Bashar al-Assad has outlived so many predictions of his imminent demise at this point that it would seem unwise to bet against him. Nonetheless, a series of military and diplomatic setbacks combined with a wave of defections in recent weeks have raised expectations that the Syrian president may finally be on his last legs. While Assad will likely exit the scene eventually, observers may be looking at the wrong signals when assessing his regime's vulnerability.
In a Dec. 20 article last year for Foreign Policy, we wrote of Assad: If he betrays the interests of his closest Alawite allies, for instance by implementing reforms that will dilute their share of the spoils, they will probably murder him before any protesters can topple his regime. ... Captive to the needs of his coalition, he ignores the welfare of the 23 million average Syrians and shuns world opinion." We calculated at the time that Assad could count on 3,600 elite supporters. Should they stop working to neutralize the rebellion, Assad would be gone immediately.
What keeps those supporters on Assad's side? In a word, money. As long as he has enough to keep his cronies loyal, he will live to fight another day. Eventually he might lose the battle against the rebels, but that is down the road. If he runs out of cash, he will be gone today.
Assad must worry day and night whether enough money will come in to prevent big fractures in his backing among the ruling elite. So far, he seems to be managing this threat well. Al Jazeera reports that the total cumulative defections within his regime amount to just 73 individuals, almost none of whom are from the ruling Alawite clan and perhaps none of whom are from the inner circle of key backers. The press has made much, for example, of defections by Syrian diplomats, yet only one or two of 13 diplomatic defections have been by senior officials -- the former ambassadors to Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Most of the diplomatic defections have been by consuls and other lower-level functionaries.
Likewise, much was made of the three (out of 39) cabinet members who have defected since the uprising began, including Prime Minister Riad Hijab last August. But Hijab had been in office for just two months and was Sunni, not Alawite. Indeed, the defectors are almost never Alawites and are, therefore, almost certainly not members of Assad's winning coalition -- the people whose backing is essential to keep him in power. Assad's official inner circle, which comes from a diverse set of backgrounds, is mostly for show, while the true inner circle -- like the General Staff of the military -- is all Alawite. Their defection would be a risk to his survival; it is they who must be kept loyal and that means they must be paid better by Assad than by any credible alternative.
That then raises the question: Where does the money come from? The question is easy to answer: Iran, Iraq, Russia, and a bit from Venezuela. Assad is estimated to need about $500 million a month to keep his regime afloat. The Times of London reports that Iran alone has given Syria about $10 billion -- enough to sustain the regime for almost two years. The Iraqi regime is pledged to political neutrality on the Syrian rebellion, which turns out to mean that they are unwilling to interrupt their economic dealings with Assad's regime and they oppose sanctions -- ostensibly to protect the well-being of the average Syrian. They seem to have given billions to Assad as well.
If there is anything positive to be taken from the Syrian situation, it is that U.N. sanctions on Iran have so devalued that country's currency that Tehran may not be able to afford to sustain both itself and Assad for long. Given that choice, there is no doubt the mullahs will sacrifice Assad. How long it will be before they get to that point is difficult to say. There are factors pulling in both directions. Reports have surfaced of fissures between Ayatollah Khamenei and his head of intelligence over the cost of supporting Assad. These tensions have likely only grown as the rial has plummeted in value and as Iran has acknowledged sending elite forces to aid Assad. More intense sanctions against Iran might prove to be the most effective tool the West has to bring down the Assad regime. But it is far from obvious that doing so will improve the situation or serve the interests of any NATO member except for Turkey.
The beginning of the Syrian rebellion provided an opportunity for Western interests to step in and take an active role in organizing the more secular elements among the rebels. That, however, did not serve the electoral interests of Obama's core constituents or voters in other Western countries facing elections. Hence, with their own survival being foremost in their calculations, Western leaders did little to bolster pro-Western insurgents or to topple Assad by offering him a soft landing. While the West pondered its next steps, others, as must always be expected, saw an opportunity to organize the rebellion around their own agenda.
The majority of Syrians may not be religious fundamentalists. But as in Egypt's revolution and the 1979 revolution in Iran, the organized few are, and we should expect power to devolve to them when the Assad regime is brought down. As emphasized in our book, The Dictator's Handbook, the short-term political interests of politicians always trump the longer-term "national interest." And so it has been with Syria. A future American president will have to learn to deal with a possibly even worse Syrian regime. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama was prepared to acknowledge that waiting and doing nothing would saddle future leaders with an almost assured headache. After all, there were precious few votes among Democrats or Republicans for action today that would forestall disaster tomorrow.