Assessing Assad

The Syrian leader isn't crazy. He's just doing whatever it takes to survive.

The assessments of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following his interview with Barbara Walters in early December all strike a common theme. A U.S. State Department spokesman, for instance, declared that Assad appears to be "utterly disconnected with the reality that's going on in his country." One analyst opined, "It's now clear that Assad meets his own definition of crazy."

What prompted these conclusions was Assad's answer when Walters asked, "Do you think that your forces cracked down too hard?" He replied, "They are not my forces; they are military forces belong [sic] to the government.… I don't own them. I am president. I don't own the country, so they are not my forces." In a Western democracy, it's hard to imagine how a leader could so blatantly deny responsibility for the actions taken by his own government. But is it Assad who is out of touch with reality? Or is it us?

Following the logic we set out in The Dictator's Handbook, we believe Assad has been misunderstood and maybe, just maybe, even misjudged. In the book, we argue that no leader -- not even a Louis XIV, an Adolf Hitler, or a Joseph Stalin -- can rule alone. Each must rely on a coalition of essential supporters without whom power will be lost. That coalition, in turn, counts on a mutually beneficial relationship with the leader. They keep the ruler in office, and the ruler keeps them in the money. If either fails to deliver what the other wants, the government falls.

Assad is no exception. Just as he said, it is not his government. He cannot do whatever he wants. He might even be a true reformer, as many in the Western media believed prior to the Arab Spring, or he may be the brute he now appears to be. The truth is, he is doing what he must to maintain the loyalty of those who keep him in power.

Assad depends on the backing of key members of the Alawite clan, a quasi-Shiite group consisting of between 12 and 15 percent of Syria's mostly Sunni population. The Alawites make up 70 percent of Syria's career military, 80 percent of the officers, and nearly 100 percent of the elite Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division, led by the president's brother Maher. In a survey of country experts we conducted in 2007, we found that Assad's key backers -- those without whose support he would have to leave power -- consisted of only about 3,600 members out of a population of about 23 million. That is less than 0.02 percent. Assad is not alone in his dependence on a small coalition. Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's coalition is even smaller. His essential supporters include the Revolutionary Guard's leadership, the economically essential bonyad conglomerates, key clerics, and a smattering of business interests, totaling, according to our survey of Iran experts, about 2,000 in a population of well over 70 million.

Any political system that depends on such a small percentage of the population to sustain a leader in power is destined to be a corrupt, rent-seeking regime in which loyalty is purchased through bribery and privilege. Syria possesses these traits in spades. Transparency International reports in its latest evaluation that Syria ranks in the top third of the world for corruption. So, when Assad says it is not his government, he is right. If he betrays the interests of his closest Alawite allies, for instance by implementing reforms that will dilute their share of the spoils, they will probably murder him before any protesters can topple his regime. Of course, the uprising or international intervention might eventually end his rule. But those possibilities remain potential. Should the loyalty of his 3,600 supporters falter and they stop working to neutralize protest, Assad will be gone immediately. Captive to the needs of his coalition, he ignores the welfare of the 23 million average Syrians and shuns world opinion.

There is, in fact, real evidence that Assad has modest reformist tendencies. During his 11 years in power, he has increased competitiveness in the economy, liberalized -- a bit -- the banking sector, and did, according to our 2007 survey, expand his Alawite-based winning coalition by about 50 percent when he first succeeded his father (though, having secured his hold on power, he was able to purge some of these surplus supporters and by around 2005 had reduced the coalition's size back to what it had been under his father). Syria has enjoyed a respectable growth rate under his leadership, though it is also suffering from high deficit spending, deep indebtedness (about 27 percent of GDP), and high unemployment, especially in the countryside and in Damascus's poverty belt. Although official unemployment figures claim about 8.9 percent unemployment, at least one well-regarded Syrian economist estimates the rate at 22 to 30 percent.

And with the Arab League endorsing stiff economic sanctions, Assad's regime now risks steep economic decline. With Syrians facing a society in which the rewards go to so few and confronted with the example of the uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, it is little wonder that the people have rebelled. It is equally unsurprising that the privileged few have responded brutally to preserve their advantages.

There are two effective responses to a mass uprising (other than stepping down, of course, which leaders almost never do until all other options have been exhausted): liberalize to redress the people's grievances or crack down to make their odds of success too small for them to carry on. Leaders who lack the financial wherewithal to continue paying off cronies often choose to liberalize. (Remember South Africa's F.W. de Klerk, who negotiated a government transition with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress when economic decline made the apartheid system unsustainable.) Those who can muster the money to sustain crony loyalty do so. This is why the rich oil states to Syria's south have resisted reform and why, despite its popular uprising, Libya will not become democratic. Here is another case where Assad's statement that it is not his country is true, but only partially. As president, he could liberalize to buy off those rebelling, but his key backers will almost certainly not allow him to do so as long as there is enough money to keep paying foot soldiers to crack heads. With Syria's oil wealth in decline and with stiff economic sanctions, the regime's two choices are to liberalize or to find new sources of money. They have succeeded in the latter pursuit.

Reuters reported on July 15 that Iran and Iraq offered Assad's regime $5 billion in aid, with $1.5 billion paid immediately. The $5 billion is equal to about 40 percent of Syrian government revenue. Since the announcement of Arab League sanctions, Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela have signed agreements to expand trade and investment in Syria to the tune of more than $7 billion in 2012, including building an oil refinery. That is just what Assad's political-survival doctor ordered. This injection of cash in the short term is likely to keep the military and security forces on his side. The military core of his coalition is likely to do whatever it takes to keep the president in power as long as that money keeps on flowing. That is the essential synergy of all leader-coalition arrangements.

In the long run, meaning two to five years, reform is likely in Syria, perhaps through internal uprising and perhaps driven by forces outside the country. It could be that Assad will turn out to be the instrument of change, but the process of getting to that point will continue to be ugly, painful, and brutal as long as the likes of Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela care more about currying favor with Assad's regime than they do about the well-being of the Syrian people.

How long they can do so is open to speculation. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is rumored to be terminally ill. Will his successors care about sustaining the costs of closer ties with Syria? With Iran facing its own economic problems, how long will the Islamic Republic's regime sacrifice to sustain Assad? If Iran's regime focuses more of its energy on internal affairs, will Nouri al-Maliki's Iraqi government, itself likely to face stiff internal resistance, continue to build closer ties with its Syrian neighbor? In each of these cases, we don't believe the current arrangement will last long. That, in the end, may be the greatest hope for the Syrian people.

Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images


Bashar al-Assad Is Every Bit His Father's Son

The family that slays together stays together.

Incredibly, the Syrian uprising has now entered its 10th month. More than 5,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations, with thousands more imprisoned and tortured or driven from the country. Many Syrian activists fear the toll may be far higher. A newly released Human Rights Watch report details that army units have been given "shoot to kill" orders in dealing with unarmed protesters. In the last two days alone, at least 150 people have been killed, a worrying sign that the violence is accelerating.

Yet, in a remarkable interview this month with ABC's Barbara Walters, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad 1) denied the extent of violence in his beleaguered country; 2) disputed the evidence in a U.N. report charging him and his government with crimes against humanity, asking, "Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?"; 3) claimed that the forces charged with cracking down too hard on protesters did not belong to him, but instead to the government; and 4) indicated that the Syrian people supported him -- otherwise he would not be in his position.

Does this suggest that Bashar is out of touch with political reality? Or -- as he has watched with dismay the fate of his fellow Arab dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, who yielded too quickly to protests; and the violent end of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, who fought until the bitter end -- has he resolved to follow neither path? To understand Assad's political behavior from a psychological perspective and try to anticipate how he will behave, we must understand him in the context of the Assad family's dominance of the Syrian political scene. Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades, including enforcing draconian emergency laws in 1963 that helped him eliminate political opponents and pave the way for the family to secure long-term political control, despite being part of the minority Alawite sect. Emblematic of his brutal rule was the crushing of the uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, in which tens of thousands of Syrians were killed.

Hafez had originally designated his eldest and favorite son, Bassel, as his successor, and Bassel, the chief of presidential security, was perfect for the job. He was forceful, macho, an aficionado of fast cars who was popular with women. He stood in stark contrast to Bashar, Hafez's second son, who grew up in Bassel's shadow, weak and in his own world, calm with a soft voice. Bashar went on to become a doctor, specializing in ophthalmology. In fact, it was Hafez's childhood dream to become a doctor, but his family did not have the financial resources to support him, so he entered the military and then politics instead. Thus, it can be argued that Bashar, in becoming a doctor, was fulfilling his father's thwarted dreams.

So it was not surprising that when duty called, six years after Bassel was killed in a car accident in 1994, the dutiful son would abandon his medical career to be at his father's side. He was summoned back from London, where he was in postdoctoral training in ophthalmology. It was not taken for granted that Bashar, who seemed to lack the forceful character necessary to succeed his father, would replace him. Indeed, some family members looked to Bashar's younger brother, Maher, who more closely resembled his father and eldest brother in his aggressive personality. In the end, though, Hafez chose Bashar as his successor, giving him the role of the dignified leader, and named Maher as the head of the Republican Guard, the enforcer. (This would not have been a new arrangement for the Assad family, for Hafez himself had an aggressive younger brother, Rifaat, who was the head of the security forces and personally oversaw the Hama massacre.)

Initially, Syrians and Syria-watchers hoped that Bashar would be an open-minded, liberal, and reforming leader. But these hopes rested on a fragile foundation. The thrust of the argument was based on Bashar's supposed "Westernization" during his time living and studying ophthalmology in London. Contributing to the Westernized image was his elegant British-born wife, Asma, whose parents had emigrated from Syria to Britain, and who worked as an investment banker with J.P. Morgan.

The Westernized facade proved to be all too thin, however. Bashar was 27 when he lived in London, a fully formed adult, and had spent his life absorbing his father's political ideas and observing his leadership style, in particular how to deal with conflict. What's more, Bashar only spent about 18 months in London and was almost certainly significantly insulated by personal security forces during that time, so his actual exposure to "Western" ways of life was likely quite limited. And, of course, mere exposure to Western culture, even if it is direct, is by no means a guarantee that an individual will adopt and internalize its values and ideals.

In any event, the stormy waves of political reality were to overcome whatever hopes he might initially have had to bring Syria into the modern world. As the pressure for political reform grew, Bashar found his minority Alawite leadership increasingly threatened, and his inner circle pressed him to put a lid on the restive Sunni-majority population, as his father would have done. As the second-choice son, and not the obvious choice at that, Bashar had to prove himself a worthy occupant of his father's throne. Unlike his father, the lion of Damascus, whose powerful authority was unquestioned, Bashar was acutely aware of the concerns of the inner circle about whether he could successfully lead Syria.

In a revealing moment during the Barbara Walters interview, when asked whether he thought that his forces cracked down too hard on protesters, Bashar replied: "They are not my forces; they are military forces belong[ing] to the government.… I don't own them. I am president. I don't own the country." In fact, he may have been speaking the truth, reflecting that he does not have the full authority his father had and was not the author of the extent of the violent crackdown. Rather, it seems to be the handiwork of his aggressive younger brother, Maher, who was initially the lightning rod for criticism of the regime's brutality and who, according to a former Syrian diplomat, because of his control of Syria's security forces, is "first in command, not second."

Bashar's comment that he doesn't own the country is reminiscent of Qaddafi's denial that he had any position of authority in Libya at the beginning of the unrest there. Likewise reminiscent of Qaddafi, who repeatedly claimed, "My people, they all love me," when asked whether he thought that he had the support of the Syrian people, Bashar responded that he wouldn't be in the position of president if he didn't. But, in an apparent reference to the late Libyan leader, Bashar disavowed killing his own people: "We don't kill our people; nobody kill[s]. No government in the world kill[s] its people, unless it's led by crazy [a] person." Never mind that the claim is demonstrably false -- his calm demeanor during the interview underscored this distinction between him and the emotionally unstable Qaddafi.

Perhaps a better comparison for Bashar is to Qaddafi's own designated successor, his son Saif al-Islam, who was also seen as a potential force of modernization for his country. Saif was famously exposed to the Western world during his graduate training in political philosophy at the London School of Economics, and it is believed that he took the lead in ending Libya's economic isolation. But fatefully for Saif, raised by his father's side, as the protests mounted, he fully supported his father and helped carry out the violent suppression of the protest movement to the degree that the International Criminal Court indicted him along with the elder Qaddafi. As his father had vowed to "fight to the last drop of my blood," Saif, giving up any pretense of reformer, vowed that he would "fight to the last bullet."

Like Saif, and for all his veneer of Westernization, Bashar never learned from a powerful father how to respond to protest without resorting to violence, and totalistic violence at that. After all, the Hama massacre kept Hafez al-Assad in power for nearly two more decades. It seems likely that Bashar, like Saif, will persist with the present destructive course charted by his father until the end, for in the end "blood will out."