In December 2010, a Tunisian man burned himself to death in protest of the police’s confiscation of his fruit cart, sparking the international movement in the region known as the Arab Spring. As a result of protests, Tunisian President El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia a month later, ending his two decades-long reign. Within a year, as protests grew stronger and sometimes violent across the Middle East, the leaders of both Yemen and Egypt resigned, and in Libya Gadhafi was killed.
Twenty-six months after protests began in Syria, Bashar al Assad continues to avoid the fate of other despots. The Syrian leader is still holding on to power, almost two years into the civil war that has taken more than 70,000 lives. Assad, the domino that wouldn’t fall, remains in power for one reason: the relatively high stakes for Iran and Russia in this conflict.
The Syrian regime, which at best has made a half-hearted attempt at a political resolution, has now broken off relations with a long list of states around the globe, and economically, the Syrian currency has lost a majority of its value. Having lost political, economic, and ideological power, Assad’s survival relies on relentless military power. Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian opposition activist, attributes Assad’s survival to his reliance on “arms and the means of war.”
The Syrian opposition, which had originally adopted peaceful protest, has developed into an armed rebellion. The rebels, in part due to their fractured organization and in some cases ties to Al-Qaeda, have not received any significant international military support. As a result, the rebels’ efforts have concentrated on eliminating Assad’s air force advantage in a series of small-scale battles for key airports throughout the country.
One of the rebel groups, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is made up of defectors from the Syrian military. The FSA, often viewed as the opposition’s best chance at defeating the Assad regime, suffers from a huge military disadvantage. As the head of the Gulf Research Council, Abdul Aziz Saqr explains, “You can’t fight an organized military with a Kalashnikov [Russian rifle, AK-47] or a pistol. You need to have anti-tank missiles, you need to have real reconnaissance and intelligence information … If the Russian satellite reconnaissance has been supplying the Syrian military with a lot of reconnaissance, the Free Army needs to have real intelligence information to be able to help them organize their movements.”
The support of countries like Iran and Russia is in fact at the root of Assad’s continued military advantage. Russia continues to support Syria, seeing Assad as Russia’s last ally in the resource-rich region. Iran, on the other hand, supports Syria because it is a vital conduit to Hezbollah. In fact, some Syrian journalists have gone so far as to say that “national decision-making effectively moved from Damascus to Tehran.”
The stakes in Syria are so much higher for major geopolitical players than was the case in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Yemen, and that’s what allowed Assad to survive so long. It is unlikely that Iran will shift its stance, but if the international community is able to convince Russia to withdraw its support for the Assad regime, or risk an international crisis by balancing against Russia and Iran’s support, then Assad will fall like Mubarak, Ben-Ali, Gadhafi, and Saleh before him.