How Syria's Assad Has Managed To Hold On To Power

Kelly McEvers talks to Syria expert Shashank Joshi, about President Bashar al-Assad's tenacious grip on power. Joshi is with the Royal Services Institute in London.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The State Department says the U.S. is not ruling out strikes against the militant group the Islamic State in Syria - this after the brutal killing of American journalist James Foley. The U.S. launched more airstrikes against the group yesterday in Iraq. We have a conversation with the deputy national security advisor about U.S. plans elsewhere in the program.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, this is not the first time the United States has contemplated military action in Syria. One year ago today, a chemical attack killed hundreds of people in a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus. The United Nations later said all evidence pointed to the government of Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

MCEVERS: President Obama said Assad had crossed a red line and proposed so call pinprick airstrikes in Syria to weaken Assad's military. But then, that didn't happen. Instead, Assad's government agreed to destroy its chemical weapons.

GREENE: Assad is still in power, and some in Europe, as well as a former high-ranking American diplomat, are now suggesting that the United States work with him in the fight against the Islamic State.

MCEVERS: To find out how Assad has managed to stay in power, we turn to Shashank Joshi from the Royal Services Institute in London. He says Assad is still in power, in part, because of the U.S. response to his actions a year ago.

SHASHANK JOSHI: The United States decided it did not want to see the Syrian state collapse. And therefore, when they were given the opportunity to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons rather than conduct missile strikes, they opted for the safer option. They progressively had lost trust in the possibility of a moderate Syrian opposition. They grew increasingly alarmed by the prospect of jihadists within ranks. And therefore, the prospect of punishing the Assad regime was simply less attractive than living with it.

MCEVERS: I guess it does beg the question--this idea of limited military strikes in Syria. Would that have dismantled the entire military and thrown the country into complete chaos?

JOSHI: I think some people could argue that it would have had two functions. First of all, it would have shown the Assad regime that any military gains that they could've achieved by their likely use of sarin gas against rebels last year would have been outweighed by U.S. missiles. The second objective may have been to destroy the idea that the regime was beyond reproach. And what that might have achieved would be a change in the balance of power and, therefore, a return to negotiations with the opposition on more favorable terms.

MCEVERS: But yet, it still didn't happen.

JOSHI: Yes, President Obama wasn't sure whether the U.S. Congress would authorize his approach. Now, of course, he didn't need to secure congressional authorization. He hasn't done so for his strikes this week in Iraq. And so he was always uncertain to begin with. And I think the fundamental reason was even if he could weaken the Assad regime, President Obama himself simply didn't think there was a viable alternative to step in. And I think that he continues to believe that.

MCEVERS: Militarily, we know that the rebels in Syria have lost their final stronghold in the city of Homs, and now it looks like they're on the ropes in Aleppo. What's the situation for Assad's military on the ground?

JOSHI: Assad has succeeded in a number of key strategic areas because of external assistance from Iran, from Russia, but also from Hezbollah. In some cases, there are suggestion that Hezbollah has even been leading units of the Syrian armed forces. The prices of Assad's military successes has been the fragmentation and transformation of his army and huge foreign influences on the way he runs his campaign.

MCEVERS: But that works for him. So why - you know, why not make these allies? Why not work with these groups?

JOSHI: It works for him, but, of course, he loses personal control over the campaigns. For example, in the previous weeks, Iran has grown more concerned about the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq. It has probably applied pressure on President Assad to use more air strikes against the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa in Syria. So Assad may not be in complete control of his own strategy.

MCEVERS: You know, people say that Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, who, of course, ruled Syria for decades, was a master at outmaneuvering his opponents - that he would work with one opponent to defeat another and then that final opponent - he would liquidate them to. Is this Bashar al-Assad's plan with the Islamic State?

JOSHI: I think that that has been Assad's approach over the past two years. We know that Assad's government had extensive ties to jihadists. We also know that it made a very specific decision to allow the Islamic State to grow and grow and grow.

MCEVERS: But yet, this idea of using the Islamic State against all his other opponents and then sort of waiting until the last minute to do away with them - isn't there a danger there?

JOSHI: Yes, I think Assad is playing with fire. It may be that they have toyed with the idea of allowing ISIS to grow and take over their moderate legitimate opponent. And they will find that, actually, the Islamic State is a most formidable opponent the regime may have faced to date.

MCEVERS: That's Shashank Joshi, a reporter with the Royal United Services Institute in London. Thank you so much.

JOSHI: You're welcome.

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