after the end of the civil war there. Bashar al-Asad inherited this well-established relationship, which provided a rare thread of stability for Syria in a region that was deeply shaken first by the consequences of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then by the uprisings and counter-revolutionary repression of the 2010s.

It is important to note that the Syria-Iran relationship has nothing to do with theology. Originally, it was the apparently similar class nature of the Iranian and Syrian regimes that provided the grounds for proximity. In the 1970s, Hafiz al-Asad’s exposure to Shi‘ism was largely through the Lebanese Shi‘a community, comprised mostly of an impoverished peasantry whose status was not dissimilar to that of Syria’s Alawis. While there has been a steady growth of Shi‘a pilgrimages and practices in Syria over the past few decades, it is a wild exaggeration to interpret the relationship between the two countries as based on anything other than shared geopolitical interest.

Western media has repeatedly profiled First Lady Asma al-Akhras al-Asad to discuss prospects for reform in Syria. An article last month in The Economist’s 1843 magazine, for example, used her biography to narrate two decades of Syrian political history and discussed speculation that she may one day succeed her husband as president. How should we understand her role in Syria today and what it tells us about other dynamics within Syrian society?

Western analysts have a track record of looking to replace pariah leaders in the Middle East with faces that appear more palatable to foreign sensibilities. Prior to the Iraq invasion in 2003, for example, numerous observers were mooting the possibility of finding a new strongman to replace Saddam Hussein (one who would ideally come to power by an internal coup, it was maintained at the time, thereby eliminating the perceived “need” for military intervention). Such ideas have the advantage of bringing about the semblance of political change in authoritarian regimes, albeit without delivering any real improvement to the lives of people who have to live under dictatorship.

I would characterize the sudden interest in Asma al-Akhras as potential president for a post-Bashar Syria as a sign of a similar cynicism. “If Bashar’s position becomes untenable, could a President Asma offer a sop to the country’s Sunni majority while preserving continuity?” asked The Economist. Yet the question is disingenuous. The uprising has been about changing the regime as a whole, not replacing one figurehead for another. No one in Syria is naïve enough to imagine such a shift in seats delivering any real political change. If Bashar found it difficult to control the regime networks, then a President Asma, lacking both a wellspring of popular legitimacy and personal support in the armed forces, would be in no better position. To imagine otherwise is just fantasy politics.

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the author exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.