In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s missile strike against a Syrian military airbase, some decried the action for being taken against a so-called secular, sovereign and independent government. Spanning the ideological spectrum, those who embrace this characterization of the Syrian regime have often deployed it to defend Bashar al-Assad’s rule and justify the brutality he has used to maintain it. It has also been used to delegitimize opposition force as necessarily sectarian, Islamist, and a product of foreign interference.
Assad’s Syria is, however, anything but secular, sovereign and independent.
Of these three supposed virtues, Assad’s secularism seems most important to his backers. It has united those on the left, like Tusli Gabbard, with those on the far, far right, like David Duke and Richard Spencer. Uncoincidentally, these figures are also united by deep-seated Islamophobia. Duke and Spencer are openly white nationalist. Gabbard has strong ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, which has been complicit in deadly anti-Muslim violence. For these supporters, Assad’s secularism makes him the only viable option in a battle with Islamist extremists, who they believe dominate the opposition.
In addition to feeding into Islamophobic impulses, there are two major problems with the secularism narrative. Firstly, secular rule is no guarantee of virtue. Some of the most brutal violence in the modern Middle East has been carried out by so-called secular regimes. Secondly, Assad’s regime is far more sectarian than secular. Since the early days of his father, Hafez al-Assad’s rule, the Syrian government apparatus, especially its security forces, have been dominated by the Alawite sect. Additionally, forming sectarian alliances while fomenting sectarian rivalries has been an important strategy by which Bashar, and his father Hafez, has kept hold of power.
The civil war has thrown these tactics into stark relief. Throughout the conflict, Assad has relied heavily on Iran and Hezbollah, which share a Shiite Islamist ideology, as his military manpower has been depleted. Shiite fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan formed the backbone of Assad’s offensive to retake east Aleppo last December. Recently, a video of Hezbollah soldiers wearing Syrian army uniforms was leaked. The video, which was an attempt to obscure the multitude of foreign sectarian fighters employed by the Assad regime, underscored Assad’s reliance on these distinctly non-secular forces.
Intimately tied to the issue of sectarian fighters is the supposed sovereignty and independence of the Syrian Arab Republic. Assad often leans on this characterization, as do his Russian backers, to portray his opponents, whether local non-state or international actors, as illegitimate aggressors. But as the war has raged on, the conventional trappings of a sovereign state have decayed in Syria, as has Assad’s ability to take independent action.
A Russian analysis following Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria estimated there were only 6,000 able-bodied and loyal Syrian regime soldiers. The Russian intervention somewhat ameliorated this crisis. Russia’s military aid and airstrikes, in coordination with Iran and Hezbollah, led to huge gains for regime forces, turning the tide of the war against the rebels.
But it did not solve Assad’s manpower crisis. Because of this lack of manpower and resources, Assad has had to rely on competing warlords and militias, often stronger, better equipped, and better paid than their Syrian military counterparts, to administer the land supposedly under government control. This situation, according to analyst Tobias Schneider writing at War on the Rocks, “is not entirely different from that of opposition militias… the government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords.” These militias have engaged in smuggling, kidnapping, and extortion while battling one another for greater control. Despite their professed loyalty to the regime, they have acted independently of any formal command.
Assad is far too weak to challenge these groups’ supremacy in their own fiefdoms, so he has tried to bring them to heel in other ways. According to rumors, the regime has attempted to assassinate the head of one militia, Suheil Hassan of the Tiger Forces, to curb the group’s power. Assad has also attempted to politically incorporate these groups into the state. Thousands of these warlords and smugglers participated in the April 2016 parliamentary elections, and many won seats, replacing the usual cadre of Baathist loyalists. Their success, and Assad’s reliance on them, underscores the fractures of the regime.
Beneath the unifying figure of Bashar al-Assad is the reality of disjointed and competing powers independent of, and often more powerful than, the Syrian Arab Republic.
This is what #Aleppo has become.
An epitomization of international credibility:
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) January 4, 2017
The siege and recapture of east Aleppo, which relied on sectarian fighters, foreign airpower, and non-government militias, embodies these dynamics. Following the operation, banners were hung in the city with images of Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The images, like the operation itself, demonstrate the fantasy of a secular, sovereign, and independent Syrian Arab Republic. Continuing to push this fantasy with the goal of legitimizing the regime merely serves to whitewash Bashar al-Assad’s brutality.