Bashar Al-Assad’s shameless, blood-spattered regime stands defiant; after seven years of brutal civil war, pro-government forces now control much of the shattered country. Once, Assad’s days in power had appeared numbered. In 2011, when pro-democracy demonstrations first swept Syria, Assad’s friendless and isolated regime had flirted with collapse. Preferring full scale civil war to peaceful resignation, Assad launched brazen chemical attacks against his own citizens as his government teetered on the brink. Now, the international community must reckon with the fact that Assad’s vicious government may stay on for decades to come. Armed opposition has been crushed; rebel groups have been forced from all major urban centres. Why does Assad still rule Syria?
Russian and Iranian military intervention in Syria certainly helped Assad’s cause. Russian war planes have battered rebel forces across the country and Russian military advisors have helped plan successful government offensives. Iranian proxy forces have helped to replenish Assad’s depleted, overwhelmed military at crucial moments. But Assad’s survival is perhaps best explained by the ineptness of his political opposition. No united force ever emerged to singularly challenge his rule – the Free Syrian Army ceased to exist as a centralised organisation early in the conflict, with rebel forces fragmenting into hundreds of different militias. Hardcore Islamist groups infiltrated secular opposition ranks, tainting them irreparably in the eyes of the West – under their direction, opposition forces terrorised ethnic and religious minorities. Rebel groups like the Al-Qaeda aligned Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham committed terrible war crimes against civilians, making them an unacceptable governing alternative to the international community. Infighting within rebel-controlled territory in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta helped to sap any potential concerted resistance against regime offensives.
In short, there was never any serious political alternative to Assad’s gruesome rule. His brutal government was able to exploit this horrific situation to full effect, defeating the fragmented, divided opposition that sprung up against his government. While the war continues to rage in pockets of the country, it appears that Assad’s position is now secure. In what has been an instructive lesson to tyrants everywhere, Assad’s brutal, cruel rule will likely continue long into the future. The people of Syria will suffer for this tragedy.