Since 2015, Bashar al-Assad, with the help of Russia and Iran, has turned the tide in his country’s civil war and is restoring his regime’s control over a gradually expanding territory. Jonathan Spyer, having returned from a press tour of Damascus and other cities now ruled by the Syrian government, reports:
The [Syrian] regime in its self-presentation openly resembles the totalitarian governments of mid-20th century Europe. [It thus] holds an ugly fascination for some Europeans and other Westerners. But its posturing and rhetoric are mostly without weight, like a cheap tin pendant that only from a distance resembles solid metal. Holding up this fragile structure are a variety of other forces more deserving of attention.
On our last night in the city, a member of the [press] delegation was threatened at gunpoint by a drunken Russian journalist. The authorities in the area said they could do nothing, because the man was Russian. This small episode says more about the true state of affairs in government-controlled Syria than all the regime’s verbiage. The Assad regime’s servants do not enjoy unquestioned sovereignty even in their own capital. The regime is today largely a hollow structure. The vigorous regional ambitions of Iran and Russia, and the smaller but no less notable intentions of a vast variety of pro-regime militia commanders, must be factored into any assessment of regime capabilities and intentions.
The closeness of the Sunni Arab rebels to the regime’s urban centers and the absence of Assad’s power from almost the entirety of the country’s east are further testimony to the erosion of the regime. It is a very long way from the days when [Bashar’s father] Hafez al-Assad ran Syria as his “private farm,” as a Syrian Kurdish friend of mine once put it. The Assad regime cannot be destroyed for as long as Moscow and Teheran find a reason to underwrite its existence. But the mortar shells landing in Damascus in close succession are an unmistakable testimony to its reduced and truncated state. The anachronistic rhetoric of its officials and its supporters does not succeed in disguising this reality. Assad is wearing a hollow crown.