Steven Heydemann writes: The Syrian conflict has become a testing ground for techniques of authoritarian stabilization — the coordinated efforts of an interconnected network of authoritarian governments to prop up a like-minded regime threatened by a popular insurgency. Syria today stands out as a case of how developed global authoritarian networks have become. It sheds important light on the growing capacity of authoritarian actors to mobilize for the collective defense of regimes that are seen as central to the stability of such networks.
The authoritarian stabilization pact between Russia, Iran, and Syria that has kept Bashar al-Assad in power offers a stark example of an emerging international landscape in which democracies will find their room for maneuver increasingly constrained. Existing international institutions, notably the UN Security Council, have proven inadequate to respond to the challenges posed by the rise of such transnational authoritarian networks. Without a coordinated effort among democracies to overcome the institutional paralysis that has prevented decisive international action in cases like Syria, including formal legal standing for norms such as the Responsibility to Protect, democracies will find themselves at a significant disadvantage in resolving major regional and international conflicts, even as they — along with millions of Syrians — are compelled to bear the growing adjustment costs imposed by an increasingly polarized international order.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision in late September to escalate Russia’s military support for the Assad regime, in close cooperation with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, provides a troubling but important case of authoritarian collective action to prevent the collapse of a strategically important ally. Syria’s experience underscores the growing scope of strategic and military cooperation among leading authoritarian regimes, as well as their increasingly sophisticated integration of military, political, economic, and diplomatic instruments — all buttressed by the effective use of conventional and social media to influence public opinion and create alternate realities justifying their actions. The pragmatic, non-ideological nature of this emerging authoritarian mutual defense pact permits alliances of convenience among both state and non-state actors (including Hezbollah forces, pro-Assad militias, and a range of Shi’a mercenaries from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) and between authoritarian regimes that might otherwise be ideologically irreconcilable. In this ecumenical spirit, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church have both endorsed Putin’s intervention in Syria, while Russian priests bless the missiles being loaded aboard Russian fighter jets. The Syrian case thus highlights the deepening cooperation among the Assad regime’s authoritarian allies, which now includes joint combat operations, intelligence sharing, and more tightly-linked diplomatic efforts. Russia has presented these new forms of cooperation as an alternative, authoritarian version of a “coalition of the willing,” drawing support from Egypt, China, and other authoritarian regimes that endorse the counter-terrorism narrative that Russia has used to justify its expanded intervention. [Continue reading…]