Across the Western world, politicians are denouncing the Assad regime as ‘brutal’ – an evil dictatorship that must be toppled for the good of the Syrian people, to show the West’s unwavering support for democracy and human rights. However, amongst all this anti-Assad rhetoric, one question remains unanswered: who would take over from Assad if the West overthrows him?
Assad’s allies – a friendly face to pass the torch to?
Assad’s party, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, is part of a large alliance of nationalist parties known as the National Progressive Front. The second largest party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), is still closely aligned to the Ba’ath party. The SSNP’s armed branch is currently supporting the Assad regime against the Free Syrian Army and ISIS.
To many, there are no other clear leading figures on the pro-Assad side other than the Assad family itself. The various leaders of the allied parties could make their voices heard as individual defenders of Syria, but they do not.
The widespread popularity of Bashar al-Assad means that, far from there being state suppression of other leading voices to enhance a cult of personality, those who surround his inner circle are united behind him – they do not feel the need to show themselves as independent strongmen of the National Progressive Front. This means that pro-government Syrian civilians only truly have one high-tier figure to look up to as a symbol of their country: Assad.
Would the West depose not only Assad, but the Ba’ath party itself, and its supporting parties?
To answer that, we need only look at Western intervention in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority, the interim Iraqi government formed by US politicians and military officials, banned the Iraqi Ba’ath party in its entirety, as well as blocking any members of the top four tiers of the Ba’ath party from becoming members of the new Iraqi government. In many people’s minds, it is likely that a similar political situation would arise in Syria, with the Ba’ath party banned and its high-tier members banned from taking office.
Assad’s Opposition – can the FSA take over?
The Free Syrian Army, as the Western media have dubbed it, is nothing more than an amalgamation of a few dozen small rebel groups. There is no FSA headquarters, no FSA leaders — the moniker is an umbrella term for the rebel groups fighting against Assad. This is where the problem with deposing not only Assad, but also the Ba’ath party lies: the FSA is unified only in its hatred of Assad.
Once he is gone, there will be little unifying them; it is made up of Islamists, secularists, Christian fundamentalists, and also those who are mostly apolitical, save for hating the Assad regime for killing family members or friends.
The Syrian Civil War is already a conflict on many fronts, with the Assad government, Hezbollah, and Russia; the Free Syrian Army, Turkey, and Al-Qaeda; ISIS and Saudi Arabia; and Kurd militias and their Western allies all being belligerents fighting against one another.
If the Free Syrian Army was to fall apart into infighting, which it has already done in small scales, then the war would not be fought on the current four main fronts, but on dozens of fronts, with small regional groups facing off against one another.
Ultimately, the Western world needs to recognise that the Free Syrian Army is not a viable alternative to Assad or the wider Ba’ath party. We must learn from our mistakes in Iraq and Libya, and understand that sometimes, the lesser of two evils is not the most obvious.