How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has now endured through nearly nine years of civil conflict. The question for those invested in Syria’s future is no longer whether the regime will survive but how it will seek to consolidate its power before ending the war still ravaging the country. Assad may have entered battle thinking that his regime could retain the authority it enjoyed before 2011, but today his goals are likely more modest.
Their circumscription, however, does not make Assad’s current priorities less dangerous. They may even be more so. In order to demonstrate to the world that he remains in control and that relations with his regime should be normalized, Assad will undoubtedly seek to take back all of the country’s former territory. In order to sustain his regime internally, he will not dally with meeting the needs of the Syrian people but aspire to bare survival, which he can achieve by maintaining the patronage network that has become the Syrian regime’s lifeline throughout the conflict.
But if Assad realizes these minimalist aims—survival and the restoration of Syria’s territory—his victory will be a Pyrrhic one. He will sit atop a hollow state with weak institutions, beset with war profiteers, and subservient to external powers.
Assad has already begun to make good on his goal of regaining territorial control over Syria. The main region at issue is the north. Islamist rebels control the northwest, where they have resisted Assad’s advances. In the northeast, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had pushed the Islamic State, known as ISIS, out of the area by 2018 and established a kind of self-government to which U.S. troops supplied ballast. In October 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew most troops and Turkey swept into the region. The SDF reached an agreement with Assad to allow the Syrian army to enter the northeast and counter the Turkish offensive. Today, Kurdish forces administer the area in the presence of the Syrian army.
Now the Syrian regime is working with Russia to take the north fully back for Damascus. Russia is brokering a deal with Turkey in which the latter withdraws its troops from Syria in return for guarantees that the SDF, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization, will be kept away from the border. As part of this effort, the regime is discussing military and political cooperation with Kurdish forces, though Assad will likely deny the Kurds the degree of autonomy that they had hoped would reward their role in countering ISIS.
If the regime can secure the contested region, it will claim that it has restored its authority over Syria and call for the normalization of its relations with the world. Normalization would grant Assad’s regime international legitimacy and pave the way for the lifting of sanctions, which would permit reconstruction money to flow into Syria. But though Assad might declare victory, he would do so as a bit player in the story of his own triumph. Through Syria’s travails, Russia will have risen to become the war’s most influential external actor, and Iran will have guaranteed its enduring influence in the Levant. The Assad regime will find itself less a partner than a client, its survival dependent on the support of these two external backers.
Already, Syria has been granting Iran and Russia economic and security privileges, such as government contracts in the oil sector and control over naval bases, in return for their assistance in the conflict. Russia, in particular, has greatly expanded its interests in Syria by pressuring the regime to grant economic contracts to Russian companies and placing Russian loyalists in high positions in the Syrian army. The United States apparently does not view Russian control over Syria as a direct threat to American interests, so there are no external checks on Russia’s ability to impose itself upon the Assad regime. Having reinstated himself by dint of a heavy Russian hand, Assad will rule Syria not as a sovereign nation but as one whose viability depends on Russia.
Such an endgame may not have been Assad’s original intention, but he will have to live with it, because his control over the country has been reduced to bare bones. Areas that the regime has recently retaken in the northeast, such as Qamishli, remain under the de facto control of the Kurdish militia, which mans checkpoints but, under pressure from Russian patrols, raises the Syrian flag to give the impression that the Syrian army is in charge. Some newly recruited and undertrained Syrian soldiers in the area are even working in agriculture to make ends meet.
External actors are not the only interested parties to whom Assad will owe his political life. Throughout the conflict, the regime has had to rely on a large network of nonstate and auxiliary actors, some armed and some civilian, to circumvent international sanctions in business transactions, assist in battle, and perform state functions, such as delivering services where the regime has little access or capacity. These actors have profited from the protracted conflict, becoming ever more ambitious and powerful, such that now the tables have turned and the regime has become dependent on them for survival. These profiteers have become the de facto authorities that are performing the role of state institutions, but at an increasingly extortionate price.
Profiteers have infected Assad’s security apparatus at all levels. Some militias that supported the state security agencies during the conflict have become increasingly independent, primarily pursuing their own economic and power interests. In some cases, these militias have transformed into armed gangs that intimidate civilians in loyalist areas. As a result, the regime has been unable to answer to the needs even of its own loyalists or to rein in some of the supposedly pro-regime militias. In certain cases, such as in Assad’s hometown of Qardaha, regime forces have not been able to enter areas controlled by armed gangs. The gangs have handed over their heavy weapons only on the condition that the regime overlook their illicit economic activities. Even the Syrian army and security institutions have become transactional, with local branches of the security services pursuing their own interests rather than those of the state.
What little power the regime has rests in the hands of its puppet masters.
The Syrian regime cannot possibly satiate the greed of these profiteers from its current coffers. But neither can it afford to starve them, because its power rests in part upon their pillar. For this reason, Assad is desperate to obtain reconstruction funds that he can then divert to Syria’s patronage networks. To prevent this outcome, any external support given for resilience projects must be conditioned to ensure that the money is distributed to the Syrian people at large.
A different regime might try to shore up power in a postconflict situation by wooing citizens with attention to their needs. The Assad regime has done the opposite, punishing those it perceives as insufficiently loyalist by depriving them of basic services, security, and rights. In 2018, Syria imposed Law No. 10, which strips people of property rights unless they report proof of ownership to local authorities in person. The law is mainly enforced in towns seized from rebel groups, where those who report their property are subjected to interrogations that pave the way for their arrest. Patronage networks benefit from such measures—for example, by soliciting bribes to release those arrested.
By silencing dissidents and solidifying his territorial grip on Syria, Assad seeks to convey the impression that Syria is going back to its pre-2011 status quo. But his regime is built on the illusion of a state, and what little power it has rests in the hands of its puppet masters. Western countries should not normalize relations with Syria on the grounds that Assad is the only available option. They should instead seek to understand Syria from the bottom up, so that they can apply leverage to the cracks in its system to ensure that any support programs for Syria are not used by the regime to feed its domestic profiteers and external patrons. Assad’s endgame in Syria leaves him sitting on a fragile throne of a thousand precariously balanced pieces.