Talking tough on the way out.

Over the years teaching about authoritarianism I developed a series of one-liners that summarized specific aspects of that form of rule. With regards to the circumstances of its demise, I coined the phrase “when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall.” The point being that once the head honcho started dressing like Liberace or Elvis in their late phases they had lost touch with reality and, worse yet, had no honest feedback loops within their inner circle to correct them of their delusions. It was a play on the “emperor has no clothes” line and students much enjoyed it. And if we think of Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Somoza, the Shah and assorted other despots, sure enough their final days were literally cloaked in an over-the-top fashion sense that only Lady Gaga would think reasonable and appropriate.

I now have another such observation: the dictator’s end approaches in direct relation to the ferocity of his rhetoric. The more the dictator talks violently tough in the face of mounting popular unrest, the quicker will be his end. I say this after hearing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad talk about using an “iron fist” to “crush” foreign-backed “terrorists” after six months of popular rebellion. I will leave the overuse and abuse of the word “terrorism” for another day, but what strikes me is how Arab dictators under siege ratchet up the violence in their rhetoric even as the walls crumble around them. Who can forget Saddam and his spokesmen talking about American blood running in the streets even as US tanks encircled Baghdad? Or Gaddafi and his sons railing about what they would do to the “cockroaches” and “rats” slowly closing the noose around them? Even Mubarak was using words like “crushing” and “merciless” to describe his response to the Tahrir Square demonstrators, at least until the Egyptian military told him to shut up because he was the problem, not the solution.

The point is simple: once a (here Arab) dictator starts shouting about the nasty ways he will deal to his enemies in a situation of popular unrest, he is finished. This is because such rhetoric suggests a divorce from reality and a lack of proper, realistic council on the part of the tyrant’s advisors (who with few die-hard exceptions will jump ship once the opposition has seized the upper hand in the armed struggle).

It may have something to do with Arab political culture or notions of masculinity, but this type of response is exactly the reverse of what would give their moribund regimes some room for maneuver, if not a longer life span. Once demonstrators spill in to the streets and are not intimidated by police and para-military repression, and before their numbers grow to the point that a full military response is needed, the safest course of action for tyrants is to promise reform and accommodation of dissident demands. If nothing else this can be used as a divide and conquer strategy to weed out moderates and militants within the opposition, thereby allowing better targeting of the hard-core resistance while seeking to co-opt those less inclined to assume the physical risks involved in an escalating fight. It provides the dictator and his coterie an opportunity to listen to grievances and for negotiation of specific demands. It may entail having to offer concessions and perhaps even increased opposition access to or power-sharing with the authoritarian elite, but it could serve as a pre-emptive reform-mongering gesture that keeps the basic composition of the regime, or at least the governing elite, more or less intact.

The alternative is to go fully militarized at the opposition, which entails using disproportionate force against one’s own citizens. This certainly does not ingratiate subjects to the regime and invites foreign condemnation and isolation. It is a no-win strategy and, quite frankly, is the beginning of the end of such regimes for a variety of reasons, military factionalization under the pressures of such a scenario being one of them.

It is thus with bemusement that I watch the Syrian opthamalogist-turned-dictator fulminate against his enemies. Although it is true that his Alawite regime is relatively united and fearful of the Sunni majority and thereby willing to commit atrocities until the bitter end, and that Syria has a geopolitical position that Libya does not, Assad’s rhetoric clearly indicates that he does not realize that his regime’s utility as a strategic buffer has ended. Israel, the US, Arab and other Western states understand that removing the Assad regime and replacing it with a Sunni majority coalition will deny Iran land routes for the logistical supply of its allies in Lebanon and Gaza, who in turn help spread Shiia influence in the Sunni Arab world. After the demise of Gaddafi and other convolutions of the Arab Spring, it has become politically expedient for foreign parties to back the Syrian opposition, which they are now doing with material, safe haven and military advice. At least on this issue Assad is right–foreign actors are now at play in Syria, although he neglected to mention that Iran is one of them because it realizes what is at stake in the proxy struggle in the Levant.

All of which is to say that the outcome is clear and encapsulated by my new authoritarian demise rule of thumb: now that Assad has started to talk hyperbolically tough in the face of a continued uprising that is not bowed by the ongoing military violence meted out against it, his days are numbered. Best for him, then, to tone it down, pull his troops back and look for an exit strategy so that his departure will be unlike that of Gaddafi, Mubarak or Saddam.

7 thoughts on “Talking tough on the way out.

  1. So you really think Assad and his allies are going to lose power and be replaced? I mean you seem pretty clear but there is room for leeway when you say “his days are numbered”.

    I just want to ensure that I’m reading you right because this is a pretty big call.

  2. Hugh:

    I am surprised that you think that it is a tough call. He is not just the face but the embodiment of the regime. Alawite fortunes have overlapped and coincided with those of his family, but they are separable. The resolution of this crisis in his personal favor can only come about because he proves able to commit ongoing war on his people in the face of mounting international pressure to relinquish the presidency. Besides the fact that an international military intervention akin to that in Libya is increasingly seen as a viable option by some strategists (the Russians are the ones with the greatest objection to foreign intervention for obvious reasons), or the fact that waging ongoing war on the domestic population will exacerbate the situation and create tensions within the armed services that have already been exploited by the Syrian resistance army, Alawite involvement in and guarantees provided by a future Sunni-dominant coalition will require as a pre-condition his removal.

    There are many ways to do that, but given the odds Assad would be wise to consider quietly brokering an exit deal well before he gets pushed out.

  3. Well, I guess we’ll see. I would call it 50/50? I don’t think an intervention par with the Libyan one is likely, though, although it isn’t absolutely necessary to drive Assad out.

    Bear in mind though that the Assad regime (if not this particular Assad) have already faced down a similar uprising in the 1980s using basically the same tactics they are using today, and successfully. Back then international intervention was an absolute impossibility, but I don’t think the calculus has changed very much aside from that – and while I’ll concede that intervention is -more- likely at present, I still don’t think it’s actually likely.

  4. Hugh:

    I agree that the precedent for brutal suppression was seen in Hama in 1982, but that was just one town and Bashar does not have his father’s ruthless streak (seen, among other things, in that he has waited and tried to use incrementally larger force in places like Homs when his father used a blitzkrieg approach in Hama). But as you note the context is different now, including media coverage and military technologies.

    From the standpoint of some extra-regional foreign actors, discrete military assistance to the Syrian resistance not only may turn the tables as it did in Libya (the air campaign may have softened Gaddafi’s forces but it was foreign special forces involvement that turned the tactical tide). It also allows them to engage Syrian and perhaps Iranian military units in the field (since it is speculated that Revolutionary Guard elements have entered the fray). For those at the tip of the spear in such countries, Syria may represent a bit of a live fire opportunity in a battlefield environment in which they will have the military advantage. This professional interest dovetails nicely with post-war political objectives because a military presence in the run-up to victory grants these actors a discrete place at the negotiating table once post-war coalition talks begin.

    That is just one speculative angle but the point is that even if overt foreign military assistance does not occur, there are enough reasons to believe that Assad has become expendable. If we accept that possibility then the key issues are how and when.

  5. “It may have something to do with Arab political culture or notions of masculinity, but this type of response is exactly the reverse of what would give their moribund regimes some room for maneuver, if not a longer life span.”

    I suspect there is some insight in this statement Pablo in that there is a cultural flair for the masculine dramatic in Arabic and Persian culture that, in this instance, manifests itself as exaggeration even to the Arabic public.

  6. Indeed Charlie, I was thinking along those lines, although I do not want to put too much emphasis on so-called cultural traits when discussing regime transition scenarios. On the other hand, this could be an Arab political cultural trait as opposed to a general societal conceptualization of masculinity and leadership, although I think that many political features have their roots in wider social mores.

    What strikes me, if these type of comments are uttered sincerely rather than as a blustery camouflage for retreat, is that they defy long-term rationality. The Koreans have a saying that “the rich uncle can afford to be generous,” which in political terms means among other things that authoritarian leaders confronted with popular unrest can engage in a few concessions and reform-mongering in order to preserve the core of their rule (while pursuing the divide and conquer efforts I mentioned in the post). That Arab autocrats can and do not do that even while the opposition does not quit in the face of repression and instead arms itself and receives outside help indicates to me a leadership pathology of a fundamental sort.

    Assad has his Alawite mercenaries, the Shabiha (phantoms or phathom-like) to complement an Alwaite dominated officer corps and intelligence services. But the rank and file military are mostly Sunni, and defections with the ranks are increasing day by day as the fighting continues and the atrocities mount. At some point the money (reportedly $40/day per Shabiha member, which is serious coin in Syria) will not be enough to hold the line against the rising insurgency, and if and when (once?) foreign military assets are brought into play, then we can expect to see fractures within the repressive apparatuses. At that point his end is near.

    Getting back to your original point, in a way all of this threatening and posturing reminds me that it may be a political parallel to the Arab fascination with body-building: all focused on the look rather than the utility of the body beautiful when it comes to something other than posing. Assad may think that he is Arnold (or Serge Nubret), but a collection of 150 pound weaklings backed by some foreign muscle are out to prove him wrong, and he does not have the real strength or stamina to show otherwise.

  7. At some point the money (reportedly $40/day per Shabiha member, which is serious coin in Syria)

    and when (once?) foreign military assets are brought into play

    Getting the picture… thanks for these details, explains a terrifying lot..

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