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What Kept Syria’s Assad in Power?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Saeid Jafari
Expert on Middle East Issues

While one year ago everybody was talking about a Syria without [President Bashar] Assad, now all the equations related to the Levant should be rewritten to include the irreplaceable role of an undeniable player called Bashar Hafez Al-Assad. At that time the entire world was following the developments in the Arab world with great amazement and everybody chose a name for protests in Arab countries according to their own assumptions. After the fall of [former Egyptian dictator Hosni] Mubarak, [former Tunisian dictator, Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali and [former Yemeni ruler] Ali Abdullah Saleh, it was the turn of the third child of [the former Syrian president] Hafez Al-Assad. Protests in Syria became more extensive day by day and conditions became more and more difficult for Bashar Assad. On the other hand, the opposition groups, who fought against Syrian government and had the support of countries that were opposed to Assad, were provided with more arms and became more and more powerful. In contrast, Assad was getting weaker as every day passed by. Tensions went so high that certain circles even talked about a possible foreign military attack against Syria with the world waiting to witness the fourth war of the past quarter of a century in the Middle East. However, the table suddenly turned in Syria and developments in the Arab country took a different turn. This change was so serious that now, the people of Syria, who have happily cast about 88 percent of their votes in favor of Assad [in the country’s presidential polls], have taken to the streets to celebrate the occasion. The question now is what development or developments have taken place as a result of which the Syrian people, who were once angry with Assad, are currently celebrating his reelection?

1. The joint plan by Iran and Russia

Following the election of the new Iranian administration whose main motto was “hope and oversight,” the Islamic Republic of Iran has been pursuing a more active diplomacy with regard to the crisis in Syria. While under the former administration, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was suffering from the lack of seasoned experts, who would be able to correctly understand various issues related to Iran’s foreign policy, [the new Iranian Foreign Minister] Dr. [Mohammad Javad] Zarif has managed in a short period of time to bring about basic changes in this important institution by taking advantage of experienced diplomatics and experts. Of course, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has been preoccupied with the resolution of the country’s nuclear case and this case has been the first and foremost priority of the ministry. However, at the same time, the ministry has not forgotten about the situation in Syria and has been able through consultations and making correct plans to formulate a joint initiative with Russia in order to prevent a military attack on Syria by the United States. According to that plan, Syria was required to deliver all its stockpiles of chemical weapons in return for which the United States and its Western allies would give up the decision to launch a military strike against the country. That smart plan removed the ominous shadow of war from Syria at a time that the sound of war drums had reached the gates of Damascus. At the same time, Iran managed through that plan to thwart the efforts made by Washington’s regional allies that were opposed to Assad. Since that time, the differences between Saudi Arabia and the United States over Syria have started to rise. Even Turkey, which objected to what it called lack of political firmness in the White House’s decision-making apparatus, asked the international community to make a more efficient decision with regard to the Syrian government. However, all those protests and dissatisfactions were to no avail. The West had changed its mind about attacking Syria and this was the first positive point for Assad’s government.

2. Fears about rising influence of ISIL and Al-Qaeda

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a terrorist group, which during the past few years and following escalation of crisis in Syria has created an atmosphere of extreme fear across the region through its violent terrorist operations. This group, which is supported by Salafi and Wahhabi governments and forces in the region, has been involved in brutal massacres and terrorist actions, as a result of which most Syrian opposition groups have went back to support the government again. At the same time, the group’s actions have caused great concern among the Western countries, especially the United States, about the future outlook of a Syria without Assad. Reports about the presence of hundreds of European citizens among the ranks of ISIL, who are fighting against Assad alongside other terrorists, have prompted European statesmen to voice concern about the spread of a new wave of religious radicalism in the region, which may even reach the European countries. On the other hand, after witnessing violent and cruel actions of ISIL members, the Syrian people reached the conclusion that if the current state of instability continued, their future conditions would be indeterminate and the best they could expect in the future was only radicalism and extremism.

3. Arab destruction of Arab Spring

In February 1958, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Shukri al-Quwatli, the former presidents of Egypt and Syria, took an unexpected decision by announcing that the two countries of Syria and Egypt would be integrated into a new single country introduced as the United Arab Republic. Of course, that incongruous union collapsed after only three years and the two countries were once more recognized as independent republics of Egypt and Syria. However, that integration and later separation clearly proved how intertwined and close are the relations between Egypt and Syria. Following the start of popular protests in Egypt and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the domino-like process of social protests in the Arab world swept through Syria and those who were opposed to Assad’s policies poured into the streets. At any rate, the course of developments, which had come to be known as the Egyptian revolution, succeeded in that country and led to the overthrow of Mubarak. However, in Syria, although Assad got quite close to be overthrown, he was never actually toppled. The continued presence of Assad was beneficial to Syrian people in that they got to see the final result of the Egyptian revolution; a revolution that more than creating results, led to untoward consequences for the country’s people. After the lapse of only two years from the revolution, which was spearheaded by the Egyptian youth, the country’s army returned to power by staging a coup d’état against Egypt’s firstly democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Following the coup, officials of the former government were sent to jail. By witnessing the consequences of the developments which were known as Arab Spring, the people of Syria gradually reached the conclusion that the overthrow of Assad was not necessarily the best scenario for their country and perhaps, they would face more dire conditions once he is gone.

4. Assad’s secularism

Bashar Assad belongs to Syria’s Alawite people that in terms of population constitute a minority in the Arab country. Despite this issue, Assad has never tried to establish a religious government in Syria and has always supported secularism in the country. On the opposite, the militants and other opposition groups fighting against the Syrian government are generally from Sunni groups that demand the establishment of an Islamic government in Syria and support the implementation of the Islamic Sharia law in the country. This issue made Christian, Druze, and Jewish groups, which on the whole account for about 15 percent of the Syria’s population, reach the conclusion that the overthrow of Assad would mean bidding farewell to secularism and the possible establishment of a system of Islamic government on the basis of the Sunni Islam’s Sharia law. Naturally, such an outlook could not be a desirable scenario for religious minorities living in Syria and the feeling of such existential threat caused Jews, Christians and Druze people to go back to supporting Assad. Even on a larger scale and at international level, there is no doubt that the Western countries are sure to prefer a secular system of government over a radical and extremist Islamic one.

5. Sunni businessmen

Sunni people account for the majority of businessmen, investors and industrialists in Syria. The presence of the Syrian businesspeople has been especially more pronounced in the capital, Damascus, and in the northwestern city of Aleppo. As the unrest started and the ensuing crisis escalated in Syria, Sunni businesspeople had to transfer their capital to Arab countries around the Persian Gulf and say goodbye to businesses they ran in their own country. Of course, this was by no means an easy change and was marked with many difficulties. On the other hand, such a change of position was very difficult for the businesspeople who had been active in their own country for many long years and had established their businesses within Syria’s economic system. The wealthy Sunni businesspeople were at first against the continued presence of Assad in power and at the beginning of the unrest believed that Assad will be toppled in a short period of time like his Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemeni counterparts, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Abdullah Saleh. However, as instability and insecurity continued in the country, they put security on top of their list of priorities and gradually changed their mind about the ouster of Assad from power. They knew that by making this decision, they would be able to restore suitable economic conditions to the country.

6. Major victories gained by Assad’s forces

In view of the fact that large Syrian cities and many strategic regions in the country were controlled by the opposition and the militants up to a year ago, few people believed that after the lapse of a year no big city would be under their control anymore. For any reason, whose details cannot be explained here, Assad and his government managed to take all major parts of the country, including the big cities (the last of which was the city of Homs), out of the hands of opposition forces and regain control of the situation. Such achievements greatly boosted the sense of self-confidence among Assad’s supporters and, before long, he announced that his government was bent on holding the presidential election in the country with Assad taking part as a nominee. Of course, this announcement evoked negative reactions from the Western states as well as the regional countries opposing Assad. However, it cannot be denied that important victories scored by Assad’s forces in the military front were another influential factor that has changed equations in Syria.

Conclusion

A combination of all the factors that were explained above prompted the majority of the Syrian eligible voters, who were interested in putting an end to the existing conditions in the country, to take part in the presidential election. The Syrian citizens took part in the vote to write the name of Assad on their ballots and, thus, indicate their consternation at the continuation of instability and insecurity in the country during the past few years. Therefore, it was quite natural that when the victory of Bashar Assad was announced by winning the positive vote of about 89 percent of the country’s voters, people poured into the streets in such major cities of Homs, Damascus, Aleppo and other places to celebrate this development. In reality, Syria has suffered a lot during the past three years. As a result of that suffering, the country has not only seen huge damage to its financial and economic resources and infrastructure, but has also experienced remarkable human and emotional pain. Anyway, due to a combination of the aforesaid reasons, the people of Syria have decided to take sides with Assad. However, it would be very simplistic to assume that all the problems that the country is currently faced with would be solved in a short period of time. Syria needs years of hard labor and strenuous efforts to get back to the situation it had three years ago. Nonetheless, despite these serious conditions, the people of Syria have indicated that under present circumstances, restoration of stability and security to the country is their foremost priority; a priority which would not be realized unless through major changes in Bashar Assad’s past behavior and the cooperation and tolerance of the people of Syria.

Key Words: Syria, Bashar Assad, Power, Election, Middle East, Iran, Russia, ISIL and Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, Secularism, Sunni Businessmen, Jafari

Source: Khabaronline News Website
http://www.khabaronline.ir/
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

*Photo Credit: Press TV

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