In an apparent display of stability and control, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently came out – accompanied by his wife – to cast his vote in a special referendum to amend the inactive constitution of 1973. In what appeared to be an attempt to reassure those loyal to him, al-Assad stressed that his forces control the ground, whilst they lack control over “space”, in reference to the Arab and foreign media that al-Assad accuses of inciting against him. Al-Assad said: “They may be stronger in space, but we are stronger on the ground. Still, we want to win on the ground and in space”.
As of next month, the Syrian protests will have completed their first year without being able to bring down the regime, although the price of human and material losses on both sides – the opposition and the loyalists – is very large. So far more than 9 thousand have been killed and 15 thousand have been wounded, while the number of refugees has now exceeded 100 thousand; 80 thousand in Jordan alone, 19 thousand in Turkey and 6 thousand in Lebanon. Meanwhile, government institutions and living conditions (not to mention the economic collapse) have been completely disrupted by a total breakdown.
According to some estimates, tourism in Syria has ceased since last April, leading to a loss of nearly 15 percent of the country’s GDP, whilst the cessation of oil exports has caused a loss of nearly 30 percent of the GDP. As for the central bank’s foreign exchange reserves, these have declined from $22 billion to $10 billion.
Following the “Friends of Syria” conference, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the CBS news network: “It’s not just one man, it is a regime, and we think that we’re putting a lot of pressure on that regime and that there will be a breaking point. And we think that the regime itself is dishonoring who they are and what they stand for. They don’t represent the Syrian people anymore. They represent a family, maybe the Baathist party, a small group of insiders”. (26 February, 2012)
But if al-Assad is just one man relying on his family and a small group of Baathist party insiders, how can we explain his (relative) resilience for more than a year?
In their book “The Dictator’s Handbook” (published by Public Affairs 2011), Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith (of New York University) ask: “Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics”. An explanation of this may help us to understand the reasons why bad rulers (or dictators if you will) remain in government for decades despite their corrupt policies. According to Mesquita and Smith, the general culture surrounding power and governance remains vague, and limited to classic works such as “The Prince” (1532) by Niccolٍ Machiavelli or “Leviathan” (1651) by Thomas Hobbes. Despite the importance of these books in terms of political philosophy, dictators in Africa for example do not need to read the works of Machiavelli in order to control the army and the government. Mobutu Sese Seko – dictator of Zaire from 1965 to 1997 – once said: “What is important here is cash. An African leader needs money, gold and diamonds to run his hundred castles, feed his thousand women, buy cars for the millions of boot-lickers under his heels, reinforce the loyal military forces and still have enough change left to deposit into his numbered Swiss accounts”.
Mesquita and Smith argue that what a leader needs in order to survive is not necessarily good policies, or even the African dictator’s palaces and ivory crowns, but rather a “winning coalition”. In other words, the survival of a dictatorial (or democratic) regime is based on the material and human elements that enable it to earn (or buy) the loyalty of a small but influential group, along with a package of policies and institutions that ensure its dominance over its rivals.
Mesquita and Smith summarize the five necessary rules (or what they call “The Dictator’s Handbook”): Firstly, keep the winning coalition as small as possible, as multiple and wide ranging participation in the decision-making process weakens the control of the regime. Secondly, keep the selectorate – the pool of potential supporters from which your winning coalition is drawn – as large as possible, so that the ruling system does not turn into a minority or elitist regime. Thirdly, control the flow of revenue in the country and the distribution of wealth so that the majority remains poor. However, grant them their necessities (through partly-free government support for bread and fuel) so that they don’t revolt, whilst also ensuring opportunities for those who are looking to progress by serving the regime. Fourth, pay key supporters just enough to keep them loyal, even those you sense are tempted to replace you, or are competing for what you have. Fifth, never take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. Then you would lose those loyal to you and at the same time you would not win over the people.
These are certainly bad rules for any form of leadership, but as the authors explain some “bad policies” are essential to maintain the rule of the dictator and ensure loyalty towards him. Much has been written about dictatorships and military rule in the Arab world from an ethical perspective, in order to explain that every tyrant falls as a result of bad, oppressive policies, but what Mesquita and Smith are telling us is that although there is no doubt that tyranny ends in demise, bad policies do not necessarily lead to its inevitable downfall. Rather, dictatorships will continue whenever the “winning coalition” is in place, and until this is destroyed by illness or old age, or a struggle for succession.
In Syria, we can say that the Hafez al-Assad regime had the “winning coalition”, although it faced a challenge in 1982 in Hama with its rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, and also in 1983 and 1984 when Hafez al-Assad became ill, and the struggle for succession intensified between his brother Rifaat and Abdel-Halim Khaddam, Zuhair Masharqa and Mustafa Tlass. Perhaps Hafez al-Assad’s ability to maintain the “winning coalition” equation provided him with the opportunity to bequeath power in 2000, whereas if we consider the radical policies of his son Bashar over the past decade, it is clear that the old balance has now been breached. Thus it is interesting to observe that the Syrian (Alawite) rural areas that once contributed to the survival of Hafez al-Assad in power are now rising up against the regime.
But what is the difference between Hafez al-Assad’s “winning coalition” of the 1980s and 1990s, and the failure of such an equation today?
In “The al-Assads’ game: Equations of power in the history of Syria”, a cover story for the Majalla magazine, Patrick Seale estimated that there were 20-30 people within the pyramid of power who represented the first line of authority and influence in Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. The President consulted with them and delegated tasks evenly, so as to maintain the balance of power. According to Seale, Hafez al-Assad clung tightly to the tools through which he controlled Syria: He appointed the leaders of the military establishment by himself, since he was the Minister of Defense, in addition to the Defense Brigades (a private militia), the four branches of which were supervised by his brother Rifaat. It was the Defense Brigades’ duty to protect the regime against a military coup. Then Hafez al-Assad had the Republican Guard, led by his brother-in-law General Adnan Makhlouf, entrusted with protecting the President against his brother and everyone else. Therefore, when conflict escalated regarding the succession of power, Hafez al-Assad was able to expel his brother and eradicate the aspiring generals – especially the Alawites – between 1983 and 1984. (The Majalla issue no. 215, March 30, 1984)
As for Bashar al-Assad, the “winning coalition” equation has been subjected to poor management. He gave his brother Maher free reign over security affairs, and presented his relatives from the Makhlouf family with a monopoly over business opportunities, before adopting a radical foreign policy line. He carried out liberal economic reforms that damaged the budgets of what was primarily a rentier state, particularly with the reliance of rural areas and the poorer classes on government support. According to a study conducted by the Alexander Hamilton Institute of New York University in 2007, the Bashar al-Assad regime relies on 3,600 people to ensure its influence and control. The study also indicates that the Alawites, who represent 12 percent of the population, hold about 70 percent of officer positions at leadership levels, whilst also constituting the majority in the Republican Guard and Maher al-Assad’s Fourth Armored Division. This means that those who owe allegiance to the Syrian regime constitute less than one percent of a total population of 22 million.
The regime still enjoys its international allies, like Russia and China, and receives support from countries such as Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, but this may not continue for too long. The rules that allowed the Syrian regime to stay in power over the past decades are now starting to disintegrate, as the regime runs out of money. The first to flee the regime’s sinking ship will be those whom it depends upon for survival today.