Argument

Assad's Massacre Strategy

The Syrian leader believes that a campaign of mass murder will be his path to victory. Is he right?

What is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad thinking? Over the past several weeks, his regime has escalated military operations throughout the country -- shelling neighborhoods in previously loyal cities, using airplanes to drop what rebel fighters call "TNT barrels" containing hundreds of kilograms worth of explosives, and unleashing its militias to commit gruesome massacres such as the one in the city of Daraya, where more than 400 people were slaughtered on Aug. 27. Approximately 5,000 Syrians were killed in August -- making it the deadliest month of the 17-month conflict.

At the same time, the Syrian regime has embarked on a PR offensive. Damascus invited the Independent's Robert Fisk into the country -- allowing him to interview Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, embed with Syrian forces battling insurgents in Aleppo, and interview imprisoned foreign fighters and Syria jihadists. Most prominently, Assad himself granted an interview to the pro-regime Addounia TV on Aug. 29 where he insisted "Syria will return to the Syria before the crisis."

Western and Arab media dismissed the interview as detached from reality: Assad's comments appeared to be directed at an outside audience, and he did not offer any concessions to the opposition. But the interview merits a closer look, as it can offer insights into a recent shift in the regime's thinking and tactics.

In the interview, Assad explained that a recent "public understanding" has allowed the regime to escalate its offensive, unlike during the early stages of the uprising. "Some wanted us to handle that stage as we handle the stage today," he said. "This is illogical. The stage was different, their [rebels'] modus operandi was different, even the public understanding of what's happening was different."

There is of course no public consent as such, but some of Syria's internal dynamics have shifted in favor of the regime. Many in Syria have made up their minds about standing with the regime until the end. Though some do not support the violence, they believe that blood is a price that has to be paid to prevent the country from lapsing into chaos. Others want a decisive end to the conflict, regardless of who delivers, and currently see the opposition as unable to tip the balance.

The country is more divided than ever. Syrians have largely split into two camps, whereas before there had been a large group in the middle that supported neither the regime nor the opposition. Slipping into the regime camp are mainly minority groups that were previously on the fence -- Christians, Druze, and Ismailis -- but have grown disenchanted with the rebels. Bassam Haddad, a Syrian commentator and director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, addressed this theme in a recent article, writing, "both camps have solidified into two concrete walls, crushing nuance and humanity."

The opposition, having clearly failed to unite, present a viable alternative to Assad, and reassure the country's minorities, is partly to blame for the impasse. Last week, the opposition Syrian National Council was attacked by the Joint Military Council, which claims to represent around 60 percent of fighters, for failing to unite the opposition behind a coherent political alternative. The rebels have also engaged in some atrocious sectarian violence, such as the killing of five Alawite officers in a police station outside Damascus, while sparing the rest -- which three days later led the regime's militias to slaughter at least 20 of the town's residents on Aug. 1. International media have also reported extensively on the rise of extremism among the opposition's fighters, a trend the regime had long highlighted even before it became true.

The regime has also proven resilient, bouncing back from a July 18 bombing that killed four top security officials, as well as the defections of numerous other top generals and officials. Assad dismissed these defections as part of the regime's "self-cleaning" mechanism, claiming that the regime had facilitated the departure of certain unworthy individuals. "Practically, this process is positive," he said.

Assad's statement was not only meant to reassure his supporters, but also likely to make the point that defections can be seen as a way to shield his rule from any internal threats. From Assad's perspective, it is probably better to have a small, committed core of officials committed to crushing the revolt than a broader regime infiltrated by traitors.

By making regular Syrians suffer greatly for hosting rebels in their neighborhoods, the regime hopes residents will reject fighters -- a tactic that has already succeeded in several areas across the country. In Hajin, a city in eastern Syria bordering Iraq, residents told me they had recently asked fighters to leave the town after being shelled for at least three weeks. Similar scenarios occurred in various towns and neighborhoods in Damascus, Homs, and Hama. The regime believes the political opposition is losing popularity, and its support will not endure if the situation lingers on.

Analysis of the nature of the clampdown in Syria has so far focused largely on how the top leadership of the regime thinks, but the calculations of low- and mid-level security officers may be more important. According to one Syrian official, these officers have leeway to execute "directives" given by the top leadership without having to communicate with their superiors. While this policy increases the risk of massacres, it also grants ground forces impressive agility and flexibility. This explains the apparent discrepancies in the regime's clampdown in different areas across the country, and it is probably what Assad means when he reiterated in the interview, "mistakes have been made."

These bottom-up dynamics are important to explaining the situation on the ground. Rank-and-file security officers and ragtag shabbiha militias, which represent the tip of the regime's spear, believe in extreme violence and have little regard for compromise. They think the regime has been too lenient, should have acted decisively from day one, and that Assad failed where his father succeeded in crushing a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the early 1980s. The regime had tried in the beginning to balance between "public understanding" and these elements. But even if Assad wanted to shift his strategy, these elements would now make it difficult to stop the violence.

Given the regime's new tactics, what is the way forward for Syria's rebels? If they continue to "bring problems" to neighborhoods, as many Syrians have started to complain, then time will be on Assad's side and his regime will maintain the upper hand. In light of the regime's reprisals on rebel hideouts inside the cities, the rebels either have to operate outside neighborhoods or be able to protect them from the regime's retribution. The opposition must also treat the battle against the regime as one struggle, and not focus on one city or another as "the final battle" while neglecting other fronts, as it has consistently done. This misguided tactic has bolstered the regime standing in people's minds -- after all, it has survived all the "final" battles so far.

It is also important to convince Syria's minorities and those fearful of rising extremism that their future is not tied to Assad. That can only be done with a truly representative political body. Over the past few months, many Syrians have given up on the Syrian National Council's ability to usher in a viable alternative to Assad. The council's stagnation is part of the problem and plays into Assad's hands in weakening support for the uprising.

The international community also has a role to play. In the absence of consensus on the U.N. Security Council, the United States and its allies in the region should provide military and financial assistance to the rebels that will allow them to repel catastrophic attacks, whether from land or air, on neighborhoods from which the fighters operate.

At the beginning of the uprising last year, the regime sought to justify its clampdown by claiming the civilian protests were militarized. It was a self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy. Assad will find that it is much easier to force people to pick up arms than to force them to lay them down. But it is not impossible.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Lions on the Move

10 things you don't know about Africa's booming economy.

Africa is no longer the "lost continent" of popular imagination. The region has been growing rapidly for over a decade, the private sector is expanding, and a new class of consumers is wielding considerable spending power. And because of its young and growing population, the sky is the limit for future growth: Between 2010 and 2020, the continent is set to add 122 million people to its labor force. An expansion of this magnitude should set the stage for dynamic growth, but capturing this potential will require a change in economic development strategy. At its current pace, Africa is not generating wage-paying jobs rapidly enough to absorb its massive labor force, which will be the largest in the world by 2035.

Across Africa's diverse mosaic of countries, the challenge is the same: to create the kind of jobs that will ensure continued prosperity and stability for its citizens and enable Africa to become a major player in the world economy. If current trends continue, it will take the continent half a century to reach the same share of its labor force in stable, paying jobs as we see in East Asia today. Africa's most developed economies have a better record in producing wage-based employment, but shortfalls persist even in countries like South Africa, Egypt, and Morocco. Without wage-paying jobs, millions will be forced to turn to subsistence activities to survive, squandering vast potential.

To change this picture, Africa's leaders must move to accelerate job creation in order to entrench economic growth and continue to expand Africa's emerging consuming class. But it won't be easy. To illuminate the opportunities and challenges ahead, here are 10 things you might not know about Africa's economic landscape:

1. Africa is booming.

Africa has been the second-fastest-growing region in the world over the past 10 years. It has posted average annual GDP growth of 5.1 percent over the past decade, driven by greater political stability and economic reforms that have unleashed the private sector in many of the continent's varied mosaic of economies.

Poverty is also on the retreat. A new consuming class has taken its place: Since 2000, 31 million African households have joined the world's consuming class. At this point, when their household incomes exceed $5,000, measured at purchasing power parity, consumers begin to direct more than half their income to things other than food and shelter. The continent now has around 90 million people who fit this definition. That figure is projected to reach 128 million by 2020.

Africa now has considerable discretionary spending power. Indeed, contrary to conventional wisdom, the majority of Africa's growth has come from domestic spending and non-commodity sectors, rather than the resources boom.

2. Africa is poised to have the largest labor force in the world.

By 2035, Africa's labor force will be bigger than that of any individual country in the world -- even bigger than economic behemoths like India and China. That offers the continent a chance to reap a demographic dividend, using its young and growing workers to boost economic growth.

The story varies from country to country. Nigeria and Ethiopia, Africa's most populous countries, will together add 30 million workers -- an increase in their workforces of about 35 percent by 2020 -- while South Africa is expected to add 2 million workers, growth of only 13 percent.

As Africa's workforce grows, the number of children and retired people that each worker supports will fall from the highest level in the world today to a level on a par with the United States and Europe in 2035 -- the other part of the demographic dividend. With fewer mouths to feed and fewer dependents to support, African households will begin to enjoy even greater discretionary spending power, furthering driving economic growth.

3. African workers are better educated than ever before.

Today 40 percent of Africans have some secondary or tertiary education -- and that share is rising fast. By 2020, the share of workers with some secondary or tertiary education will rise to nearly half.

While education rates are higher than many outside observers might assume, this is still an area where African countries need to make further progress to remain economically competitive. While 33 percent of Africans in the labor force receive some secondary education, 39 percent of Indian workers receive education at this level. In China, the share is an impressive 66 percent.

Today, educational attainment and skills are not perceived as a major obstacle for employers, as a new McKinsey survey of more than 1,300 African employers reveals. However, this is likely to be an increasingly important factor as the continent's economies develop -- employers in the survey from South Africa, for example, did cite difficulty in finding workers with the specific skills needed as a barrier to business. Across the continent, the right kind of education and practical training programs can give the next generation of workers the soft skills needed to do any kind of job -- not just basic literacy and numeracy, but also punctuality, communication, and dependability.

4. Steady work is still hard to come by in Africa.

But here's the bad news: Only 28 percent of Africans currently have stable, wage-paying jobs. To reap the benefits of its positive demographics and advancements in education, Africa needs to quickly create more jobs. Although Africa has created 37 million "stable" wage-paying jobs over the past decade, 91 million people have been added to its labor force.

As a result, 9 percent of the workforce is officially unemployed, and nearly two-thirds of African workers sustain themselves through subsistence activities and low-wage self-employment -- so-called "vulnerable" jobs. Poverty may be decreasing, but it remains stubbornly high.

Youth unemployment is also a major challenge. In Egypt, one of the flash points of the Arab Spring, the adult unemployment rate is moderate -- but youth unemployment is sharply higher at 25 percent. For the sake of social and political stability, Africa needs to accelerate its creation of stable jobs that are the route to lasting prosperity and an expanding consuming class.

5. With a few reforms, massive job growth is within Africa's reach.

The experience of other emerging economies shows that Africa could accelerate its creation of stable jobs dramatically. When they were at a similar stage of development as Africa today, Thailand, South Korea, and Brazil generated jobs at double or triple the rate as Africa. If current trends and policies continue, Africa looks set to create around 54 million more stable jobs by 2020, boosting the share of Africans with stable employment to 32 percent of the labor force. But if Africa were to match the efforts of Thailand, South Korea, and Brazil, it could create 72 million new stable jobs -- raising the portion of Africans with stable employment to 36 percent.

This would lift millions more Africans out of poverty and vault millions of others into the consuming class. It would also cut the time needed to reach East Asia's percentage of stable employment by more than half -- from over 50 years to just 20 years. Africa's most developed economies -- such as South Africa, Morocco, and Egypt -- are on track to create more wage-paying jobs than new entrants to the workforce, thereby reducing the ranks of the unemployed and vulnerable employed. Three sectors in particular already have a proven capacity to create jobs in Africa and can do so in the future: agriculture, manufacturing, and retail and hospitality.

 

6. Africa can become the world's breadbasket.

Africa has about 60 percent of the world's unused cropland, providing it with a golden opportunity to simultaneously develop its agricultural sector and reduce unemployment. On current trends, African agriculture is on course to create 8 million wage-paying jobs between now and 2020.

With two important reforms, however, Africa could add 6 million more jobs. First, policymakers could encourage expansion of large-scale commercial farming onto uncultivated land. African countries need to reform land rights and water management, build up their infrastructure, and improve access to inputs such as seeds, finance, and insurance in order to give a boost to agriculture. Such steps have allowed Mali, which built integrated road, rail, and sea links to transport refrigerated goods, to increase its mango exports to the European Union sixfold in just five years.

Second, African economies can move from producing low-value grain to higher-value crops such as horticultural crops and biofuels. This will not only boost GDP, but provide much-needed jobs: Staples such as grains employ up to 50 people per 1,000 hectares while horticultural products need up to 800.

7. It's often cheaper for Africans to buy goods made in China than those made at home.

African manufacturing is declining as a share in most economies, and that needs to stop. Africa is on course to generate 8 million new manufacturing jobs by 2020 but could nearly double that tally if it can reverse this trend.

Rising labor costs and exchange rates across Asia give African economies an ideal opportunity to expand their manufacturing industries. There is already anecdotal evidence that Asian businesses are setting up factories in some African countries to regain their competitive advantage.

High transportation and input costs, duties, and bureaucracy are some of the obstacles that have hindered African manufacturing in the past. The continent needs to open itself up to foreign investment too. Lesotho, a country of just 2 million people, has 100 times South Africa's exports of apparel to the United States on a per capita basis because it made investment attractive to foreign players and put the necessary rail and distribution infrastructure in place. Apparel manufacturing is Lesotho's largest employer, providing 40,000 workers with stable jobs.

Prospects for manufacturing vary according to the country. Large, diversified economies like South Africa have relatively high labor costs, more skilled workers, and developed infrastructure, and need to move into higher-value-added production. Morocco has done this in auto parts and assembly. But less-developed African countries still have competitive wages and productivity and could develop as low-cost manufacturing hubs.

8. Nigeria's four largest cities still have only six shopping malls.

Africa's rising number of consumers is already driving growth in retailing, but the sector could grow much faster. The potential of retail still goes largely unrealized: In Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, and Nigeria, nearly three-quarters of groceries are bought in tiny informal outlets. If barriers to foreign players were removed and action was taken to boost the share of modern retail outlets, this industry could finally hit its stride.

Hospitality and tourism is another major potential growth area. Africa's advanced economies now receive around 70 percent of international visitors, but less developed countries can quickly improve their appeal to tourists. Take the case of Cape Verde, which offered investors a tax holiday, exemption from import duties, and free expatriation to foreign investors, laying the groundwork for its currently booming tourism industry. Today, tourism employs one in five people in the island nation. Retail and hospitality together could add up to 14 million jobs throughout Africa by 2020 if the necessary reforms were undertaken.

9. Africa needs more than petrodollars.

Mining, oil, and gas contribute significantly to Africa's GDP, but these sectors employ less than 1 percent of the workforce.

Africa needs a job strategy, not just a growth strategy. Countries in this region need explicit programs to create jobs, targeted at labor-intensive sectors that enjoy comparative advantage. Governments, working with private companies, need to improve access to finance in those sectors, build the necessary infrastructure, cut unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy and create a more business-friendly environment, and develop the skills needed to support the industries of the future.

Morocco's auto-parts industry is an example of success. Realizing the country's unique advantage of proximity to the large market of high-income earners in Europe, the Moroccan government set a goal for the country to become the industrial automotive supplier for Europe. Morocco analyzed its comparative advantage for more than 600 automotive parts and eventually chose around 100 parts on which to focus. It then created two free trade zones dedicated to the automotive industry. Today, the sector employs more than 60,000 people, and this year saw the opening of a 1 billion euro assembly plant by Renault.

10. The future for Africa looks bright -- but there's still a lot of work to be done.

More than 300 million Africans will remain in vulnerable jobs in 2020. And even if African governments are successful at promoting job creation, the number of Africans in vulnerable employment will keep on rising for at least another 20 years because the labor force is expanding so quickly.

Africans in vulnerable jobs -- and those with no jobs at all -- will need government support. African governments can use their newfound resources to mitigate some of the pain of this process: They should invest in programs that help organize subsistence employment more effectively, as well as invest in health and education for the vulnerable.

Africa's employment challenge is daunting, but it is not unique. Many other emerging markets have transformed their employment landscapes and made sweeping gains in economic growth, and with the right policies in place, Africa has the right ingredients to produce similar success. Businesses and investors are beginning to take note of the continent's potential -- not only its wealth of natural resources but its vast human capital. Africa may, in fact, prove to be one of the next great global stories.

PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP/Getty Images