Mb>PHOTO: President Assad with French media, January 9, 2017
Thomas Pierret, one of the UK’s top Syria anlaysts, writes for Middle East Eye:
In recent comments to French media, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that “everything”, including his own position, was on the table for discussion at a forthcoming peace conference Russia is hoping to convene in Astana, Kazakhstan.
A superficial analysis of this claim might lead some observers to conclude that Assad is finally ready to compromise. In reality, however, the history of the Syrian regime suggests that its current leader will likely prove less willing – and able – than ever to make any genuine step towards a more inclusive political formula for the country.
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Indeed, the current combination of decreasing external and internal pressure on the regime, on the one hand, and the latter’s dire legitimacy deficit, on the other, constitutes the worst possible context for political reforms.
Even if the Syrian government’s delegation in Astana was to prove faithful to Assad’s promise to discuss “everything”, it is unlikely it would eventually agree to significant concessions on anything.
The first reason to expect such intransigence is precisely the somewhat relaxed tone of Assad’s comments to French journalists. For the Syrian president, discussing what was once a taboo in Syrian politics has become all the more unproblematic since recent battleground dynamics and their consequences on regional alignments have relieved him, and his allies, of any real pressure to compromise.
With the reconquest of Aleppo and steady elimination of rebel pockets around Damascus, and with Turkey’s abandonment of its ambitions of regime change in Syria, Assad rightly sees that a political solution is no longer needed to salvage his regime – the military solution has worked well to that effect.
Even in the absence of any immediate pressure on the regime, the optimists say, its allies, in particular Russia, might believe that measures of political inclusion are required to stabilise the country in the long term.
The problem is that Syria’s power architecture does not rely on institutions, but on the personal networks of the ruling clan. Therefore, any weakening of the latter would put the regime’s survival in jeopardy, which means that even if Moscow was willing to enforce even unambitious forms of power-sharing upon its protégé in Damascus, the latter would fiercely resist them.
Assad and regime figures make a PR appearance at prayers, July 2016
Too Fragile for Facades
One should not forget that, throughout its four decades of rule before 2011, the Assad dynasty never felt secure enough at home to experiment with the kind of pseudo-democratisation that was witnessed from the 1980s onwards in other authoritarian Arab republics like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.
To populate their rump parliament with loyalists, the Assads did not consider it sufficient to merely rely on biased electoral laws, corruption, and ballot-rigging: two-thirds at least of the members of the People’s Council had to be formally appointed. The actual proportion and nature of “independent”, that is, elected deputies was a function of the regime’s level of self-confidence.
In 1973, when Hafez al-Assad’s legitimacy was boosted by his retreat from the hard-left policies of his predecessors, genuine opponents, including Muslim-Brotherhood sympathisers, were allowed to compete for, and even grab, a handful of the 33 percent elected seats.
In 1981, however, as Assad Sr was on his way to win a bloody victory over the Islamist insurgency, elections took a farcical turn, even by local standards, since zero independent MPs made it to the People’s Council. In 1986, that is, four years after the Hama massacre that put a final end to the insurgency, elected representatives were only granted 18 percent of the seats. Independent deputies had to wait until the 1990 elections to recover their pre-1981 share of the parliament, that is, one third.
A Shortage of Legitimacy
The latter episodes bear important lessons for the shape of things to come in Syria. For authoritarian regimes, including their opponents through limited electoral competition requires relatively high levels of legitimacy in order to prevent a backlash in the polls.
In other words, re-legitimation through elections only works when the incumbent’s legitimacy is already high. Yet, legitimacy was in short supply for the Assad regime after the massacres of the 1980s, hence the decision to curtail even symbolic forms of electoral competition. The situation is arguably comparable today, following a counter-insurgency campaign whose brutality dwarves that of the early 1980s.
For sure, Assad has always had die-hard supporters at home, and recent Western visitors to Damascus and Aleppo have reported widespread expressions of pro-regime sentiments among the populace. Regardless of the questionable sincerity of such sentiments, they do not testify to the kind of legitimacy that would automatically translate into electoral gains.
Many of the Syrians who sincerely support a regime victory today do so because, as a result of the Iranian and Russian interventions, they increasingly see that the choice is not between Assad and whatever opposition, but between Assad and the endless continuation of a futile war.
This kind of “support” is thus a consequence, rather than a cause, of the regime’s military might; and what it reflects is a preference for any kind of stability over chaos, rather than a preference for Assad over his opponents. It has crucial implications for prospects of political reforms, because the kind of approval rating that would be measured in elections would be of an entirely different nature.
No Gamble With Reforms
Many of those who want stability at any price still see the regime as mainly responsible for the current bloodbath. Countless “consenters” have relatives who were killed, maimed, tortured, raped or displaced by loyalist forces. Therefore, if they were given the opportunity to empower more decent political figures than the current leadership (that is, virtually anyone) through elections, many of those “grey” Syrians would likely seize it.
Of course, elections in authoritarian systems are not only, or even primarily, a matter of approval rating as they also involve a great deal of patronage. Yet regime resources have shrunk dramatically as Syria lies in ruins, and what is left of them primarily goes to the core loyalist constituencies that have borne the brunt of the war effort. Resentment at such favouritism exists even among otherwise pro-regime circles, as illustrated a few days ago in parliament when MP Wael Melhem denounced the preferential treatment granted to auxiliary militias over the regular army.
Insiders’ dissent in a context of victorious counter-insurgency also has a historical precedent in Syria: it was in 1984 – two years after Hama – that Hafez al-Assad faced the most serious internal challenge to his rule, namely, an attempted coup by his brother Rifaat.
Against this background, the unprecedented criticism levelled last November by Air Force Intelligence’s Lieutenant General Jamil Hassan against Bashar al-Assad’s purportedly “soft” handling of the uprising’s initial phase perhaps comes as no surprise. In any case, it further reinforces the impression that in the current context, even cosmetic political reforms would constitute a gamble that the Syrian leadership is unlikely to take.