The Precarious Survival of the Assad Regime

Syria’s pursuit of international recognition aims to compensate for the lack of legitimacy at home but is it working?

By: /
10 June, 2024
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came to power in July 2000, succeeding his father, Hafiz al-Assad, who ruled from 1971-2000. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Sheriff Tabba
By: Sheriff Tabba
Writer & Researcher

2023 was a year of diplomatic successes for the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Arab governments reestablished official ties with Syria while the international community has been losing interest in the Syrian conflict and its catastrophic impact on Syria and beyond. Some are even describing the situation in the country today as “post-conflict” even though the reality on the ground contradicts this. The regime’s recent diplomatic successes, however, mask very profound challenges to its authority and control. Although it has avoided being toppled by the opposition, the Assad regime has been severely weakened by conflict and it has survived thus far thanks to support from Russia and Iran. In fact, it is Russia and especially Iran that have benefited the most from the Syrian conflict and the Assad regime is serving as a junior partner to both foreign backers. Furthermore, the regime’s recent diplomatic achievements have not strengthened it nor alleviated the difficulties that it faces. Ultimately, breaking through international isolation will not be sufficient for the Assad regime to eliminate its opponents and re-establish its domination over Syria as it once had before 2011. 

One set of challenges that Assad faces is the diffusion of his regime’s power and authority due to its reliance on various domestic actors. These include various paramilitary groups that the regime created in its war against the armed opposition and a new group of businessmen who profited from the conflict and used their wealth and connections to economically assist the regime with its war effort. To secure the loyalty of these actors, the regime provided them with autonomy, material rewards and other privileges so long as they did not challenge it. As a result, the regime has become dependent on these local allies to maintain control over the country in sharp contrast to the pre-2011 era. This situation has been exacerbated by both Iran and Russia as they compete to court and sponsor these domestic actors to further entrench their influence in Syria. In the process, they have become beholden to either Tehran or to Moscow.  None of this has lessened the severity of the regime’s authoritarianism. In fact, these dynamics only increased the regime’s predatory tendencies with these actors becoming new instruments in the regime’s oppression of the Syrian people

Syria’s woes are also exacerbated by the regime’s economic policies which are at best characterized as a combination of mismanagement and extraction. Although years of conflict destroyed Syria’s already poor economy, this dire situation has been compounded by the regime’s approach to the country’s economic malaise. In regime held areas, more and more Syrians have become pre-occupied with the deteriorating economic conditions, which has prompted many to flee. It also sparked a new wave of protests in different parts of the country. While most were short-lived and quickly supressed, the most significant anti-regime demonstrations that are continuously held to this day are those in the southern region of Sweida. Although the demonstrations were triggered by economic concerns, they soon became more political with demonstrators calling for the fall of Assad and the release of all political prisoners. While the Sweida demonstrations are unlikely to weaken the regime, they represent the most visible manifestation of dissent within regime-held territory.

The deteriorating conditions in regime held areas coincided with the thawing of relations between Assad and other Arab governments. Many Arab governments have been restoring ties with the Syrian dictatorship since 2018 and it culminated with Assad attending the Arab League summit in Jeddah last summer (and the restoration of Syria’s membership) and the joint Arab and Islamic summits that were convened last November in response to Israel’s ongoing onslaught in the Gaza strip post October 7th. 

Some Arab governments have also taken it upon themselves to advocate for further rehabilitation of the regime in western capitals. This was encouraged by the Biden administration’s subdued response to Assad’s creeping normalization, which reflects American disinterest in the Syrian conflict and its repercussions. However, the outreach made by Arab governments did little to alleviate the economic challenges facing Assad. In addition, various Arab governments made specific demands to the Assad regime and its rehabilitation is contingent on the ability of Damascus to meet them. 

However, and so far, the regime has demonstrated neither the ability nor the will to meet the demands of its Arab counterparts. One important demand was the curbing of the Captagon trade which originates in Syrian regime held territory. The Amphetamine-type drug is a crucial source of income for the Assad regime, and it exports Captagon to the Gulf states where it is mostly consumed by these countries’ youth. While the Assad regime has promised to crack down on the Captagon trade, the drug continues to be exported. Jordan, which has been one of the staunchest proponents of rehabilitating the Assad regime, has also been negatively affected by the Captagon trade since huge amounts of the drug passes through the country from Syria to the Gulf.  The Syrian-Jordanian border has even witnessed clashes between the Jordanian military and drug traffickers with the former using warplanes this past January to bomb locations in Southern Syria used for the Captagon trade, which resulted in the deaths of Syrian civilians. The Captagon trade also has geopolitical dimensions since Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah are involved in manufacturing the drug and earning profits from its sale.

Some have rationalized the rehabilitation of the Assad regime as a means of countering Iranian influence in Syria by driving a wedge between Tehran and the regime. However, Iran’s presence continues to grow in Syria even while Arab governments restore their ties with Assad. Iran’s growing influence is also a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine with Tehran exploiting Moscow’s pre-occupation with Kyiv to further entrench itself in Syria. In addition, Arab governments are now normalizing relations with Tehran instead of countering its interventionism in the region. The inability of Arab governments to obtain concessions from both the Assad regime and its Iranian backer have laid bare the limitations of official Arab strategies to overcome regional challenges. 

One regional challenge that is having a negative effect on Syria is Israel’s rivalry with Iran. For years Israel has carried out airstrikes in Syria targeting logistics used by Iran and its proxies. Following the October 7th attack, Israel changed its strategy to target key military figures affiliated with Iran and its proxies in different parts of Syria. Despite official statements, the Assad regime has avoided getting involved in the regional tensions caused by Israel’s current campaign in the Gaza strip. However, Syria is still vulnerable to Israeli-Iranian tensions and it is unclear at this stage how the aftermath of Israel’s campaign in Gaza will affect Syria and its place within the Middle East. 

One possible reason behind Assad’s notable lack of involvement in the regional reverberations resulting from the ongoing hostilities in Gaza is doing so could jeopardize attempts to diplomatically rehabilitate Syria. After all, many of Assad’s allies (such as Russia and the UAE) also enjoy close ties with Israel and they acted aggressively to end the diplomatic isolation that his regime has experienced since 2011. Some claim that Assad is seeking to instrumentalize his avoidance of the regional tensions generated by Israel’s war in Gaza as a bargaining chip to curry favor with Western capitals. However, the regime’s regional diplomatic achievements have galvanized attempts to halt its rehabilitation and/or make the process difficult to implement.

In February 2023, the US Congress passed the “Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act”, which prolongs the US implementation of sanctions on the Assad regime (as introduced via the Caesar’s Act) and penalizes attempts to rehabilitate the regime. In Europe, legal cases were launched in several countries against the regime for its crimes against humanity under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Many individuals who were involved in the regime’s machinery of oppression were convicted and arrested. These legal cases also serve to stigmatize attempts to diplomatically rehabilitate the Assad regime. 

In both the US and in Europe, efforts to thwart normalization of the Assad regime and hold it accountable for its crimes have been spearheaded by anti-regime Syrians, many of whom had to flee Syria due repression and conflict. While these efforts have not spelt the death of normalizing the Assad regime, both as an idea and as a practice, they have complicated and problematized the process enough to slow its momentum. Nevertheless, many are still interested in bringing Assad back from the cold and putting aside the damage that he and his regime have caused since 2011. 

In Europe, for example, calls are growing louder for reestablishing diplomatic ties with Assad, especially from far-right parties that have recently grown more influential in European politics. The regime also instrumentalized its ties with multilateral organizations such as Interpol, the WHO and other UN agencies. Engagement with these organizations benefits the regime in different ways such as controlling the flow of humanitarian aid to reward its supporters for their loyalty and using these multilateral bodies to bypass international sanctions. Thus, international diplomacy has become a new front in the struggle between the Assad regime and its opponents.

From a Canadian standpoint, the government, which cut formal diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012, has continued to provide funding for humanitarian and development assistance to Syria and the region, while seeking a “sustainable political solution”. It also participated in efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable, most notably supporting a Dutch initiative last year to bring the regime to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and hold it on trial over its systematic and large scale repression under the framework of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). However, Canada’s policies towards the Syrian conflict risk being undermined by deepening ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose members are actively rehabilitating Assad and his regime. There is also pressure from several EU member states that are active in changing the bloc’s approach to Syria in manner that is harmful to Syrians and at odds with Ottawa’s human rights commitments. Then there is the US, which has been neglecting Syria and the Middle East in general in the last few years. These factors could affect Ottawa’s approach(es) to the Syrian conflict and its reverberations.

The Assad regime’s pursuit of international recognition and support from other governments and multilateral bodies has always been aimed to compensate for the lack of legitimacy at home. Since 2011, this approach has become more urgent as the regime’s rule over Syria remains tenuous due to the myriad of political, security and economic crises brought about by the Assads’ authoritarianism, nepotism, corruption, and unflinching willingness to use brute force to ensure its control over the country. These were the causes of the 2011 uprising and they have only worsened over the past decade. Thus, the challenges to the regime’s control over Syria are products of its political culture and governance of the country. 

Despite this, the Assad regime is still willing to cling to power and the combination of support from its Russian and Iranian allies and the lack of international accountability over its war crimes have emboldened it to continue its destructive and confrontational posture. This leaves Syria in a precarious and dangerous position where its people are vulnerable to various threats and dangers. Military confrontations are still taking place even if the Syrian conflict has been in a low intensity phase in the last few years. Meanwhile, ordinary Syrians are either challenging the regime or fleeing the country to find safety and wellbeing elsewhere. All of this makes Syria’s future, and regime’s fate, uncertain. Thus, and despite some diplomatic breakthroughs, none will guarantee the Assad regime’s survival in the decades to come.

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