‘Al Assad is Forever’ — the English translation of ‘Al Assad Ila Al Abad’, the most favoured slogan of the Syrian regime for almost four decades — is quickly disappearing or being painted over on the walls of various cities and towns, including in the capital Damascus and the regime’s strongholds, the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous.
Attempts to deliberately create the image of an ‘eternal’ dictator or dynasty began immediately after the senior Al Assad, Hafez, took over the country in a military coup in November 1970. When he died in 2000, his son Bashar was installed as a president following a hastily arranged session of Syria’s parliament to alter one clause of the country’s constitution that stated a minimum age of 40 for one to assume the presidency.
The sitting president would probably never haved assumed any political role, let alone become president, were it not for his elder brother Bassel dying in a car accident in the early hours of January 21, 1994 after his car hit the edge of the last roundabout just before the international airport in the capital. Bassel, who was on the verge of holding the rank of general, was well groomed and carefully trained, both politically and militarily, to succeed his father.
However, this is history but its relevance now to reality on the ground can’t be more clear as the population in the regime-controlled parts of Syria are preparing for life after the Al Assad dynasty. According to information received by this author, many businessmen and financiers who flourished under the regime have successfully moved huge amounts of money and capital to neighbouring Lebanon. Some of these funds are now known to have been secretly deposited in Europe. Those businessmen and financiers who are still functioning in the country are there mostly for two reasons. The first is that they have been blackmailed and subjected to threats that their family members will be kidnapped. The second reason is that some of them are taking advantage of the lawlessness in the country and running a parallel market that determines the daily price level of the American dollar.
Furthermore, it is not uncommon to hear that ordinary citizens in the capital who were well known for their loyalty to the regime, or were sympathisers, during the early years of the ‘Arab Spring’ are now talking of the need for an arrangement that will force out Al Assad, his brothers and relatives, particularly his multibillionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf.
These same citizens are openly warning that blindly supporting the regime at the expense of the country’s future “is no longer an option”. This reflects what many inside Syria consider ‘the thinning’ of the regime’s popular support among its own normal and regular loyalists in areas under its control. In fact, some of those at the forefront of being the regime’s critics are found among the considerably powerful minorities — including Christians and Alawites. Local clashes between the main village of Qardaha, the birth place of Hafez Al Assad on the outskirts of Latakia, and smaller villages around it, have erupted lately, with many casualties on both sides.
Fears over Iran’s influence
A growing number of Alawites are seriously worried that the regime’s narrow-minded policy of totally giving Iran almost full authority to decide on Syria’s behalf concerning regional issues, is dangerously putting this minority’s future in jeopardy.
Some of these Alawites, including former officials, have been warning that given the proper opportunity of establishing a solid prospect of bilateral relations with the United States and Europe following the nuclear framework agreement, Iran would be inclined to drop the Al Assad government from its own regional calculations.
This is also the situation with Russia. The Al Assad regime has repeatedly ignored Moscow’s pleas to cooperate with its efforts to start a meaningful dialogue with the Syrian opposition. It is likely now, as a result of Al Assad’s failure to consider Russia’s wishes, that Moscow would be hesitant to maintain its level of support.
Additionally, the acute economic circumstances prevailing in both Russia and Iran following the deep fall in oil prices over the last few months, and their entanglement respectively in the strategically vital issues of Ukraine and nuclear talks, have already began to convince the leaders of both countries that maintaining the Al Assad regime is costly indeed.
US Secretary of State John Kerry recently revealed that the US and its allies were supporting intensive military training of the Syrian opposition in Turkey and Jordan. It seems Washington has opted to decisively escalate military operations against Al Assad’s forces unless the beleaguered president decides to step down.
All preparations to lay down a clear military and political plan to deal with Syria after Al Assad’s departure are taking place under the noses of both Moscow and Tehran. This follows the regime’s heavy strategic losses in the country’s north-west as well as in the south. If the regime foolishly continues to reject all political initiatives coming its way, including those from close allies, this dangerously increases the chances of the world seeing rivers of blood in the densely-populated areas along the coastal region stretching from the Turkish to the Lebanese borders.
Mustapha Karkouti is the former president of the Foreign Press Association in London. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org