Shattered Assad’s regime beginning to crumble
Streets in many different Lebanese cities witnessed protestslast week. The country has been suffering from dire economic conditions, which have been worsened recently by a lack of hard currency on the market. This has caused an increase in the US dollar exchange rate, seeing it jump from 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar to as much as 1,700. The Lebanese central bank’s financial engineering, which has kept the exchange rate for US dollars fixed in order to stabilize the financial environment, is no longer sustainable. This crisis has been attributed to the fact that dollars are being taken from the Lebanese market and smuggled into Syria.
Though the central bank and the government are said to be taking measures to mitigate the crisis, it is important to see what it means in the broader context: It means Syrian President Bashar Assad is cornered and the US policy on Syria is working, despite false moves such as this week’s withdrawal from the northeast.
The breakdown of the system in Lebanon is not in Assad’s interest. The current Lebanese government — despite the existence of factions that vehemently oppose Assad — is more or less neutralized. Lebanon is the home of Assad’s best support: Hezbollah and its Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement. Additionally, Lebanon contains a large portion of his opposition. Assad, of course, prefers them to be refugees in camps rather than an armed opposition fighting him in Syria. Nevertheless, he accepted the risk of seeing Lebanon destabilized in order for him to get an injection of American dollars. This shows how desperate and fragile his regime is.
Assad’s eagerness to get hard currency led him to pressure his allies to suck liquidity from Lebanon and inject it into his regime. Moreover, in August he issued an order to freeze the assets of his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, as well as other business people. Though the regime has marketed the move as an anti-corruption measure against those who made their money illegally from a war economy, the truth is Assad is cornered and is desperate for cash. A confrontation with businessmen fronting the regime is bad news for Assad. It means the cake is too small for him to share with his cronies. However, those cronies are his support and the tentacles through which he operates. By alienating them and confiscating their assets, he is also limiting his ability to maneuver.
Though Assad is winning the Syrian conflict militarily, he has not been able to garner stability in the country. As events unfold, his inability to run the country is exposed. Syria is de facto divided into four parts: Idlib contains the remnants of the armed opposition and is controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham; Afrin and the Euphrates in the north are under the influence of Turkey and its allies; the northeast is controlled by the Kurdish factions with the Syrian Democratic Council; and Assad supposedly controls the largest swath of land in Syria, limited by Abu Kamal in the northeast, Raqqa and Manbij in the north, and the Mediterranean to the west. However, the reality for Assad is much grimmer than one would think. He has no resources and no authority to govern. He is at the mercy of his patrons: The Russians and the Iranians. And he is living on borrowed time, as he is becoming an expensive client, especially for the Russians.
The reality for Assad is much grimmer than one would think. He has no resources and no authority to govern.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
So far, Moscow has been hoping that the US and the international community will accept Assad as victorious, start the reconstruction process and enforce polices encouraging the return of refugees without a proper political transition. However, the US and EU are holding firm. As one high-level European official told me, it is an ironclad guarantee that there will be no reconstruction until there is a concrete and proper political transition.
The US policy has focused on isolating Assad. Instead of further militarizing the conflict and injecting funds and arms to rebel groups that are difficult to control, the US has decided to demilitarize. White House policy also extends into pressuring other nations to sever ties with the Assad regime. The delegation of Syrian business peoplewho met with UAE investors in January left empty-handed because of American sanctions. On the other hand, while the US policy aims at making life under Assad hard, it has put in place plans to revive the economy in areas outside his control — in the north and northeast. Washington established the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, known as START, with a mandate to stabilize those areas and make them livable.
We don’t yet see a clash between Assad and his patrons, as everyone seems to be on the same wavelength. Moreover, everyone is expecting that the American withdrawal from the northeast will be in Assad’s favor. However, he is unable to rule the country in the same centralized and oppressive way he used to. He is running out of steam, shattered by the long war and the American sanctions. His regime seems to be slowly crumbling. He might have won the war, but he has not won the peace — and he won’t.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.