Assad Has Made His Allies Think He's Indispensable

And his people suffer the consequences

A soldier stands on a road in Syria in front of a billboard with a photo of Assad and Putin shaking hands.
A billboard on the side of a road in Syria shows Assad and Putin shaking hands. (Omar Sanadiki / Reuters)

BEIRUT—On Friday, forces loyal to a triumphant Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, raised Syrian and Palestinian flags at a roundabout in Quneitra, a destroyed town inside a demilitarized zone separating Syria and Israel. In July, Russian-backed military operations sought to drive mainstream rebels, as well as fighters linked to the Islamic State, out of the southern province of Daraa and neighboring Quneitra. With the Assad regime recapturing all territories in southern Syria, the two areas that remain out of the regime’s control are the northwestern province of Idlib, dominated by Islamist rebel groups and policed by Turkish forces, and the oil-rich northeast and east, which are under the control of Kurdish militias and under the protection of a contingent of U.S. forces.

The contours of the deal in Syria are already emerging, despite Israel’s downing of a Syrian fighter jet last week and its uncompromising stance on Iran’s expanded footprint in Syria since 2011. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s defense minister, suggested in early July that his country would love nothing more than a return to the relatively stable status quo that prevailed at the Israeli-Syrian border from 1974 until 2011, and did not rule out “some kind of relationship” with the Assad regime. And despite recent heightened tension with Syria and Iran, Israel has largely stood by over the past few weeks as the regime and its allies captured one town after another along both the Israeli and Jordanian borders. Regime propaganda has referred to this as a campaign to “cleanse the area from terrorists supported by the Zionist state.”

From Bashar al-Assad’s perspective, the more than seven-year war to save his family’s nearly 50-year rule has been a huge success despite the half a million lives it has claimed, the millions it has displaced, the destruction it has wrought, and the war crimes perpetrated mainly by his regime. Assad has tried to use the war in Syria to turn himself into the region’s indispensable leader. Indeed, his Russian patrons are casting him as vital for repatriating Syrians who fled the war, stamping out Islamist extremists, and defending Israel as part of Moscow’s quest to reap major dividends from its military intervention on Assad’s behalf. Israel, too, can accept his victory because it means stability, and an entrenched strongman with a demonstrated ability to control Islamist threats just across the border.

Russia wants to convince Israel that restoring the Assad regime’s full control of southern Syria offers the best chance to return to the calm that prevailed before 2011, while keeping Iran and its proxies away from the Golan Heights. Moscow’s confidence in its pitch to the Israelis dates back to the signing of a U.S.-brokered agreement to end the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. In June of 1974, Assad’s father, Hafez, hoisted a flag proclaiming “liberation” from Israel at the roundabout in Quneitra to the chants of supporters and glare of TV cameras. (It was the same spot where his son’s forces raised flags last week.) But this was hardly the victory portrayed by the senior Assad’s propaganda machine. Hafez had joined Egypt in the October 1973 war against Israel to reclaim the strategic and water-rich Golan Heights, which Syria had lost to Israel in the 1967 war. To secure support for his coup in 1970, Hafez promised his Baath Party comrades and the army generals that he would recapture the Golan. But his gambit failed, imperiling his regime.

Lucky for Hafez, then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, after months of shuttle diplomacy between Damascus and Tel Aviv, convinced Richard Nixon that giving the Syrians the town of Quneitra and a few surrounding villages on the foothills of the Golan Heights was crucial to Hafez’s “political survival” at home. Israel demolished Quneitra and returned it to Syria, but a quid-pro-quo was cemented between Damascus and Washington that essentially allowed Hafez to rule his people with an iron fist and launch rhetorical barrages against the “eternal enemy,” Israel; in return, Syria would halt all direct threats against Israel from the Syrian border.

The regime went out of its way not to antagonize Israel in the Golan Heights, but officially, Israel and Syria remained at war over the next 26 years—a fact that Hafez used as a pretext to decimate all internal challenges to his authority, and to show Washington that any attempts to challenge his rule could imperil the Arab-Israeli peace process. Meanwhile, Hafez nurtured an array of Palestinian factions that continued to attack Israel from Lebanon. Later, his partnership with Iran gave birth to Hezbollah, which targeted both Israel and Western interests. Hafez’s message to America: Only he and his regime could control and rein in all the fanatics who wanted to “annihilate” Israel. He was at once the arsonist and the firefighter, never directly targeting Israel but more than happy to cultivate groups that would.

Fast forward 44 years, and Hafez’s son Bashar is bringing Syria’s bloody, popular uprising to a similar conclusion. This time, instead of Washington, we have Moscow brokering a deal with Israel on the Assad regime’s behalf; instead of Kissinger, we have Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Assads’ motive, however, remains the same: survival at any cost.

While the Russians work to reposition the Syrian regime as guarantor of Israel’s security and Syria’s state media celebrate the final acts of what they have long called a “global conspiracy” against Syria, Bashar al-Assad still has much to worry about: His survival was made possible by the support of Russia and Iran, two countries with agendas and calculations beyond Syria’s borders. “If the Russians are negotiating with the Israelis directly, why do they need him? I am sure every night Assad goes to bed he’s calculating his usefulness, his sell-by date, and worrying about when he’ll become a liability,” the Fletcher School’s Nadim Shehadi told me.

Khattar Abou Diab, a Paris-based Syria specialist, also reminded me that while Iran and Russia both back Syria, Tehran is not simply going to do what Moscow wants just to please Israel. “While Iran may seem like it’s backing off a bit in Syria, this is tactical because Iran considers Syria the crown jewel and it won’t give it up so easily,” he said.

As such, Assad is eager to demonstrate his usefulness to both of his patrons. He will continue to cast himself as one of the pillars of Iran and Hezbollah’s so-called axis of resistance against Israel and the United States, especially as tensions ratchet up between Tehran and Washington over a range of issues, including the nuclear deal, Iran’s role in the region, and sanctions. He will also continue to regard his regime as a cornerstone of Moscow’s efforts to redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East and the world. “Russian armed forces are needed for balance in our region, at least in the Middle East, until the global political balance changes,” Assad said in an interview with Russian media on Thursday.

Assad’s best protection could be Israel’s confidence in his rule. “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in early July.

In the end, Bashar al-Assad applied the main lessons of his father’s reign: People should never be able to imagine a world without you; the moment they do, you’re finished. But not even Hafez could have ever envisioned the price that would be paid to fully realize that lesson.