In the runup to the Geneva 2 peace talks, there was widespread speculation that the opposition team at the negotiations lacked the leverage and influence among rebel brigades on the ground in Syria, to make any agreement meaningful (a point that became moot as the talks concluded with no agreements whatsoever having been reached).
And yet recent events on the ground in Homs, where a UN and Red Crescent aid convoy to besieged rebel areas was shelled and shot up by regime shabihas in the city, and the murder of the British doctor Abbas Khan, just mere hours before his scheduled release from the regime jails, clearly indicate that far from being a president in firm control of his intelligence services and militiamen, Bashar Assad is a man who finds himself trapped by a narrative of his own making.
By failing to defeat an opposition he has consistently painted as posing an existential threat to his own Alawite constituency, a narrative that has also made impossible even minor confidence building measures such as permitting aid to the besieged rebel areas, and the release of high profile prisoners such as Dr Khan, measures which could have been built on to eventually ensure a political arrangement to end the conflict, Assad has trapped himself in a course of action that can only end in one way; his death at the hands of his fellow Alawites.
That there should be bitter opposition to even such minor compromises among the regime’s supporters will come as no surprise to anyone closely following events in Syria. In June 2013, when the Syrian army, backed by units from the Lebanese terrorist organization Hizbollah invaded my home town of Telkelakh, the army and mukhabarat went door to door, ransacking homes and arresting people pretty much at random. A relative of mine in the town at the time, whose son had for years enjoyed close ties to very senior regime officials, thought that his family’s well known relations with the regime would protect him.
When regime shabihas burst into his home, this relative immediately held up a picture of his son shaking hands with none other than El Presidente, the Eye Doctor himself. “Look, look!” he said, “my son with el-doktor Bashar”.
The shabihas took one look at the picture, and broke my relative’s jaw. “Kess emak ‘ala em el doktor Bashar!”
Ouch. Being as close to an honest opinion poll as you are going to get in Assadstanian Syria, that pretty summed up much of the regime rank and file’s feelings towards Assad, an attitude I found confirmed time and again while living in Tartous. Assad has created a narrative where the only acceptable outcome from his constituency’s point of view is a total and crushing defeat of the “takfiri” opposition, a result Assad has found it utterly impossible to deliver on. If you have painted your enemy as nihilistic savages, hell bent on the subjugation of the entire country under an “Islamist emirate”, then the only way the Alawite communities in Homs, Damascus and the coast will be preserved is by the complete and total annihilation of these “takfiris” and their supporters.
What then, ya doktor, are you doing giving up the country’s chemical weapons? The shabihas, who have died in their tens of thousands over the course of the conflict, don’t want to see deals made giving up sarin gas in exchange for the regime’s survival. They want to see that sarin unleashed in massive quantities on rebel areas still holding out in Homs and Damascus.
The mukhabarat, who have no illusions as to what awaits them should the regime fall, do not want to see high profile prisoners such as Dr Khan released just to make Assad look good. Dr Khan’s savage and brutal murder a mere hours before his scheduled release was as much an F-U to Assad as it was an act of revenge against the British. Galloway? Who is George Galloway? If it is Galloway’s dream to become the world’s first Scottish Ayatollah, the mukhabarat, who have also died in their thousands during the war, apparently don’t feel obliged to give up anything to grant him any PR points.
And ya doktor, you have spent months convincing the Alawites of Zahra in Homs that are they besieged on all sides by savage “takfiris” and their NATO-Wahabi-Salafi-Zionist backers. Why then are you allowing aid convoys into their besieged areas? The only surprise of the day wasn’t that the UN and Red Crescent convoy came under attack; it’s that anyone in their right mind actually thought that such a deal could be carried off without a bitter and immediate backlash from the shabihas in Homs.
In Tartous, there was an undeniable air of exasperation and impatience with Assad. On numerous occasions, I heard pining for the perceived wisdom and experience of the father Hafiz, whom it was felt would never have allowed things to reach the stage they did. The regime’s supporters want someone to execute the war efficiently and win it decisively, something Bashar has utterly failed to do despite massive foreign backing from Hizbollah, Iran and Russia.
As the war grinds on, there is an increasing sense of anger towards a man many see as being out of his depths. Whereas Winston Churchill would be out and about visiting parts of the UK hit by Germany bombing raids, Bashar’s continued isolation and seclusion from the world outside of Damascus, is as much about protecting him from his own Alawites as it is from attempts on his life by the opposition.
Of course the Geneva talks failed! Waleed Muallem and Buthaina Shaaban et al would have been lynched by the regime’s own supporters among the delegation if they had uttered so much as a compromising word, let alone discussed any deal to transition to shared power. One does not share power with “takfiris”. In the absence of a clear and decisive military victory by one side over the other, the only way to end the war in Syria would have been a political settlement. Both are outcomes Bashar Assad cannot possibly deliver on. Trapped by his own rhetoric, he is doomed to continue pursuing a course of action which has no hope of ending in a triumph for the regime.
As Alawites continue to die in their thousands, expended by a president who regards them as expendable as rounds of ammunition or liters of tank fuel, as increasingly barbaric barrel bombings and starvation tactics fail to bring the rest of the country under heel once again, Assad’s position will become increasingly untenable among his own constituency.
Failing to deliver on a military victory, and unable to take any steps towards a political settlement, his ability to exert control over elements within his own regime will continue to be undermined. Today, he can’t even deliver a prisoner alive and well to a friendly pro-Iranian British MP, or ensure the safety of a UN aid convoy. In the not too distant future, his inability to influence events will become clearer and more apparent, until his very life will be in danger from those closest to him, looking to replace him with someone who in their view can execute the war more efficiently, and not pussyfoot about unleashing every single drop of chemicals in the regime’s arsenal. The regime’s supporters haven’t died in such numbers only to share power with perceived “takfiris”. “Kess em el doktor Bashar” indeed.
Assad today is a liability, to both his own constituents, the country in opposition to him, and to the region as a whole. His room for political maneuver is almost non-existent, his ability to deliver a military victory completely impossible. Unable to bring the war to a conclusion, incapable of orchestrating a decisive victory in any shape, way or form, the most extreme elements among the regime will dispose of him. Assad’s own rhetoric has made his demise at the hands of his own Alawites inevitable.