Why is al-Assad still standing?
One of the first meaningless questions asked in light of the events in Syria is the question, “Why is Assad still standing?” Had Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resisted the uprisings in Tunisia by ordering his police and military forces to shed blood, we probably would not be talking about a Tunisian revolution today. What made Ben Ali to leave the country quietly was a combination of a few factors, such as Tunisia’s relative size and that the incumbent administration consisted mostly of Ben Ali’s family members.
Had Hosni Mubarak resisted stepping down in the Egyptian revolution by deploying the police and military forces, a lot of blood would have been shed, but the uprisings would have been suppressed. In Egypt, the established order did not perceive the revolutions as a change of regime. It believed that even after Mubarak had stepped down, the military-judiciary tutelage regime would hold onto to its power against the “new actors.” Moreover, the fact that the Egyptian military lacked a constituent ideology allowed the uprisings to be easily suppressed.
Libya was different in that the system was based on a rather unique socio-economic and political structure. Col. Moammar Gadhafi wanted to squash the uprisings viciously. The external interventions in the events contributed to the collapse of Gadhafi’s family regime, which already lacked a state structure. The last stop of the Arab uprisings was Syria, which was governed by the notoriously totalitarian Baath regime which, in turn, was managed by a sectarian family administration. The only reason the Syrian Baath regime is still standing today is that they have accepted the risk of running the whole country into the ground. Had Mubarak and Ben Ali risked the same kind of destruction, they probably could have stayed in power a little longer at the cost of Egypt and Tunisia, respectively. That is to say, the Bashar al-Assad regime is still standing in 2013, not because it is strong, but because it has risked the complete destruction of Syria.
Having lost its hold on the majority of the country, the al-Assad regime is now ensconced in Damascus. This intensified military presence may give the false impression that the Baath regime is gaining its strength back. In fact, the current situation is exactly the opposite -- the recoiling al-Assad regime has gathered in a smaller area. Thus, the opposition forces are now forced to govern the majority of the country without a proper state structure and organization.
Another important reason why al-Assad can still stand is the continued support from Russia and Iran who, like the Baath regime, accept the political and geopolitical cost of their support. It has to be said that today Russia and Iran’s foreign policy toward Syria are just as rational and risky as Gadhafi and al-Assad’s decisions were to stay. To offer support to the al-Assad regime meant accepting the cost of retreating from the Middle Eastern geopolitical scene almost entirely. Russia and Iran have, in fact, made the most absurd investment in recent years.