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