Conversation: Al Assad Consolidates Power in Syria
Robert D. Kaplan: I'm Robert D. Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor and I am here today with George Friedman, the founder and chairman of Stratfor. Recently, the Syrian regime seems to have taken full control of the Syrian city of Homs, the rebels have left under an agreement, is this a hinge point? Is this a turning point; does this mean that we are on the road to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad winning the civil war, George?
George Friedman: This is not the turning point. The turning point came several years ago when something didn't happen. The thing that didn't happen was that the Syrian military didn't split. And one of the things about revolutions is that until the military splits, changes sides, goes to war with each other, it is very difficult for a revolution to succeed. The Russian Revolution involved the army turning sides, the Iranian Revolution involved the entire security structure going to war with itself, in Romania the same thing. That never happened in Syria. For various reasons the Assad faction remained not only in control of the military, but the military remained effective. And that meant that the lightly armed guerrillas, rebels, simply couldn't cope with the tanks, the planes, the helicopters that the regime had. So, it was Stratfor's position back a while ago, Assad had really not so much won the war, but could not lose it. That meant the regime would survive and something else would replace it. They may not control all of Syria, but they would still be there. We used to think that it would be as a warlord, now it is something more than that.
Robert: Let me just run down the battlefield situation. The regime two years ago was in danger of losing Homs and had a very narrow umbilical cord of a supply line around the Homs area toward the Alawite area, connecting greater Damascus in the northwest. They have solidified that. They have solidified the core, however the rebels are still fighting in Aleppo — Aleppo is a contested city. And, even though the rebels have left the center of Homs, they are outside in bases and they control the northeast and the southeast, though one must say that those are the areas where not many people live in the first place, except along the Euphrates River Valley. So, while the Syrian regime is not on the point of winning the civil war, we can say that it is on the way certainly to consolidating the core, the demographic core of what constitutes Syria, with the exception so far of Aleppo. And in the process so far of doing that, George, Bashar al Assad has accomplished something else, something psychological. It was always thought that he didn't earn his position as president, he was just his father's son — of course the dictator Hafez al Assad, who ruled Syria from 1970 to 2000. But having people think that he was going to be toppled and not making a deal, fighting back, getting to the position where he is now, where he is more than a warlord, he is really gaining dominance over the Syrian core, he has made his bones so to speak. He has earned the right to be a mob-like dictator in Syria. And that gives him substantial legitimacy in the eyes of the people who count in a place like Syria.
George: One of the interesting things to bear in mind was that the international community, for all its rhetoric about nerve gas and everything else, really didn't want Assad to fall. It wasn't because they liked Assad — they didn't — it was that the alternative had gotten scarier and scarier as the years went on. What began as a seemingly secular rising, Lebanese-style, against a government, increasingly contained a large faction of pro-al Qaeda, Jihadist forces. And you reached the point where the Russians were supporting Damascus and the Iranians are supporting Damascus. Even the Americans and the Israelis were, if not supporting them, certainly not prepared to put —
Robert: I believe the Israelis were terrified of what would replace Assad. Because Assad was more than the devil they knew, the Assad family, the Israelis had a de facto peace agreement of sorts since 1974.
George: Well, we remember that the Syrians invaded Lebanon the first time against the Palestine Liberation Organization in favor of the Christian factions, the Israelis were not unhappy seeing Syria dominating Lebanon and thereby guaranteeing, for example, that Hezbollah wouldn't do much more than they would do. They had a pretty good understanding. They certainly would have rather seen him replaced by some sort of secular regime, but that wasn't in the cards. Their choice was between Assad and the jihadists. And, without doing anything very much — the Israelis were not instrumental in this — they preferred Assad. That was one of the things that saved him, which is that the alternative, the rebels, became so unpalatable to so many countries — Iran, Russia, the United States — that no one was prepared to arm them in any way that could change.
Robert: For instance, the Obama administration looked around and said, "fine, you want us to arm the rebels?" because there was a lot of political pressure on the administration to do so. They said, "who do we arm? And how are we certain that the weapons are not going to fall into the wrong hands? And how are we certain that the political leaders who make their journey to the White House periodically, actually have any influence whatsoever on the ground in Syria?" So it was a great theoretical to arm the rebels, but when you actually got into the nitty-gritty of who you arm, and do they matter and will it fall into the wrong hands, it became less and less of an option.
George: It was very similar to Libya. It was all very well to talk about a repressive regime and its opponents, but at a certain point you have to ask who are the opponents? Who are the effective opponents? Who are those who are best organized? Who are the successors? When you change a regime, you take on a responsibility, not just a moral responsibility but a very practical responsibility. No one wanted to put in place in Syria a jihadist regime, because of Lebanon as well, because as Syria went, perhaps Lebanon would go in the same direction — perhaps Iraq.
Robert: Yes, and so I think what we have to look forward to is continued fighting, continued low-intensity war, but with the regime's coherence and safety no longer challenged, or less and less challenged. George, that was fascinating. Thank you for joining us. I'm Robert D. Kaplan, thank you.