The intractable Syrian conflict has created the temptation to flirt with keeping in power Bashar al-Assad, the heir to the now 45-year-old al-Assad dynasty, through a political deal. But this will prove nothing more than a futile exercise of wishful thinking. The much-touted mantra of reaching a ‘political solution’ that keeps Assad in power belies the reality of a decayed governance system, ravaged by the rampant corruption that has plagued the country for decades and left the public with no choice except revolution.
Those supporting such a compromise cite the superficial measures such as repealing the four-decade old emergency law, writing a new constitution and ushering in a new parliament as an evidence of the regime’s commitment to a fresh start. Not only has the ruling Baath Party—under the leadership of the late Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar—overlooked the systematic corruption in state institutions (in cahoots with security services) but conveniently nurtured it.
Ironically, when Bashar’s neo-liberal economic reforms were hailed in major capitals as a boon for the country’s future, he was also abetting industrial-scale corruption. Bashar’s early promises of fighting corruption and institutionalising accountability were soon abandoned for fear of eroding the regime’s support base and its patronage network. Nepotism has become so deeply entrenched that it has subsumed the stale Baathist ideology that permeated state institutions. Going forward, the only viable political solution is one that ends the corrupt system al-Assads built to keep the family in power.
Under Assad’s watch, the military and security apparatuses were able to act with impunity in return for their unquestionable loyalty to the regime. Before the revolution, they benefited from the conspicuous absence of civilian oversight to confront corruption, bribery, and money laundering. Their domination over the civil administration eroded the state bureaucracy’s professionalism. These officials also built their own private financial empires through embezzlement from the state-owned enterprises, extortion of conscripts who wanted military service exemptions, and smuggling from neighbouring countries.
The nomination of senior government officials has long hinged on the approval of the security apparatus. While their ultimate allegiance is serving the ruling clique, bureaucrats are held hostage to the security establishments. The ability to keep their posts is dependent on steering away from challenging the status quo and satisfying the demands of senior security and military officers. This has created a vicious cycle in which officials’ corruption was overlooked (and even encouraged) as part of political deals for self-enrichment.
Security and political officials utilized their positions to award lucrative projects and contracts to businessmen in exchange for high commissions or becoming ‘silent partners’ in profit-sharing schemes. The Assad regime used the threat of exposing bureaucrats’ business deals to ensure their subservience.
Efforts to change this system were never serious. On rare occasions such illicit dealings would come to the public’s attention, but this was only when political deals went sour. The Assad regime punished rogue officials under the pretence of protecting national interests. These politically-motivated trials were a fig leaf to punish dissenting figures, intimidate dangerous adversaries, and refurbish the image of the regime.
There was never any effort to establish independent civil institutions to counter corruption and introduce accountability. The Central Body of Monitoring and Inspection—the only agency ostensibly mandated with investigations of corruption and embezzlement in the public sector since 1981—has never had jurisdiction over the security sector.
The legislative branch is mainly occupied by members of the Baath Party and is nothing but a rubber stamp for presidential orders. Despite their constitutional right to review the military budget, parliamentary members refrain for fear of reprisals. For decades the pre-approved defence budget has been under-reported and not been reflected in the official statistics to prevent oversight.
The brief period of tolerating dissent in 2000 ended quickly after several parliamentarians were stripped of their constitutional immunity rights, had their assets expropriated, and were imprisoned for publicly denouncing the centralisation of power in the hands of regime cronies and security officials.
Decades of preponderant corruption and unfulfilled promises of accountability have dashed hopes of the al-Assad regime bringing about genuine change to its governance structure. The 2005 Regional Baath Party Conference was a last hope with its promises to address the endemic graft in its 10th five-year plan, but the party never implemented any changes.
The corruption that the al-Assad regime nurtured for its survival has become so entrenched that even its allies are fed up. Thanks to the institutionalized corruption, supplies from regime-held areas, including weapons and ammunition, found their way across to opposition groups through military checkpoints. This hit a new low when Iran was outraged by the rampant corruption and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah become directly involved in overseeing financial and military support.
Despite the mounting strains on the regime, senior commanders have been siphoning off funds and materiel by using ‘ghost fighters’, selling captured land, extorting people crossing checkpoints and even providing protective services to traders. At the same time, regime businessmen basked in the war economy by sponsoring militia groups as a way of protecting their investments and gaining influence in a post-conflict Syria – similar to the Lebanese model. These new warlords are the main beneficiaries of the war economy. They have no interest in seeing a political solution succeed because it will only come by severing the entrenched links among the political, security and business ranks.
Keeping al-Assad in power is not a solution for Syrians who have endured decades of living under a politically and morally bankrupt system. The 2011 protests made it clear that the unholy alliance between the ruling family, security officials and business oligarchs has to be broken. A sustainable solution is one that writes a new social contract that ends the plundering of national wealth Syrians took the streets against.
It is frightening and disheartening to see Western politicians consider keeping Assad in power as a face-saving measure for their dithering about resolving the conflict. The al‑Assad family and the corrupt system they have built are the heart of the problem. Keeping the rotten structures in place might provide brief calm, but the underlying corruption will continue to fester undermining prospects for any lasting peace.
Rashad al-Kattan is a political and security risk analyst, and a fellow with the Centre for Syrian Studies (CSS) at the University of St. Andrews.