Bashar al-Assad‘s “Groundhog Day”

In the 1993 US movie “Groundhog Day”, an unsympathetic egocentric man is living one wretched day in his life over and over again. At first he is annoyed by the repetition, but soon he takes the never ending loop as license to do whatever he wants. Assured that he will not be held accountable for his actions or care about long-term consequences, he becomes ruthless in his behaviour.

Maybe Bashar Assad feels the same way. In the last one and a half years, not a single day has gone by without countrywide protests against his regime. He has tried to crush the uprising, less obviously at first because he was afraid that the international intervention in Libya meant he was next in line. But since the Syrian president realized that diverging international interests protected him from intervention, he has been acting in a completely unrestrained manner.

In “Groundhog Day”, the protagonist Phil Conors recognizes eventually that to get what he wants and break out of the eternal loop, he has to change his behavior. Bashar, in contrast, uses weapons to try to force reality to adapt to his dream: the dream of remaining in power.

Bashar Assad obviously does not care for the Syrian people. Whoever saw his giggling speech in Parliament at end of March 2012 could see he was not taking the demands of the protesters seriously. While talking of “small groups of (foreign backed) terrorists” that allegedly were hiding among peaceful protesters, Assad has not hesitated in ordering his military to shoot indiscriminately at the masses.

He promised, as he did at the beginning of his presidency in 2000, reforms but showed little commitment to implementing them. In May 2011, the state of emergency was lifted after 48 years. What, in other circumstances, might have been a spectacular move went nearly unnoticed because the Syrian military and police were now acting as if there was no law at all. Syrian citizens increasingly saw that while the leadership was adamant about staying in power, it was less willing to fulfill the duties that come with office. The state’s monopoly on power, for example, was hollowed out by regime boosting the “Shabiha”, mafia-like armed gangs that prior to the revolution existed but were then transformed into an irregular force. Even though the Syrian regime was eager to blame the unrest on external forces, it chose to neglect border control, an essential part of security. In parts of the north, the it ceded control to the PKK and gave it support, in exchange for helping repress the revolution. Furthermore, there are reports that troops guarding Syria’s borders have been reduced – including those at the Israeli border. All forces are concentrated in the interior to crush the rebellion and to ensure that the two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo, remain under the regime’s control or at least do not fall into the rebel’s hands, even it entails reducing them to deserted ruins.

The PKK and the Shabiha are not comparable, not in their history, composition or aims, except for one aspect: both consist mostly or exclusively of one confessional or ethnic group. By allowing them a free hand against the revolution, the regime is inciting hatred against both groups. On top of that, the Shabiha are often active in their own vicinities and neighbouring villages, as occurred in Houla, and tend to be more brutal than the regular armed forces. This has led to social decay. The experience that the Syrian government does not protect its citizens and that it allows brutal militias without any restraint makes citizens take defense and justice in their own hands. The more brutal the actions ordered or tolerated by the Syrian government, the higher is the risk of vengeance instead of transitional justice and of an all-out civil war. Thus, it is mainly the Shabiha’s actions that raises concern about the fate of the Alawite minority after the fall of the regime, not so much privileges some of its members enjoyed before.

Unfortunately, the organized Syrian opposition is not addressing the sectarian issue seriously. None of the statements so far detail how the opposition plans to prevent sectarian violence in the transitional period. Without guarantees for their protection against acts of revenge, some Syrians have good reasons not to change sides. AsPadre Paolo, head of the Christian community in the monastery of Mar Mousa and a respected and popular supporter of the revolution said: “Do we want to win or do we want to lose ourselves? If you do not show your enemy convincing ways out of the situation and instead force him into a battle of life or death, he will fight until his last breath and without caring about losses.”

Human rights groups and the media are thankfully reporting about human rights violations committed by both sides. It should not be forgotten, however, that it was not the revolutionaries who pushed for the militarization of the conflict. The highest number of victims have by far died because of the indiscriminate shelling of cities by the Syrian army. Thousands disappeared people have been arrested by Syrian intelligence and transported to locations  from which there is often no return. This has further fuelled the anger of Syrians, because many families remain uncertain as to the whereabouts of relatives who disappeared during the Syrian government’s crushing of the Islamist uprising in Syria in the early 1980s.

While most of the debate in the media these days focuses on the militant groups on the rebels’ side, the number of al-Qaeda members amongst them, and the external support they are getting, the vast unarmed majority of protesters demanding change are barely receiving the coverage they deserve. It is remarkable, however, that despite the worrisome level of violence the number of protests has increased, as Leila Vignal points out in her “Anatomy of a revolution”: “51 protests on June 17, 2011 … 493 on January 6, 2012, and 939 on June 1, 2012.” Instead of focusing on their hopes and perspectives for the future, here as in allall Arab revolutions, the specter or Islamism and al-Qaeda has been highlighted. The election of a secular president in Libya (regardless of the alleged massive Qatari support for Islamists) should raise doubt towards such simplistic predictions.

Why has the Syrian regime not fallen, even though it repeatedly looks as if the “final battle” is approaching? The main reason is fear. Fear of an uncertain future: It is difficult to have confidence when the opposition does not have a plan or even a vision for what comes next. Equally important is fear of the current regime which explains, for example, the small number defectors in the higher army ranks.

There is a telling Syrian joke about Hafez Assad.  Assad, in a plane with the Russian and American presidents, asks which of them enjoys the most loyalty from their staff. It is decided that each should ask his bodyguard to jump out of the plane. The American president’s bodyguard declines, saying he would protect the president with his life but as he has a wife and children, he cannot sacrifice his life without a reason. The Russian bodyguard also declines, also pointing to his responsibilities towards his family. The Syrian bodyguard jumps without hesitation. When the American and the Russian president ask why his bodyguard jumped, Assad smiles shrewdly and says: “Because he has a wife and children.”

Without a liberated zone as in Libya and with limited possibilities of sending families to secure locations, the decision to defect is difficult. The bomb attack that killed important members of the Syrian security establishment on July 18 has diminished the regime’s inner circle considerably. Assad has been quick to appoint replacements, as with the Prime Minister Riad Hijab who defected on August 14, 2012.  But the number of people available to take government positions which Assad trusts in the current crisis and have enough leverage to be in control of the security institutions is rapidly diminishing. Looking at Bashar Assad’s handling of the crisis, it seems that he has accepted that he will not be able to remain in power. The degree of damage inflicted on the economy, infrastructure, sources of income, on the social fabric of Syria will be a strong burden on any future government. He who creates such difficult conditions before a new beginning, does this because he believes he will not be part of that.

The German version of this article is available at