North Africa, West Asia

Assad’s rational brutality

Bashar al-Assad is a rational tyrant. Since he inherited the presidency in 2000, Assad has strategically employed brutality to repress dissent and maintain power.

Chris Doucouliagos
31 March 2017

Picture from “The Banners of Occupied Kfar Nabel” page on Facebook. Amnesty International’s report on mass hangings is a harrowing reminder of Assad’s tyranny. Torture, sexual violence, attacks on medical facilities, and murder and atrocities are all components of a calculated brutality that has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions, and caused untold misery.

The decade leading up to the outbreak of war in Syria saw progress in market liberalisation and growth. Though lagging behind most other Arab nations, economic freedom and human development improved and per capita income grew by 15%, with income levels higher than many neighbouring states (New Maddison Project Database). Per capita wealth doubled from $1,601 USD in 2000 to $3,283 USD in 2010 (Credit Suisse, 2016). Overall income inequality and the income share of the top 10% fell (UNU-WIDER). None of this delivered welfare and political liberalization. Millions lived in poverty.

As argued by Ronald Wintrobe in Rational Extremism, dictators hold power by a combination of loyalty to the regime and repression. Rising incomes and crony capitalism helped Assad to purchase the loyalty of some, whilst repressing the many. Civil liberties and political rights flatlined. CIRI human rights data show increased torture, extrajudicial killings, political imprisonment, and disappearances in the years building up to 2011. This deterioration arose from a sequence of conscious decisions instigated by the Syrian state. For example, the Damascus Declaration, a united platform of various opposition groups demanding peaceful democratic reform, sent alarm bells ringing. A call for democracy posed a major threat to Syria’s ruling elites. Assad responded with repression. The brutality accelerated exponentially with the Arab spring. In Wintrobe’s terminology, Assad’s goals are indivisible: all or nothing, “Assad or we burn the country”. As discussed by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami (e.g. in Burning Country), brutality was employed to provoke a response; a political settlement would work against the regime, so Assad opted for military confrontation and civil war.

As a rational extremist, Assad chose methods that would achieve his goals. Rather than accommodating demands for political participation and allowing civil society to flourish, Assad responded with brutality and terror. With the aim to divide and rule, Assad exploited ethnic and tribal rivalries and generated fear. Propaganda portrayed all the opposition as terrorists. When the military tide turned against the regime, Assad brought foreign nations to invade; tyrants bring the invaders. Syrian and Russian military effort was primarily directed not at ISIS but at weakening the moderate opposition and shifting the balance in favour of jihadists; the fruits of this have now been realised. While these were highly risky strategies, the pay-offs to Assad’s survival have been enormous.

Options for peace

In an ideal world, Assad would pay for his crimes. However, his foreign backers will prevent this. Exile to Russia or Iran is improbable. A moderate rebel victory is now unlikely. Russia’s intervention ensured that there is no regime change; without it Assad would today be ousted. It is also unlikely that Syria could return to the pre-2011 status quo. Unfortunately, a permanent occupation, with Syria as an Iranian proxy facing an on-going Sunni funded jihadist rural insurgency is not out of the question.

  The key elements for a lasting peace are obvious: protecting civilians, supporting non-Baathists and non-jihadists, and fostering a multi-ethnic pluralistic society. To be successful, the peace process needs to appeal to the interests of several competing groups.

The most pressing issue is the protection of civilians. This requires UN and Russian backed safe zones, strict enforcement of ceasefire, and an end to sieges and the forced removal of civilians.

In all likelihood, Assad will need to stay in power for a fixed period, e.g. via a constitution imposed presidential term-limit. In the meantime, federalism offers a viable mechanism for peaceful transition, with decentralized autonomy given to three or four regions. This would buy political and economic space for various competing groups. Western and Arab donors should provide monitored aid to these regions in exchange for cessation of conflict and improved governance and human rights. Autonomous regions could build upon the civil society and grass roots developments (e.g. Local Coordinating Committees) that emerged in the course of the rebellion (see Burning Country), potentially serving as a model for the rest of Syria. Finally, there will need to be continued struggle against radical jihadists and ISIS.

Assad cannot rule by repression alone. He relies on support from within Syria as well as from Russia and Iran. Syria’s tribes (e.g. al-Zoubi, al-Masalmeh, and Bani Khalid) and various ethnic communities (e.g. Alawites, Kurds, and Druze) have played an important role for both the regime and the opposition and need to be brought into the peace process. The Kremlin must urgently use its political capital to convince Assad and Iran to implement political reforms. Sanctions on Russia can be lifted in exchange, with Ukraine supported through aid and subsidies; a democratic and corruption free Ukraine is a better response to Russian aggression than trade reducing sanctions.

Syrians crave what all people want: to live in peace and dignity. The world has a duty to protect all civilians and this is ultimately in our own self-interest. An injury to one is an injury to all.

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