Things fall apart
15 November 2011
One could be forgiven for thinking that the al-Assad regime in Syria enjoyed a certain impunity in the international community, since no great power seemed ready to facilitate the toppling of Bashar al-Assad even in the face of violent protests against his rule that have continued for months. Syria borders on five nation-states — Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan — each of which is ruled by a very different regime, and with each of which Syria has had profoundly different historical relations. Syrian diplomats have cleverly exploited Syria’s geographically central location in the Levant to maintain a delicate balance of power that has preserved the Syrian regime and its interests even when it has been an international pariah state.
This delicate balance of power may be coming to an end. A series of remarkable recent events have marginalized the Syrian regime in ways different from past attempts by the US to freeze Syria out of diplomacy in the region. Indeed, the remarkable series of recent events nearly excludes the tradition power players, since Israel has preferred the devil it knows to unpredictable change, and the US would prefer stability given the delicate situation in Iraq.
It is been the traditional and historical advocates for Syria and Syrian interests that have executed a dramatic about-face that suggests that the days of the al-Assad regime may be numbered. Although Bashar al-Assad has been less brutal than his father, and has not taken any measures proportional to the Hama massacre of 1982, it is a sign of the extent to which the regional politics have changed that the al-Assad regime’s crackdown so far has already passed the threshold of acceptability given the changed circumstances.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been particularly public about “unfriending” Bashar al-Assad, and has openly called for al-Assad to go (Syria crisis: Erdogan steps up Turkey pressure on Assad). While up until recently Erdogan and al-Assad presented themselves as friends as a matter of public diplomacy, the two preside over drastically different systems. Erdogan can afford to dump Syria: Erdogan himself is quite popular, the Turkish economy is growing, Turkey does not have to engage in widespread oppression of its own people to maintain order, and the political system is more or less representative. Historical momentum is on the side of Turkey, even as historical momentum is turning against the kind of regime that al-Assad represents.
The Syrian regime, both under Bashar al-Assad and his father, is what might be called “Stalinism Lite.” That is to say, in order to shore up the popular standing of the regime, the al-Assads have indulged in the construction of a simple-minded personality cult that fools no one, and the regime has been closely tied to one particular ethnic-sectarian group: the Alawites. The similarity with Gaddafi in Libya is striking: the same ham-handed personality cult, that same unimaginative police state repression of dissidents (even China is more creative in its suppression of dissent than the old-style dictatorship of al-Assad), and the ties to a small tribal community of regime cronies.
This model of petty dictatorship, however, worked well in the recent past. The likes of Gaddafi and al-Assad were threatened ultimately not by their lack of imagination in state structure, but in the changing tide of history around them, which they apparently didn’t see coming. With the fall of Libya to the rebels, in a fight of several months that drove home to the peoples of the region both the reality of the conflict — the feeling that the decision was a close run thing and might have gone either way — and the possibility that they could do the same in their own countries, the changing tide of history has gained momentum. The dangerous position of al-Assad is almost entirely a consequence of this changed momentum. If Gaddafi had not fallen, Erdogan might still have spoken out against Syrian repression, but it is unlikely that the Arab League would have seen the handwriting on the wall.
That the Arab League turned against Syria, suspending its membership (Arab Spring revolution at the Arab League), was one of the remarkable developments of the past few days. Another was the explicit statement by King Abdullah of Jordan that Bashar al-Assad ought to leave power (Jordan’s king calls on Syria’s Assad to step down). The dominoes are falling, and what was previously unthinkable begins to look possible.
In previous iterations of the political order of the region, the restive population of Syria would have been bludgeoned back into quiescence and passivity. Little or nothing has changed within Syria, and the regime would be content to follow this time-honored formula of heavy-handed autocracy. But much has changed in the region, and the region is signaling that change by signaling Syria, by way of the Arab League, that it will no impassively look on while a member state brutalizes its people.
For the al-Assad regime in Syria, things are falling apart — not internally, but rather the socio-political order that has held unquestioned sway in the region for many decades is falling apart, and the Syrian regime had implicitly relied on this external order remaining more or less constant. The center holds in Syria; it is the periphery that is giving way, and here the periphery may prove to be decisive.
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