A Syrian regime governed by fear and distrust

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: Syrian poet Rasha Omran once told me that Bashar al-Assad was “not a dictator, just a gangster boss”. But he’s not even that. What he is, a (dysfunctional) functionary. Syria is a dictatorship which lacks an efficient dictator.

Hafez al-Assad – the father – was an entirely different matter. Born in a dirt-floor shack, he clawed his way to the top by brute cunning, deft flexibility, and strategic intelligence. The careful manipulation of sectarian tensions in order to divide and rule was one of his key strategies, yet he was also attentive to building alliances with rural Sunnis and the urban bourgeoisie – both constituencies now alienated by his son.

Bashar’s great innovation was supposedly economic reform. In practice this meant an unpleasant marriage of neoliberalism with crony capitalism. It succeeded in making his cousin Rami Makhlouf the richest man in the country. The poor, meanwhile, became much poorer, the social infrastructure crumbled, and unemployment continued to climb.

The thesis of former German diplomat Bente Scheller’s book, The Wisdom of the Waiting Game, is that the Syrian regime’s approach to its current existential crisis follows a “narrow path consistent with previous experience”, and she focuses on foreign policy to make this point. When the regime found itself isolated on Iraq after the 2003 invasion, for instance, or on Lebanon in 2005, after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the Syrian army’s precipitous withdrawal, it waited, refusing to change its policy, until conditions changed, its opponents were humbled, and it was brought in from the cold.

In his book The Fall of the House of Assad, David Lesch points out that Bashar felt personally vindicated by these perceived policy victories, and grew in arrogance as a result. Today, with the West handing the Syria file over to Russia, and seemingly coming around to Bashar’s argument that Islamism poses a greater threat than his genocidal dictatorship, it looks (for now at least) as if the refusal to budge is again paying off. [Continue reading…]

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