Bashar Al Assad’s rise to power in June 2000 came at a critical moment for the Syrian regime. Inside and outside the country, the feeling that the Baath system, which had ruled Syria for close to forty years, had reached the end line, was taking hold as the regime was gradually growing more irrelevant, anachronistic and disconnected from the reality.
The praetorian dictatorship model of state that prevailed in the Arab world, built on repression, relying on policies that stifle not only dissent but also other unauthorised expressions of political opinion by social actors, was stuck in an impasse everywhere in the region.
This model was quite ordinary in the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s. In the 1980s, it has started to show signs of overall weariness, while producing its monstrous antithesis, expressed by radical and violent groups of jihadists: i.e. what was Al Qaeda initially if not a network of global jihadists mobilised by Arab autocracies in full cooperation with the CIA, with the proclaimed goal of liberating Afghanistan from the communists? Yet, at the time, nobody ever figured out that the political change would come into that form of urbanised protest that we saw happening in the Arab cities. The only change considered was then either a coup or nothing! Reform as a prospect was just talk.
In Syria, the model has been often depicted as a military regime committed to radical social, economic, and foreign policies; eager to suppress civil rights and seal the country off from foreign influence, while displaying basic hostility toward the West.
This regime rose to power in November 1970 under the leadership of Hafiz Al Assad, after the Baath party — from which Assad’s dynasty sprang — had led a successful coup in 1963. Much like other states following the same pattern (Qadhafi’s Libya, Saddam’s Iraq, Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Sadat and Mubarak’s Egypt, A.A. Saleh’s Yemen…) the regime, while still fresh, thrives on populism, perpetuating the myth of popular participation in order to survive. Over time, the populism gradually loses steam. The formerly inclusionary state grows exclusionary.
However, if one cannot impute to historical genesis, per se, the longevity of these autocracies, the key is how the institutions of repression evolve. From the moment the inclusionary state becomes exclusionary, institutional political violence settles down, and the countdown starts. Mutual mistrust and suspicion account for much of the relations between the state and the society.
Fear becomes the political “stabiliser,” used by the police-state. Nevertheless, it is never a guarantee of longevity. Politicians know it. That is why many of those who serve dictatorships at posts of responsibility, try to keep escape routes secretly open (and well funded) with the exterior world, just in case…
When Bashar accessed power, many Syrians asked themselves whether he was able to distance himself from his father’s legacy. Unlike the father, accustomed to unrealistically boasting about the country’s “good” situation, Bashar did not hesitate to acknowledge the difficulties he was facing and seemed much promising in terms of reform and political participation.
However, soon it became clear that he lacked the wherewithal to bring about the necessary changes. The breaking point was during the outpouring of political liberalisation — at least by Syrian standards — in 2001. The old guard, reposing on a coalition of Syrian power bases, content with the status quo and liable to be hurt by the political and economic liberalisation process, opposed the reforms and called Bashar to order. Succumbing to the pressure, he reneged on his promises, and that was the beginning of the end.
This is a feature common to all the states that practice exclusionary politics. Faced with important political or economic demands, their impulse is to tighten the reins of repression rather than adopt liberalisation as a survival strategy. When those who were excluded identify “Achill’s heel,” the displayed “might” of the state crumbles down under the conjugated thrusts of the protests in no time. No dictatorship is invulnerable. The Syrians who continue to demonstrate in the streets know it perfectly.
In his masterful “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” Gene Sharp identified seventeen weaknesses of dictatorships. I am not going to enumerate them (read the book). Still, many of them seem clearly adaptable to the Syrian regime in these days (as it was the case for Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya previously).
Thus, we may say that if all the regimes following the pattern formerly described have a life expectancy of some phases, more or less reckonable, yet varied according to every country’s specificities, they tend to resemble each other when they get closer to the final stage, which is now the situation in Syria.
This is a situation where the system is unable to quickly adapt to the social scene; where personnel and resources normally used to support the government are less available; where officials start breaking up with the government and joining the protests; where the regime is less and less able to trust its normal bases of power; where the ideology is of no help whatsoever; where the bureaucracy is at its zenith of incompetency and inefficiency; where internal conflicts within the regime reach a dangerous degree; where the “public fear” is no longer an effective factor of control; where the instability of the hierarchy inside the regime is at maximum level; where subordinates do not obey anymore and sections of the security and military forces become uncontrollable; where the top of the hierarchy is completely blinded and intoxicated by its own propaganda; where regional and international allies distance themselves from the regime while the streets are invaded by the population…
The Syrian regime is agonising. The question whether there is still a power in the country to which Bashar is clinging is clearly answered if you take time to reflect on the above description of the final stage. To me, the bases of the power are collapsing, and it is now just a matter of time before the protesters invade the presidential palace.
So, what should we do about Syria? Help them in every possible way to put an end at this sorrowful tragedy.