Tony Karon recently wrote that Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime won’t leave power willingly because of fears of a sectarian backlash from the Sunni majority. This is certainly part of the explanation. One can think even broader, and more comparatively, to understand contemporary conditions in light of the historical record. This record demonstrates that regimes do not leave power willingly or easily, and that counter examples are more likely outliers and not useful as a basis for expecting changes in behavior.
In addition to the issue of a set of narrow groups to depend on for support, the literature on regime security provides a framework for understanding the dynamics of authoritarian regimes in “recent” states, including Syria.
In the late 1970s, Michael Hudson wrote a seminal book on Arab politics, in which he argued that Arab regimes, lacking the institutionalized nature and long historical acceptance of Western states, do not have legitimacy from their populations (or from other Arab states).
Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid defined legitimacy as a “people’s voluntary acceptance of their political community and its structures of power.” That Arab leaders came to power through force or imposition, and remained in power by these same mechanisms, contributed to such a lack of this legitimacy toward the regimes. This, in turn, contributed to their sense of insecurity, and they worked to forestall threats based on these conditions.
In 1991, Steven David built on this understanding of regime security to argue that developing countries’ decisions on alliances depended on the threats they perceived not only from other countries, but also from threats emanating from domestic sources. He argued that “it is the leadership of the state and not the state itself that is the proper unit of analysis for understanding Third World foreign policy.”
Simon Dalby pointed out in 1997 that “security as conventionally formulated is about the protection of a political community of some sort,” but that new definitions of security need to account for the fact that such political communities can no longer be identified solely as states. The Assad regime is a definitive political community, with its own narrow base of support and sense of togetherness in the face of a wider Otherness among the rest of the Syrian population.
I’ve argued elsewhere that regimes under these types of domestic pressures have three options: they can engage in limited liberalization of the economy, limited liberalization of the political system, or repress/coerce. The first two are constrained efforts, since any large-scale reforms will endanger the regimes further by opening up space to contest their illegitimacy.
We should, then, have applied the lessons of Bahrain and Libya to Syria in the first place. If the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it’s that many of the regimes did not succeed in overcoming the legitimacy deficit. Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan were successful in heading off an intensification of protests by providing some forms of the first and second options. Since Syria never tried this option, and moved immediately to repression and violence, let’s now realize our mistake and re-think the dynamics of regime security in Syria to better understand the options the regime itself perceives.
If all of this is true, that leaves foreign military intervention of some kind to stop the horrific violence the regime is committing against its citizens—which is what Steven Cook and Daniel Byman have argued. As with other places where mass murder is perpetrated, the international community will have to decide what price should be paid to halt such atrocities.