Democracy Lab

The Devil They Know

Why the West shouldn't expect Russia's policy on Syria to change anytime soon.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the Russians of sending attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria," Clinton said. "They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn't worry; everything they're shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That's patently untrue."

Her pugnacious remarks made for a striking contrast. Just last week, according to the New York Times, she was dispatching an emissary to Moscow to sound out the Russians on how to achieve "a common vision on a post-Assad political transition in Syria." The article noted that the Russian government had recently "suggested it is not opposed to new leadership in Syria, its most important ally in the Middle East."

Judging by Clinton's outburst, the envoy's trip doesn't seem to have gone well. Maybe it had something to do with the remarks made over the weekend by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He confirmed that a Russian freighter had docked at the Syrian port of Tartus late last month. And yes, he said, there were weapons onboard the ship -- but nothing that Assad could deploy against his own people. The equipment delivered was strictly for the defense of Syrian air space, and "could be used only if Syria is subjected to military intervention from abroad." (He has since repeated the point in response to Clinton's allegations.)

None of this, obviously, bodes well for the prospect of Russian-American cooperation on Syria. But that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Judging by the evidence, Moscow's position has remained remarkably consistent throughout the Syrian uprising -- and there's little sign that it will change any time soon.

The reasons for this are fairly clear. First and foremost, Assad's regime is pretty much the Kremlin's last solid ally in the Arab world. The friendship between Moscow and Damascus goes back decades. (The photo above shows an Assad supporter greeting Lavrov during a visit to Damascus in Februrary.) The present Syrian president's father, Hafez el-Assad, was one of the Soviet Union's most reliable regional friends. And Tartus, which provides access and supplies for Russian ships in the Mediterranean, counts as Moscow's only military base outside the old USSR. Losing it would strike a blow to Russia's desire to be taken seriously as a world power. "Without Syria as an ally, they really have no presence in the Middle East," says Mark Katz, a Russia watcher at George Mason University.

Second, the Russians are obsessed with the spread of Islamist regimes and ideology -- especially given the continuing challenge from Islamic insurgents in the republics of the North Caucasus. Russian press reports about the Syrian opposition reflexively portray it as dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and depict the Arab Spring as a boon to fundamentalists throughout the region. "Assad may not be so great, but the alternative to Assad is bound to be worse," is a sentiment that regularly punctuates Russian coverage. "They have a genuine question: ‘If Assad goes, what comes next?'" says Steven Pifer, an ex-U.S. diplomat at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I'm not sure anyone can answer that question."

Finally, Moscow is reluctant to give a pass to the Americans on anything these days. Having recently returned to the presidency, Vladimir Putin has been showing little inclination to cultivate the relationship. Soon after taking office, he snubbed the Obama administration by skipping a key summit meeting, and Russian officialdom has been notably brusque in its treatment of the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul -- despite his identification with the "reset" policy, aimed at cooperation with the Russians.

One fruit of the reset often cited by its defenders was the Russians' willingness to abstain from the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing intervention against Libya last year -- a move that prompted one of the very few open disagreements between Putin and then-President Vladimir Medvedev, who argued in favor of compromise with the Americans. But Medvedev's position has since been soundly discredited in Moscow. The Russians insist that they thought they were allowing a no-fly zone rather than a mandate to topple Qaddafi -- with the clear implication that no one in the Kremlin will be making that mistake again anytime soon.

In fact, the real question observers should be asking is why the Russians have been so rigid, failing to leave themselves much in the way of options in case Assad fails to hang on. Case in point: Even though the Russians and the Chinese are often lumped together as opponents of intervention, Beijing has actually made a much better show of it.

Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi sat down at a conference table in Beijing for an official meeting with the then-head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun. Yang expressed China's support for the United Nations peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan, and explained that his government favored "any solution that is in the fundamental interests of Syrian people and is acceptable for all." The SNC leader replied that his organization also supported the Annan Plan -- and then, for good measure, thanked the Chinese for their "humanitarian assistance" to the Syrian people.

The Russians don't seem to be taking comparable care with their image. To be sure, Moscow's diplomats have made a few encouraging noises of late, stressing that they don't support Assad as an individual so much as the principle of the sovereignty of his state. Russia resists intervention, Lavrov recently said, "not because we are protecting Assad and his regime, but because we know that Syria is a complicated multi-confessional state, and because we know that some of those calling for military intervention want to ruin this and turn Syria into a battleground for domination in the Islamic world."

And it's probably true that it's ultimately less Assad's personal fate that concerns Putin and company than Russia's place in the larger scheme of things. "The West does not see Moscow as an equal partner," writes Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Middle East Studies Institute in Moscow, in a recent commentary. "So, if some group needs Russian support in Syria and, especially, in Iran, it will come at a price. The price is measured not in finances but in the oft-proclaimed Russian geopolitical interests that have been ignored by the international community throughout the post-Soviet period."

Such are the considerations behind Moscow's latest offer to host an international conference to discuss a Syrian settlement, thereby implicitly acknowledging that Assad's future is open to discussion. This show of flexibility is, once again, somewhat less flexible than it seems at first glance. The Kremlin insists that such a conference can only work if Iran is a part of it, a demand that makes it highly unlikely that Western capitals will ever sign on -- a fact that the Russians undoubtedly understood when they made the offer. (Clinton also rejected Iran's participation in Tuesday's remarks.) But by trying to pose as an honest broker, the Russians can at least once again show the world that they're a force to be reckoned with, a player on the global stage.

So does all that justify backing a losing horse? The answer is that Assad's eventual fall doesn't look quite so inevitable from the Russians' perspective. As they see it, the Syrian resistance is fragmented and weak, and the strategic initiative remains on the side of Assad's forces, who retain undisputed control of the country's major urban centers. This is one point where they might not be entirely wrong.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is fully aware that Western politicians -- including Barack Obama -- have little appetite for direct military involvement in the Syrian maelstrom. Moscow, in short, is betting that Assad can beat the odds. Until that changes in some fundamental way, Moscow's policies probably won't either.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Dictators Are Smarter Than You Think

Don't count the tyrants out. They've still got plenty of tricks up their sleeves.

Dictators are supposed to be dumb, or at least crazy. Muammar al-Qaddafi was a ranting lunatic with a goofy fashion sense. Kim Jong Il had a weird hairstyle and a penchant for surreal sloganeering. Those generals in Burma were brutes given to consulting soothsayers on major decisions and shooting people at the drop of a hat.

But these caricatures -- for that is what they are -- actually tend to obscure some unpleasant facts about modern life. Qaddafi reigned for 41 years in a country where fractiousness and rivalry were the order of the day in the era that preceded him. Kim Jong Il died in his bed after ruling North Korea for 17 years -- despite policies that condemned his country to humiliating poverty even while its neighbors rose to new heights of prosperity. And those generals in Burma? They came to power in 1962, and though they've started loosening their grip a bit lately, they still clearly call the shots.

All of these dictators managed to cling to power far longer than they or their people had any right to expect. They were evil, all right. But you can't call them dumb. Measured by their own criteria, they were actually pretty successful.

This is something that we'd be advised to keep in mind if we're going to help the forces of freedom to prevail in the world. And this, indeed, is one of the lessons of Will Dobson's fascinating new book, The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. Dobson, a former FP editor who now works for Slate, got the idea a few years back when he was invited to a strategy game with some pro-democracy activists who were trying to undermine an authoritarian regime in their home country. When Dobson asked if he could play the role of the dictator, he was met with blank stares. "We're not in the business of teaching people to repress other people," he was told.

The problem, of course, is that you probably won't have much luck beating despots unless you understand what they're up to. In his book, Dobson sets out to rectify that error by exploring five current authoritarian regimes and their strategies for maintaining control. He interviews Chinese Communist Party members and Russian dissidents. He follows Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim on a frenetic day of campaigning that dramatizes the challenges of organizing a unified opposition in a country riven by ethnic divides. In Venezuela, he records a memorable encounter with a once high-ranking ally of Hugo Chávez now doing time in jail -- a striking testimony to the capriciousness (or, perhaps, ruthless flexibility) of the regime. And even though much of his reporting from Egypt predates the fall of the Mubarak regime, his sharp analysis of the disposition of forces there is as illuminating as many of the accounts that have come out since the revolution.

The key message that emerges from Dobson's investigations is that today's autocrats are not idiots. They have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. Putin is not Stalin, and Hu Jintao is not Mao Zedong. In many cases, Dobson writes, modern dictators understand that it's in their interest to observe the appearance of democratic norms even while they're subverting them.

Chávez, for example, loves holding elections, and on election day you can pretty much vote for whom you want. That most Venezuelans end up voting for the president reflects the enormous effort he has put into manipulating the media, the courts, and the bureaucracy every other day of the year. "Election day is not a problem," a former Venezuelan election official tells Dobson. "All the damage -- the use of money, goods, excess power, communications -- happens beforehand."

As Dobson notes, Chávez has implanted these black arts into Venezuela's political culture so effectively that it's hard to imagine how even the admirably revitalized opposition can compete. The president's control of the airwaves is so deft that he appears to have suffered little political damage from soaring inflation and a skyrocketing murder rate. It could well be that only nature, in the form of the cancer now ravaging the leader's body, is capable of putting an end to chavismo.

Some of Dobson's most astute observations come from his reporting about China. The Chinese communists, he concludes, are the least complacent of today's modern authoritarians. They've devoted intense study to the collapse of previous dictatorial regimes, from Ceausescu to Suharto, and they've worked hard to draw corresponding lessons -- so far with remarkable success. As Dobson points out, most observers in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square in 1989 would have been shocked to learn that the Communist Party is not only still in power today, but thriving. "The Chinese Communist Party understands what its vulnerabilities are," Dobson told me recently. "No one needs to lecture that government on what they need to worry about at night." (Hint: Corruption and inequality lead the list.)

As for Putin, Dobson grudgingly credits him with figuring out how to maintain control without resorting to Soviet-style extremes. Twenty-first-century Russians can travel abroad or avail themselves of the Internet largely to their heart's content, since Putin understands that completely isolating his citizens from the world at large is a game with rapidly diminishing returns. Instead, like Chávez, he's focused on controlling the media that matter (like national TV) and carefully manipulating laws to tilt the political playing field in favor of the state. And so far, at least, he's managed to pull the whole thing off without putting large numbers of opponents into concentration camps.

Putin, says Dobson, also appreciates that one of the biggest dangers to any autocracy comes at the moment when it loses touch with popular sentiment. So what do you do when you've tamed parliament so thoroughly that you can no longer use it to generate useful feedback about the needs and fears of the citizenry? In Putin's case, you create a new body called the "Public Chamber," a sort of large-scale advisory panel -- including representatives from authentic non-government organizations -- that offers "the advice, counsel, and criticism that a toothless Duma cannot." It just doesn't have any power.

And this, of course, is precisely where modern autocrats run into trouble. The fact that authoritarian regimes feel compelled to act like they're really listening to voters reflects the extent to which democratic norms have become part of the woodwork. It's no coincidence that Russia's new culture of civic protest has been galvanized precisely by government vote-rigging. Nowadays Russians actually expect their votes to count, so going through the motions of an election no longer suffices. Malaysians, meanwhile, have been voting in more or less real elections for years -- but the evidence is mounting that people there want their votes to be more than a legitimizing rubber stamp for a benignly despotic state. The political landscape is shifting accordingly.

Even for the most savvy of autocrats, then, these are testing times. Despite his cold-eyed assessment of the relative maneuverability of today's undemocratic regimes, Dobson firmly believes that the forces of democracy are in the ascendance. "The Arab Spring is just a blink," he says. "The tide has clearly been in the direction of freedom and pluralistic societies." The rapid spread of information is making it harder for governments to concentrate power, thus chipping away at the very essence of authoritarianism. A rumor of government misbehavior in one part of China can immediately trigger riots in another place thousands of miles away. "This is not something the Ming Dynasty had to worry about," Dobson observes. "So you can't tell me that the tasks these regimes have to worry about haven't become more complicated."

Dobson might well be right. But even if he is, that's certainly no reason for democrats to rest on their laurels. For the moment, at least, there are plenty of dictators to go around. And they're still learning.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images