The Survivor

Barack Obama called for Syrian's Bashar al-Assad to step aside more than a year ago. Here's why he's still in power.

On Aug. 18, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama released a written statement that declared: "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside." It was his first explicit call for the Syrian leader to resign -- but today, 452 days later, Bashar al-Assad is still in power. As he told Russian TV last week, "I am Syrian; I was made in Syria. I have to live in Syria and die in Syria."

Even as what was initially a peaceful uprising evolved into a full-fledged armed rebellion, the Assad regime has proved stubbornly resilient. It is still contesting every urban center in the country. While the rebels have succeeded in liberating territories in Syria's northern provinces, they are still not in control of one major Syrian city. Unlike in other Arab countries, where autocrats were brought down by citizen uprisings, the Assad regime shows no signs of fading into oblivion soon.

Unlike in Libya, the competing interests of regional and international players has so far prevented outside military intervention. But the regime's strength and the anti-Assad forces' divisions have played an important role in discouraging direct foreign involvement. Here are four reasons Assad remains in power.

1. The regime's inner sanctum has not cracked. In July, Assad's inner circle was dealt a serious blow when a bomb killed four of its members -- including Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha. But Assad and his coterie of senior advisors recovered quickly from this blow, appointing replacements to the officials killed in the blast.

According to people close to regime circles, the July bombing was the first time since the start of the uprising when the Assad regime felt under threat. Other setbacks, such as the defections of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab and Assad's friend and former Republican Guard commander Manaf Tlass, did not present a serious threat to the regime. By the time they defected, both were marginal figures in the regime's inner core.

As Assad declared in an August interview, these defections are a form of "self-cleansing" for the regime, ridding it of disloyal elements. The regime's core is now reduced to Assad family members and trusted Alawite security officials, some of whom are holdovers from the reign of Assad's father, Hafez. This core appears to consist of more hawkish figures who see the struggle in existential terms. As the inner circle gets smaller, the regime's response only becomes more determined and bloodier.

As Assad articulated in his Russian TV interview, foreign military intervention is unlikely because it will be too costly to the international community. If that holds true, the regime is calculating that it can hold on to power and deny the armed opposition the ability to deliver tangible results on the ground -- making it increasingly likely the rebels will lose steam. Russia's and Iran's reliable support reinforces this conviction.

2. The Syrian military is not close to a breaking point. Active personnel in the Syrian military are estimated at 295,000 soldiers, with an additional 314,000 troops in the reserves. Although exact figures are impossible to come by, some back-of-the-envelope calculations make it obvious that the bulk of this force has not defected to the rebels.

Qassim Saadeddine, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in Homs, told me recently that military defectors make up an estimated 30 percent of the rank and file of the armed insurgency, whose number is estimated between 50,000 to 100,000 men. This means the attrition rate in the Syrian army is at best around 5 to 10 percent -- not enough to seriously erode its fighting capacities. Moreover, when given the option, many military defectors are returning home rather than joining the FSA ranks.

Moreover, Assad's losses in military personnel have been made up for by the increase in the ranks of the paramilitary shabiha. These mainly Alawite fighters are increasingly becoming a skilled fighting force thanks to training by Hezbollah operatives. Loyalty to the regime also remains strong among non-Alawite soldiers. The insurgents have also acted in such a way to discourage defections: A recent YouTube video showing rebels executing a group of unarmed Syrian soldiers will only convince other soldiers to stick with the regime.

3. Syria's Alawite community remains hostile to the uprising. Political dissent among Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs, has so far been extremely limited -- despite a few military and civilian defectors.

There have been some signs of discontent inside the Alawite community, mainly due to the heavy casualties in the ranks of the Alawite-majority regime forces. On Sept. 29, there was a shootout in the town of Qardaha, the Assads' ancestral home, between two of Assad's relatives. While the fight is believed to concern the smuggling business in cigarettes, weapons, and other contraband controlled by Assad's extended family, it may also have had political undertones.

The Assads have been swift in dealing with any sign of Alawite dissent, as it undermines the regime narrative of a Sunni Islamist uprising targeting the Alawite community. Following the Qardaha shootout, for instance, they quickly brokered a reconciliation between the feuding families. Alawite opposition activists are hunted down, jailed, and beaten. When all else fails, they are shunned by their families and neighbors.

Any hope for regime implosion rests on Alawites' delinking their physical survival from Assad's political survival. There are no signs that this process has even started. The opposition -- especially the exiled leadership -- has utterly failed in reaching out to the Alawite community. No opposition figure has yet made a convincing case to the Alawites that their future in a post-Assad Syria will be safe from revenge killings, that they will enjoy equal rights as their Sunni brethren, that their economic interests will be safeguarded, and that they will not be treated with suspicion for years to come. Even worse, there is no serious thinking going on inside the opposition of how to develop such a narrative.

4. The Syrian opposition remains fractured. Syrian opposition groups signed a tentative agreement on Nov. 11 that aimed to unite all anti-Assad factions under one umbrella coalition. However, much work remains to be done: The basic challenge facing every single component of the opposition -- starting at the top and cascading down to the smallest local coordinating committee -- lies in the absence of a political program that unites the disparate anti-Assad groups. Although different groups have been working on a "Day After" agenda, there is not yet a common political vision of how to get from now to the day after Assad's fall.

In short, there is a political vacuum and an organizational vacuum at every level of the Syrian opposition. The diverse funding streams available to the opposition have exacerbated this problem, as new political and military formations emerge solely for the purpose of receiving cash. Competition, not collaboration, rules the day -- even inside military councils. As one opposition activist put it to me, "The ranks of the Syrian political opposition swell through further fragmentation."

Some steps are being taken to rectify these problems. The Syrian opposition groups' conference in Doha, Qatar, of course, is a necessary prerequisite to laying the groundwork for a post-Assad Syria. But initiatives are also under way on the ground: Local administrative councils are being established in liberated territories, bringing together local civic activists and military councils in an effort to get government institutions up and running again. The councils' purpose is to help provide Syrians with the services necessary to fulfill their day-to-day needs. It is still too early, however, to judge whether they will succeed in overcoming the infighting and poor organization that has bedeviled the opposition institutions so far.

Absent a game-changer, the violent stalemate in Syria is here to stay. Each side in this conflict believes the momentum favors its own cause, so each is unwilling to strike a deal.

No matter who takes the helm of the Syrian regime in the future, however, they will be forced to deal with an empowered citizenry that will no longer accept being ruled by an iron fist. Assad's regime may not fall tomorrow, but it can no longer rule Syria -- its old levers of control no longer function, and it has proved incapable of significant reform.

On the other hand, the militarization of the conflict has sidelined the activists and civic groups that launched the uprising. The failure -- and the unwillingness -- of the political opposition to articulate a credible road map for a solution ensures that military conflict will be the uprising's default course in the short to medium term, plunging the country deeper into chaos and violence.

In the interim, new actors are emerging in Syria. Jihadi groups in particular are injecting their own agenda into the conflict. Although they are still not as prominent as during the height of the Iraqi civil war, they have the potential to be a major player in a future Syria. In wars, as in evolution, the fittest survive and thrive -- and these groups are, unfortunately, the fittest.


Democracy Lab

Coming Apart at the Seams

Burma’s ruling party is under stress. Democrats should be careful what they wish for.

Most of the reporting on Burma over the past year has focused on the rise of the democratic opposition and its attempts to challenge the government. This is understandable -- especially considering that the opposition is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the only Burmese politician to enjoy global recognition.

But there's another conflict going on that could well end up having an even greater impact on Burma's liberalization efforts. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which governs Burma, is on the verge of splitting. A bitter power struggle is unfolding within the party between President Thein Sein and conservatives opposed to his reformist agenda out of fear that it will reduce their political and economic influence in the country. There are many Burmese who would undoubtedly welcome the news of the party's collapse, considering that it has, in its various guises, dominated political life for so long. But, in fact, a fragmenting USDP is likely to do more harm than good to Burmese democracy.

The battle that's currently under way revolves around two personalities: the president and the powerful speaker of the lower house of parliament, Shwe Mann (pictured above). In early October the USDP held a long-overdue national convention that ended up reappointing Thein Sein as the party's leader. This outcome came as a surprise, since many observers were expecting Shwe Mann to take the reins so that he could lead the party into the next national election scheduled for 2015. "In effect the president has checkmated the speaker," said a senior government official.

But the president is elderly and ailing, while Shwe Mann is comparatively young and vigorous -- meaning that Thein Sein's retention of the top party post has done little to calm the troubled waters. While Shwe Mann says he approves of the reforms, he has a deep personal antipathy toward the president (now compounded by Thein Sein's move to retain the leadership of the USDP), and this has led him to join forces with the many conservatives who, behind the scenes, are desperate to prevent Burma's progress toward democracy. Above all, they are anxious that further liberalization could jeopardize their control over the country's economy. (The fact that the pro-government forces were trounced by the NLD in last April's parliamentary election probably hasn't made them feel any more secure.)

The sense of instability is aggravated by the rules of Burma's political game, which were laid out by the new constitution rammed through a sham referendum (2008) and then ratified by the parliament when it convened in Jan 2011. According to the constitution, 25 percent of the seats in the parliament are reserved for serving soldiers, who are essentially appointed to the assembly by the army chief.

Currently the USDP, with more than 60 percent, holds the overwhelming majority of the seats in parliament. But if the party fragments, it is likely to break up into several smaller groups, leaving the military with the largest single bloc -- and thus potentially giving it effective veto power over planned reforms. A parliament of fractured parties might see soldiers taking a more active role, probably by stressing core military values and putting security as the top priority. Some have even warned of the potential for a "soft coup" that would put the military back in charge of policy.

The reasons for the USDP's underlying weakness lie in its history. The party was formed by the country's former dictator, General Than Shwe, out of the old political movement of the ruling military back in 2010. This opened the way for the USDP to compete in the first general election in 20 years, also held in 2010. The USDP's members are a mix of former military men, ministers, civil servants, and businessmen. Its main purpose was to ensure the military's continued dominance, but aside from that it has no real ideology to hold its disparate constituents together.

Aside from its vaguely populist approach to the economy, and its strong commitment to law and order, the party has had difficulty forming a proper policy approach. It suffers from its association with the old military rulers, many of who still play prominent roles. Educated and cosmopolitan former ambassadors, civil servants, and intellectuals resent being forced to cohabit with authoritarian and corrupt former ministers.

The tensions between the president and the speaker have become increasingly open lately. Early last month, Shwe Mann declared that laws passed by parliament should take immediate effect and did not need the approval of the president. Many observers saw this as a de facto declaration of war on the president and his cabinet.

Shwe Mann's move exacerbated the conflict within the party-- especially during the USDP's first national congress in mid-October. "To elaborate, I am the one who is mostly responsible for convening the convention and reorganizing the party," Shwe Mann told party members at the time, even though Thein Sein had been elected as the party chairman and was obviously in charge. A Burmese businessman with close ties to the USDP told me. "It was a slap in the president's face, and his declaration that he controlled the party [was] sheer arrogance."

That was only the latest in a series of other conflicts between the two men (including, most notably, a fight in September over a constitutional tribunal that Shwe Mann had set up as part of his efforts to boost parliamentary powers at the expense of the president's). In the end those plans went nowhere. But one government official close to the president told me that the episode demonstrated the extent of Shwe Mann's designs on the presidency. Shwe Mann, he said, was "a wolf in democratic clothes, waiting to pounce for the presidency in 2015." (The next general election is set for November 10, 2015.)

The struggle is likely to intensify. The president is planning a new anti-corruption campaign within the government and the USDP that will probably target some former ministers who are also senior officials within the party. Some of them were even re-appointed as central executive committee members at the recent congress.

Thein Sein recently launched a massive cabinet reshuffle, appointing many civilians and technocrats as deputy ministers. These changes are continuing, according to government insiders, but the president cannot get rid of everyone at once. The main problem is that the hardliners are still have a significant presence in parliament, and they still control massive amounts of money they accumulated previously under the old regime. Many senior officers who grabbed huge assets in key sectors of the economy (including timber, energy, agriculture, and fishing) are now being targeted for investigation.

The investigations into the officials' activities have been blocked by Shwe Mann's allies in parliament, such as the chairman of the finance and banking parliamentary committee, Aung Thaung. In the next few weeks, the government is preparing to release the results of its investigation into the activities of Maung Maung Thein, a former fisheries minister and ex-general secretary of the USDP. Sources in the fishing industry say that he will be accused of siphoning off more than $80 million a year into his private coffers, and depriving the country of some $200 million dollars a year in lost taxes.

The outcome of the investigation could have a big impact on the fate of Shwe Mann's political ambitions. But while Shwe Mann is facing a growing hornets' nest in the party itself, the old guard is still out to disrupt the president's reform process, using the USDP as their base.

The new law on foreign investment, passed by parliament last week and immediately signed into law by the president, also reflects the struggle between the two rivals. Shwe Mann tried to win the support of local business interests by advocating for greater protectionism. Thein Sein pressed for a version of the law more open to foreign investment. In the end the president won.

"Everyone knows the foreign investment law is critical and that it is desperately needed for the country's economic development," Ko Ko Hlaing, the president's top political adviser, told me recently. Thein Sein and the USDP leaders know that they have to deliver on their economic promises if they are to avoid losing to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) at the next elections.

The battle for control of the USDP is set to become even messier as the party's members prepare for the next elections. They know only too well that, in the court of public opinion, they are rapidly losing ground to the NLD. For that reason there is now mounting pressure on Thein Sein -- who had earlier declared himself to be a one-term president -- to stay on as party head and serve a second term as the country's leader. But that will probably do little to fix what ails the USDP.

Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images