About a year ago I correctly predicted the outcome of the “Arab Spring.” Pats on the back for me. Now the Syrian state is on the ropes, and we’re all wondering: when will it fall? We can use the same tools as earlier to answer that question. Also, I can use the word “whither” in a headline which, let’s face it, I never get to do. So, let’s get to it!
When the Arab Spring initially broke out, I predicted that Syria would fail to fall based upon strong group identification by its citizens as “Syrian”; the fairly recent record of military success in Lebanon; and the “liberalization” policies Bashar Assad[^1] put in place early in his regime. But it’s been a year, and it’s worth revisiting and seeing where we stand here.
Our first stop is this (sadly low-quality scan, sorry!) diagram that looks at the overall process in an individual’s choice to join a revolution.
Walking through this in the context of Syria reveals changes in the last year. Of course, at the first level, citizens of Arab countries can now see truly how deprived they are, thanks to outlets like Al Jazeera that show them the opulence of the Gulf states and the everyday life of people elsewhere; but what’s changed is the context of joining in the revolution.
And the #1 Mistake Our Audience Voted That Dictators Make Is…
Especially in the wake of the Arab Spring — although, indeed, ever since his accession to power — Bashar Assad has pursued policies to “consolidate” his power[^2]. The problem with power consolidation in any political system is representativeness. A military dictatorship may not seem like a representative government, but the reality is that every government represents some group of people; it’s just that, with a democratic form of government, that group is much, much wider.
So dictatorships are never just arbitrary implementors of the will of one person without any regard to the needs of others; it’s simply that the dictator doesn’t have to feel the need to express will and desire in terms of society, broadly.[^3] However, in order to take power initially, the dictator does need a pretty large direct support base — enough to exert either military or moral force, or some combination of the two, in sufficient quantity to defeat opposition. That means that the initial policies of the dictator need to represent the will and desires of some good-sized chunk of society.
In Assad’s case, his father came to power with a core group of supporters from the same religion and region, but also broader support within the military and broad swaths of the Syrian power elite. When people talk of Bashar Assad “consolidating his power,” they always talk about how he’s increased the power of individuals who share his religion and region. But empowering one ingroup means creating a new outgroup, and, in this case, the new outgroup is made up of the former regime supporters who just didn’t match the right ethno-religious profile. That’s worth saying again: the regime has supposedly increased its power by shrinking the circle of individuals it represents and who can expect positive outcomes from that regime.
So are the new power centers more reliable and less likely to ever break with Assad? Sure. But the old groups who were marginally in power and now in the outgroup? They’re entirely sure to break with Assad, because the regime is no longer representative of their wills and desires. The return they might get on investing in the long-term stability of the Syrian government is sure to be zero.
Revolution or Not?
The next diagram looks at individual vs. group orientation and how the way groups express their perception of the world.
It’s interesting to think about this in the pre-Arab Spring context and in the current situation for the new outgroup member described above. Pre-Arab Spring, the group context was pan-Arab, and the injustice frame involved blaming Israel. Power Discontent was steered towards acts of terrorism against Israel, and occasional wars.
Now we clearly have groups within Syria that have been able to attract the affiliation of a wide variety of individuals, individuals who have taken up arms against the Syrian state. So, in this case, we can easily work backwards and see that these groups have been able to walk their members through each of the steps above. For the individuals “consolidated” out of power, we have a new injustice frame that never existed before; discontent with power that they couldn’t have had before because they had access to that power; and a collective orientation forced on the individual by the rationale behind power consolidation. (The only question is: where did these anti-regime groups come from in the first place?)
Violent or Not?
The flip side of the Pan-Arabist strategy pursued by Syria for so long is that they ensured that any discontent would go down the extrapunitive path. With power consolidation blocking all opportunities, a violent uprising is guaranteed.
In this case, Assad has decreased his options with his power consolidation — he’s removed his options to create open opportunities for individuals to effect change within society.
Now: will Syria fall?
This is the tough question. As we saw from Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, clearly a consolidated state can survive for years after it would appear to be ready to fall. In the case of Iraq, our aggressive sanctions probably paradoxically strengthened the group identification of Iraqis as Iraqis, which short-circuits the whole “group challenges legitimizing frame of status quo” thing.
So then the question is: will we do something like this for Syria? The good news is that, to the extent the Arab League takes the lead, all that work that the Syrian regime did to make Syrians identify with a pan-Arab community should prevent an Iraq-style regime hardening. If things really start looking up in Libya and Egypt, then broader swathes of the Syrian polity may start perceiving relative deprivation vis-a-vis other, similar Arabs.
But that’s a lot of ifs. On the flip side of all of those, Assad has the firepower to put down the rebels, and we probably can’t deliver enough counter-firepower to make a difference in any brief period of time, short of actual airstrikes. So time is against the groups rebelling against the regime. If Assad can beat these groups and then de-consolidate under the banner of complying with Arab League instructions — and the former certainly seems likely — then he has the opportunity to liberalize slightly and create a quasi-one-party democratic state, under the protection of the military; really, an Egypt-style outcome.
[^1] Hey, compared to what was there before, “liberal” isn’t a hard moniker to earn.
[^2] In fact, for the first couple of years after he took over, I believe it was mandatory to mention power consolidation in every article about him.
[^3] Although one does see dictators, such as Pinochet in Chile or Franco in Spain, who have broad support and represent the will of some substantial plurality of the populace.