All About the Benjamins

Why Bashar al-Assad won't go.

Bashar al-Assad has outlived so many predictions of his imminent demise at this point that it would seem unwise to bet against him. Nonetheless, a series of military and diplomatic setbacks combined with a wave of defections in recent weeks have raised expectations that the Syrian president may finally be on his last legs. While Assad will likely exit the scene eventually, observers may be looking at the wrong signals when assessing his regime's vulnerability.

In a Dec. 20 article last year for Foreign Policy, we wrote of Assad: If he betrays the interests of his closest Alawite allies, for instance by implementing reforms that will dilute their share of the spoils, they will probably murder him before any protesters can topple his regime. ... Captive to the needs of his coalition, he ignores the welfare of the 23 million average Syrians and shuns world opinion." We calculated at the time that Assad could count on 3,600 elite supporters. Should they stop working to neutralize the rebellion, Assad would be gone immediately.

What keeps those supporters on Assad's side? In a word, money. As long as he has enough to keep his cronies loyal, he will live to fight another day. Eventually he might lose the battle against the rebels, but that is down the road. If he runs out of cash, he will be gone today.

Assad must worry day and night whether enough money will come in to prevent big fractures in his backing among the ruling elite. So far, he seems to be managing this threat well. Al Jazeera reports that the total cumulative defections within his regime amount to just 73 individuals, almost none of whom are from the ruling Alawite clan and perhaps none of whom are from the inner circle of key backers. The press has made much, for example, of defections by Syrian diplomats, yet only one or two of 13 diplomatic defections have been by senior officials -- the former ambassadors to Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Most of the diplomatic defections have been by consuls and other lower-level functionaries.

Likewise, much was made of the three (out of 39) cabinet members who have defected since the uprising began, including Prime Minister Riad Hijab last August. But Hijab had been in office for just two months and was Sunni, not Alawite. Indeed, the defectors are almost never Alawites and are, therefore, almost certainly not members of Assad's winning coalition -- the people whose backing is essential to keep him in power. Assad's official inner circle, which comes from a diverse set of backgrounds, is mostly for show, while the true inner circle -- like the General Staff of the military -- is all Alawite. Their defection would be a risk to his survival; it is they who must be kept loyal and that means they must be paid better by Assad than by any credible alternative.

That then raises the question: Where does the money come from? The question is easy to answer: Iran, Iraq, Russia, and a bit from Venezuela. Assad is estimated to need about $500 million a month to keep his regime afloat. The Times of London reports that Iran alone has given Syria about $10 billion -- enough to sustain the regime for almost two years. The Iraqi regime is pledged to political neutrality on the Syrian rebellion, which turns out to mean that they are unwilling to interrupt their economic dealings with Assad's regime and they oppose sanctions -- ostensibly to protect the well-being of the average Syrian. They seem to have given billions to Assad as well.

If there is anything positive to be taken from the Syrian situation, it is that U.N. sanctions on Iran have so devalued that country's currency that Tehran may not be able to afford to sustain both itself and Assad for long. Given that choice, there is no doubt the mullahs will sacrifice Assad. How long it will be before they get to that point is difficult to say. There are factors pulling in both directions. Reports have surfaced of fissures between Ayatollah Khamenei and his head of intelligence over the cost of supporting Assad. These tensions have likely only grown as the rial has plummeted in value and as Iran has acknowledged sending elite forces to aid Assad. More intense sanctions against Iran might prove to be the most effective tool the West has to bring down the Assad regime. But it is far from obvious that doing so will improve the situation or serve the interests of any NATO member except for Turkey.

The beginning of the Syrian rebellion provided an opportunity for Western interests to step in and take an active role in organizing the more secular elements among the rebels. That, however, did not serve the electoral interests of Obama's core constituents or voters in other Western countries facing elections. Hence, with their own survival being foremost in their calculations, Western leaders did little to bolster pro-Western insurgents or to topple Assad by offering him a soft landing. While the West pondered its next steps, others, as must always be expected, saw an opportunity to organize the rebellion around their own agenda.

The majority of Syrians may not be religious fundamentalists. But as in Egypt's revolution and the 1979 revolution in Iran, the organized few are, and we should expect power to devolve to them when the Assad regime is brought down. As emphasized in our book, The Dictator's Handbook, the short-term political interests of politicians always trump the longer-term "national interest." And so it has been with Syria. A future American president will have to learn to deal with a possibly even worse Syrian regime. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama was prepared to acknowledge that waiting and doing nothing would saddle future leaders with an almost assured headache. After all, there were precious few votes among Democrats or Republicans for action today that would forestall disaster tomorrow.



Rally 'Round the Jihadist

The Obama administration slapped a terrorist designation on Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra -- but only managed to spark an anti-U.S. backlash among anti-Assad groups.

The backlash within Syria to the U.S. decision to designate the Syrian-based jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization has been swift. Opposition to the designation, which was officially announced on Dec. 11, extends well beyond groups ideologically sympathetic to Jabhat al-Nusra's radical goals. After more than 40,000 deaths, the starvation and torture of many, and the sadistic tactics of the Assad regime, Syrians now want the fall of the regime more than ever -- even if that means temporarily embracing groups with suspect long-term goals.

The Barack Obama administration's designation of Jabhat al-Nusra asserts that the group is an extension of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) -- merely one of the terrorist organization's aliases. Whether this is the case or whether the administration is issuing the designation as part of a political effort to convince the opposition to shun Jabhat al-Nusra, the move will likely fail to marginalize the group at this juncture. Following the fall of the regime, however, it could help sideline the most destructive influences trying to gain a foothold in post-Assad Syria.

The reaction among anti-Assad Syrians was perhaps best captured by an image that appeared on Facebook shortly after news of the planned designation broke last week. In the picture, residents of the northwestern town of Kafr Anbel hold up a poster showing Obama pointing accusingly toward a flag associated with Jabhat al-Nusra, saying "Terrorism." Behind the U.S. president, however, is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad standing triumphant on a pile of murdered Syrian civilians.

The image reflects the reality that the Syrian opposition simply does not view Jabhat al-Nusra as the primary threat to the country -- that designation still belongs to Assad's murderous army. Nor is it lost on Syrians that the Obama administration has provided scant military assistance in their efforts to topple the regime -- but is now singling out a rebel group that has become perhaps their revolution's most effective fighting force. This is a view that seems to extend well beyond Jabhat al-Nusra's ideological milieu: None of the individuals in the Kafr Anbel picture, for example, look like Islamists or Salafis.

Islamists, of course, have also condemned the Obama administration's decision. The popular Islamist group Suqur al-Sham ("the Falcons of Greater Syria") -- a more mainstream faction -- released a statement from its leader Ahmad ‘Issa al-Shaykh on Dec. 9 rejecting the designation. The Islamist group stressed the importance of unity and cohesion between the different rebel factions and emphasized that Jabhat al-Nusra is like any other brigade working to overthrow the Assad regime. Shaykh refers to Assad's army as the real terrorists in Syria, and concludes with a reminder of U.S. "crimes" in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Opposition to the designation is only gaining momentum within Syria's anti-Assad groups. The Syrian National Council (SNC), which was the face of the revolution until being superseded by a new coalition, released a statement rejecting the move. The SNC, which still maintains considerable influence in opposition politics, goes on to explain that the Assad regime's massacres are the true terrorism in Syria today. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood also stated that the decision to designate Jabhat al-Nusra was "very wrong." The recently elected chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, piled on, saying Jabhat al-Nusra was not a terrorist organization, and "depend on young, educated Syrians" for their efforts.

Syrians are also planning to take to the streets to express their solidarity with Jabhat al-Nusra this week. A coalition of coordinating committees and rebel battalions has called for demonstrations this Friday under the slogan "No to the Interference of America -- We Are All Jabhat al-Nusra." The statement originally had 29 signatories, but now contains more than 100.

Even more worrisome from the perspective of the United States, there are tentative signs that Jabhat al-Nusra has also been providing local services. While the designation signals that the U.S. government is committed to isolating the group, its heroics on the battlefield and its work to provide for the basic needs of the Syrian people could signal that it is becoming embedded within the social fabric of the population.

Jabhat al-Nusra's provision of social services was first highlighted in an Aug. 19 video released by the group, titled "Fulfillment of the Vow #2." The video shows the group's Lajna al-Ighatha ("Relief Committee") providing foodstuffs to individuals in rural areas surrounding the eastern city of Deir al-Zour. More recently, according to the Syrian news site al-Zaman al-Wasl, Jabhat al-Nusra provided more than 20,000 bundles of bread to individuals in Aleppo governorate after an acute crisis occurred. The Coordinating Council in Aleppo, a local civilian opposition body established in August 2011, also reported that Jabhat al-Nusra provided barrels of fuel for an Aleppo hospital to run generators after long power outages.

In a conference call today, a senior U.S. official explained the designation by saying that it was intended to "expose" Jabhat al-Nusra, and make it clear that the group's ideology "has no role in post-Assad Syria." If it succeeds in doing that, the decision will have been the correct one. But given the intense opposition to this move by many quarters of the opposition, the administration should rededicate itself to efforts that show it is on the side of the Syrian people -- not only by providing humanitarian aid to areas affected by Assad's scorched-earth policy, but also by recognizing the new Syrian opposition coalition and providing weapons to more moderate rebel groups.

The day after the Assad regime falls, all Syrian groups will struggle to implement their vision of their country's future -- and secular, liberal, or even "moderate" Islamist factions will be starkly at odds with radicals like Jabhat al-Nusra. Slapping a terrorist designation on Jabhat al-Nusra is only the first step in what must be a sustained effort to ensure that these extremists' support breaks down in the long term, and Syrians do not trade the Assad regime for a society run by jihadists.