Syria’s future remains uncertain despite seven years of high-tempo conflict. Bashar al Assad – although still wrestling with a multitude of rebelling factions, jihadi groups and rogue territories – appears to be in a stronger strategic position since the conflict’s beginning, but his rule cannot be eternal. In this piece, we examine potential options for Presidential succession within the Syrian regime and how those options fit with the wider geopolitical realities at play in the conflict.


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An estimated 465,000 people have died in the Syrian Civil War.

465,000

I don’t want you to skim over this number like so many other pieces allow you to do. So, if you will indulge me, I will put it into context. This is 5 times as many people can fit into Wembley Stadium. Another way is to imagine that 1 in every 4 people living in Northern Ireland has died. How about 1 in every 3 people in Hawaii? Or you could shoot down just over 1000 Boeing 777 aircraft that are completely full.

It is important to focus on the number of casualties before a discussion on Syria’s future begins because it colours everything. Specifically in the case of this article, succession. Can President Assad really hold onto power for much longer? If not, then who will replace him? There are several likely options for the future of Syria. It will likely involve a member of the House of Assad.

Regime Change

The first, and the least likely option; regime change. Given the still-fresh memories of previous Western interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, this is the least palatable from an Occidental point of view. Indeed, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has stressed several times in media interviews in the past 72 hours that the most recent round of strikes against the Syrian Regime were not about regime change. Precision is the favoured adjective in this case; a surgical strike against a narrow, designated target set. In this case consisting of three targets all linked to chemical weapons. The chaos that would ensue in a truly leaderless Syria would cause unimaginable suffering to an already embattled population. It could also very quickly spill over onto neighbours such as Iraq, Turkey, and even Israel. Various Islamist groups with myriad agendas would easily take advantage of the situation; this is without even discussing the instant addition to the ongoing refugee crisis that would occur as even more Syrians fled. No one on the outside frankly wants anything other than centralized control in Syria at this stage, and unfortunately the face of that control is President Assad.

A New Bashar

The numbers that I highlighted at the beginning of this article are casualties on all sides. Pro-Regime civilians, Rebel militia members, Islamist jihadis, pro-Rebel civilians, Regime soldiers, and ordinary Syrians who have no side, faction, or grudge, but still died all the same. The Syrian Government is but one side of the maelstrom of war that has engulfed Syria, but it is the recognised government controlling 77% of the population and the largest portion of national territory and therefore has a case to answer. There is no foreseeable way that the international community, with the notable exception of Russia, will do business with Syria in the short-term. So how to make it more palatable?

That is where the second option comes in; any President, just not Bashar. The Assad family have been in power for 48 years. Interestingly, Bashar should never have come to power; fate intervened when he was training to be a doctor in 1994 and his elder brother Bassel died in a car accident. This propelled Bashar to unexpectedly succeed his father Hafez. So if not Bashar, then who?

Some potential examples can be found within the Syrian Presidential court. Maher – the younger brother – is the closest living blood relative and Bashar’s right-hand man, and also commands the 4th Division of the Syrian Arab Army. However he is implicated in the use of chemical weapons and therefore appears on some unpleasant ICC lists, and would therefore be a difficult option to sell on the world stage.

Another option could be Prime Minister Khamis. He is under international sanctions, but isn’t an Assad. Khamis was Minister of Electricity prior to his promotion in 2016, and therefore doesn’t have a particularly high profile, meaning that he seems to lack strong ties to the critical machine that is the Syrian Arab Army.

The current Vice President, Dr Najar al Attar, could be seen as a strong female leadership figure untainted by the Assad brand, and would be a welcome contrast to the now mostly-Islamist and by extension largely anti-feminist opposition militias. Unfortunately her position outside of the Assad familial camp is precisely why she is unlikely to be chosen as a successor. Bashar al Assad is likely afraid – and with good reason – that if he loses power and cannot control his successor he may very quickly end up on trial at The Hague.

Assad seems to truly believe that he is fighting a war against ‘terrorists’, as he terms them. He also appears – at least outwardly – to believe that he is the protector of Syria, and that without his regime to impose order by any means, Syria will fall apart. Whilst the complexities of Syria are delineated by us in the West, with Free Syrian Army and Vetted Syrian Opposition on one side of the spectrum and Hay’at Tahrir al Sham and Daesh on the other, the Syrian Regime labels them all as terrorists. Once you understand the puritanical levels of motivation behind Bashar al Assad it becomes clearer that we in the West too often ignore this local element. He sees in terms of black and white, we operate in the grey. President Assad believes he is the good guy in the Syrian equation.

When he sees himself as part of a polemic, good versus evil narrative, it becomes far harder for him to step down and away. Evil frequently starts with the best of intentions. Even ignoring his probable desire to protect himself and his family from postwar repercussions, why would Assad trust the future of Syria with anyone other than someone who is on his wavelength? Therefore it is likely that his successor will be a person who is:

  • In agreement with his black and white view of the Syrian Regime versus the terrorists, with no quarter given.
  • Unswervingly loyal to Bashar al Assad
  • Dynastically linked, to continue the Assad-branded rule
  • Close to the Army – (given the regional history of military coups, military loyalty is a must)

The man who most likely fits with these criteria is Maher al Assad.

Maher al Assad

If Bashar were to step down in exchange for immunity it would be most likely at the behest of the Russian government. Russia knows that Bashar is tainted goods for the West but that we value regional stability; there our interests align with Russia’s. If Russia can maintain access to the port at Tartus and the airfield at Latakia then they will be content; they are thinking long term in their Syrian excursion. A member of the Assad family with a strong military link and a certain ruthlessness will ensure that Syria remains autocratic, stable and friendly to Moscow.

For the West, however, working with Maher is a more difficult move given the outstanding accusations from the ICC and his close relationship to Bashar. Despite this, we have danced with the devil before. Shortly before Gaddafi was deposed, many governments – but especially the Britishcosied up to a man whose forces had supplied the IRA, brought down a civilian aircraft over Scotland, and promoted himself to Colonel from Captain because he liked the way it sounded. Therefore we cannot play innocent. We, like Russia, value stability. Stability means fewer refugees on Europe’s doorstep, less bloodshed, and a consequently safer region that has a correlation on domestic terrorism and extremism.

Proposed solution

Bashar al Assad may finally have gone too far in this latest chemical weapons attack against civilians in Douma, and despite the conspiracy theories circulating, Assad remains the most likely and credible suspect. Russia will not publicly desert him but may lean on him in private to begin paving the way for succession. Maher is well-positioned to gain support and allegiance from the other actors in the Syrian Regime with Bashar’s blessing as the Syrian Arab Army continues to retake gradually flailing opposition areas. The use of chemical weapons would need to stop as the Regime seeks to stave off further controversy in the international community. President Assad would then step down as the last of the opposition are defeated – either militarily or diplomatically – citing that a fresh start is needed, but that the country is in safe hands. President Maher al Assad would then assume power and begin an immediate (although not the regime’s first) PR campaign in the West to show his differences to his brother. Russia maintains warm-water port access. Syria maintains autocratic stability. The world quietly forgets that 465,000 Syrians died.

Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:

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Archie Hicox is the pen name of a serving British Army officer with an academic background in current affairs and international relations. He has deployed throughout the world on multiple operations, most of which are spent in mentoring roles with local forces. He is particularly passionate about Middle Eastern geopolitical affairs.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Elizabeth Arrott

 

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