Daily Israel Report

How Has Bashar al-Assad Held On For So Long?

Expert on Syria reveals Assad's brutal secrets to staying in power so long despite civil war in exclusive interview.
By Shimon Cohen, Ari Yashar
First Publish: 3/19/2014, 4:21 PM

President Bashar Assad
President Bashar Assad
AFP photo

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has defied the predictions of many by staying in power through a three year internecine civil war, grabbing back territory from opposition forces, and getting away with war crimes of systematic torture under the international community's nose.

In an exclusive interview with Arutz Sheva, Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria and Lebanon and Dean of the Humanities Faculty at Tel Aviv University, argues that Syria is a unique case.

Zisser stressed that Assad has managed to stay in power so long precisely because he was not deposed immediately, noting the complexity of divisions among the Syrian population and staunch support of Assad among certain parts of the Syrian population despite the chaos, all of which prevented a timely ouster.

40% of Syria's population are minorities who tend naturally to support a dictatorial ruler, according to Zisser, adding that they prefer Assad to regimes which may persecute them, particularly when the alternative is a radical Sunni Islamic regime. Al Qaeda forces have already forced local Druze communities to convert to Islam or die.

The expert surmised that at the moment, Assad's forces have the upper hand. However, he added that the war is unfolding "like a basketball game", where at a certain minute one team has the advantage, only to be down several points minutes later.

Even if Assad's regime is holding on, Zissler reminds that the regime is weak and bleeding, propped up by China and Russia.

Reports last December showed how Assad was staying afloat financially thanks to Iraqi crude oil imports, which were smuggled into Syria in violation of Western sanctions for nine months through Egypt. In the same month, the Syrian opposition appraised that the war had cost Assad $25 billion.

No US intervention, no mercy

US President Barack Obama chose not to intervene in the Syrian war given his unsuccessful forays into Libya and Egypt, reports Zissler, which in both cases were seen by many as leading to more chaos and harming regional US ties. Given that background, Obama had no choice but to refrain in Syria, even if he might have intervened in other circumstances, according to the professor.

If Assad were able to retake all of Syria, Zissler predicts the simple peasants who supported the rebels would likely be forgiven, but that the opposition forces would be punished mercilessly, and posited that it would not be surprising if over 150,000 were killed as a result.

In January, an aide to the chief mufti of Syria gave religious permission for soldiers to rape the married and unmarried sisters and mothers of rebel forces to punish them for not reporting their relatives to authorities.