Experts say Syria's economic woes could weaken Bashar al Assad's military stranglehold over the country.

Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad has survived a nine-year-long civil war after brutally suppressing a countrywide protest movement. But a new wave of protests fuelled by economic distress has once again exposed the regime leader to the bitter reality — that beggars can't be choosers.  

“When you look at recent military developments on the Syrian ground, Assad appears to create some advantages for his rule. Except for the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, he was able to control much of the country through military operations,” said Serhat Erkmen, a Turkish political analyst on Syria. 

For Erkmen, Assad's ability to conduct military operations does not warrant for his survival. 

“While Assad feels that he is so close to the eventual victory in the civil war, he could bitterly discover that he might not have the economic power, which is the most essential means to control the rest of the country (taken over by force mostly),” Erkmen told TRT World. 

Assad has been the only surviving dictator from the Arab Spring movement, which began in 2011, toppling autocrats across the Middle East from Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

On Thursday, Assad sacked his prime minister, Imad Khamis, who had been in office for four years, scapegoating him for the country’s economic hardships. 

“For most, life in 2020 is a great deal worse than life at the peak of nationwide armed conflict in 2014-15. In holding on to power, Assad has effectively—and purposely—destroyed his own nation and economy,” wrote Charles Lister, a senior fellow and the director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, who is also the author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.

The civil war has badly hit the Syrian economy and the US sanctions against Damascus have worsened the country’s pains, exposing people to degrading living conditions.

Most recently, the losses of the Syrian currency have reached enormous dimensions, decreasing people’s purchasing power by extreme margins. 

Syrian pounds are pictured inside an exchange currency shop in Azaz, Syria on February 3, 2020.
Syrian pounds are pictured inside an exchange currency shop in Azaz, Syria on February 3, 2020. (Khalil Ashawi / Reuters Archive)

“At the beginning of the civil war, one US dollar was equal to 47 Syrian pounds. Last week, one US dollar was equal to 3200 Syrian pounds, seeing a huge hike in its losses of the value of the country’s currency,” Erkmen said. 

As a result, some experts believe the protests could be motivated mainly by economic distress rather than political distrust, while anti-Assad opposition is smouldering in rage across the country. 

Will the protests bring Assad down? 

“This could bring him down in the most simple language,” Erkmen says.

He sees the fall of Assad possible not only due to the protests but also due to the reemergence of several crucial dynamics of the Syrian conflict. 

First of all, some clear political infighting has recently become noticeable, Erkmen says, referring to Assad’s decision to confiscate the assets of Rami Makhlouf, his oligarch cousin. Makhlouf is Syria's richest man. He reportedly owns more than half of the country’s wealth.

The Baath Party in Syria has been stained by internal strife between different power holders or political clans ever since it began ruling the country. These rivalries sometimes morphed into full-blown clashes mainly between Bashar al Assad's father Hafez al Assad and his uncle Rifaat Ali al Assad.

Rifaat al Assad (left) is pictured with his brother Hafez al-Assad, the former Syrian president and the father of Bashar al Assad, in 1980.
Rifaat al Assad (left) is pictured with his brother Hafez al-Assad, the former Syrian president and the father of Bashar al Assad, in 1980. (Wikipedia Commons)

“Hafez’s victory over Rifaat was not ensured because the family supported Hafez over Rifaat, who was militarily and economically more powerful than Hafez. It happened thanks to Hafez’s power coalition inside the Baath party,” Erkmen observed. 

Erkmen thinks that similar political dogfighting is now going on in Syria with Assad’s taking over Makhlouf’s assets. While both Assad and Makhlouf are part of the Alawite religious sect, which is considered to have secure connections with Shiism, their political base might not be just related to the minority sect, according to Erkmen. 

“In this sense, we can find similarities between the past (referring to the fight between the two brothers) and the current, referring to the struggle between Assad and Makhlouf,” Erkmen suggested. 

According to the political analyst, it could be an inadequate assessment if the current infighting should be understood in the context of a struggle between Bashar al Assad and other family members. 

“It has to be understood in the context of a broader political and economic power fight between Syria’s different political groups,” Erkmen says. 

Erkmen thinks that Assad, whose wife Asma is coming from a prominent Syrian Sunni family, is currently not only “liquidating” Mahklouf but also other political and military figures including the fired prime minister, who might support the powerful cousin. 

A picture taken on July 17, 2010, shows Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf attending the ceremony of raising a Syrian flag on a 107-metre pole over Damascus to celebrate regime leader Bashar al Assad's 10th year in power.
A picture taken on July 17, 2010, shows Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf attending the ceremony of raising a Syrian flag on a 107-metre pole over Damascus to celebrate regime leader Bashar al Assad's 10th year in power. (AFP)

Some crucial generals have also been changed with others, Erkmen says. 

“Right after a crucial operation in Idlib, changing generals, who occupy critical positions in the army, does not appear to be logical as long as some serious issues do not exist inside the regime,” Erkmen analyses. 

Russia, Iran and the Gulf 

Moscow, Iran and the Gulf's economically vibrant capitals might matter most for the survival of the Assad regime, according to Erkmen. 

Throughout the destructive Syrian civil war, Russia invested heavily in the Assad regime to reassert itself across the Middle East, lending its military might in the service of Damascus to defeat the once-powerful opposition forces. 

But, while the regime has taken much of the country back, Bashar al Assad does not seem to be ready to heed Russia’s advice to compromise with his enemies and lay out the country’s future, escalating tensions between Moscow and Damascus. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria January 7, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria January 7, 2020. (Credit: Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin / Reuters Archive)

Erkmen still thinks that after so much investment to the Assad regime, Moscow will not allow Damascus to fall apart. But despite Assad’s dislike, Russians also want to satisfy some American demands in Syria, Erkmen says. 

Iran, a Shiite-majority country, which has heavily supported the regime with its Shiite militias and other military means, might not do much because of its existing economic and pandemic-related difficulties, according to Erkmen. 

“The flowing of the Gulf’s wealth could be the most important factor for Assad’s future. If Assad does not receive covert financial support from the countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, he might not dodge the current economic crisis,” Erkmen said. 

But that support might also depend on the approval of Washington. 

If the economic crisis worsens, the two political scenarios might emerge, says Erkmen. 

Assad might force his chances to beat opposition forces in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, to rally the population under his banner, Erkmen says.

“Or, the protests could further expand across the country. If fresh protests hit the country, things could irreversibly change in Syria,” the political analyst views.

“If the Syrian regime again chooses to violently suppress a possible new wave of protests, refusing to learn any lessons from the past, I do not think that Assad could survive this time,“ the analyst concluded. 

Source: TRT World