What to Expect in a Postwar Syrian ‘Assadistan’

Assad is here to stay—but hope of stability isn't.

President Assad of Syria and his backers took control of the political situation in Syria by turning the tide in their favor on the battlefield. It appears more likely than ever that the Assad regime is here to stay on at least some Syrian territory, and Western leaders seem to be warming up to the idea. So how did the Syrian president improve his appeal after murdering hundreds of thousands of his own citizens? And what would a post-war Assadistan look like?

The president of Syria, who has dealt with his people so brutally that he has become an advertising tool for Sunni jihadists, has rehabilitated his image in the West in two ways.

First, the Syrian regime and its backers declared all opponents of the regime to be Sunni “terrorists” and then turned them into terrorists. At the outset of the Arab Spring, Assad’s media outlets decried opponents of the regime as religious radicals while security forces took ruthless action against them (and released jihadist radicals from prison to co-opt the uprising) in order to radicalize opposition groups. Initially, most Western observers dismissed the early labeling of rebels as terrorists to be little more than regime propaganda.

The rise of ISIS has changed everything. The relative appeal of the actors in the Syrian civil war was no longer evaluated on democratic tendencies and Western orientation, as the United States and its allies realized the urgency of the threat and could no longer depend on the success of small programs to vet and train a few dozen troops. They needed to consider which groups had both the desire and the ability to beat ISIS. The fact that in many senses Assad’s sectarian policies and brutality had created and fueled ISIS was ignored in favor of the short-term need to defeat the latter. Likewise, pragmatic local cooperation between Assad and ISIS in electric plants and oil refineries was overlooked in favor of highlighting the ideological clash between the Baathist Alawite regime and the Salafi jihadi rebels (after all, when have we ever seen cooperation like that before?). Thus, the Assad regime and its Shia backers seemed like perfect partners to fight radical Sunni groups that posed a growing threat to Western interests at home and abroad.

In the context of ISIS, it was only too easy for Putin to act as Assad’s hype man. At the United Nations General Assembly in September the Russian president said, “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face.” Putin has repeated variations of this propaganda piece countless times, though John Kerry claims the Russians disproportionately targeted legitimate opposition groups. Yet, somehow it even seeped into the intelligence community’s 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment explanation that “Moscow's growing concern about ISIL and other extremists has led to direct intervention on the side of Bashar al-Asad's regime and efforts to achieve a political resolution to the Syrian conflict on Russia's terms.”

Second, Assad made non-jihadist opposition groups seem incompetent. Since the outbreak of the full-blown civil war, the regime’s strategy has been to prevent rebel groups from achieving any sort of success in providing services that would legitimize them as alternatives to Assad and ISIS in the eyes of the Syrian people and the international community. 

In eastern Aleppo in 2013, the opposition established a functional government with the help of local and provincial councils. The regime-held areas of the city emptied as Syrians flocked to rebel territory. Seeing this threat to his positioning as Syria’s most effective ruler, Assad did not launch an invasion or air strike on military targets, but indiscriminately rained down barrel bombs that made eastern Aleppo unlivable and caused hundreds of thousands to seek refuge elsewhere.

The story of eastern Aleppo is not an isolated incident, but rather is part of a strategy that targets civilian populations and infrastructure in rebel-controlled areas. Assad's forces have a clear pattern of attacking non-military institutions that meet basic needs like healthcare and food supplies. Without stating the obvious, it is clear that Assad’s strategy has worked and the Syrian regime and ISIS remain the only two forces with any proven ability to govern.