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.