Time for Talks in Syria Has Passed

Kofi Annan’s mission is unlikely to lead to a meaningful resolution to the crisis in Syria (see here). This is not only because the conflict has in all likelihood reached the point of no return, but also because the Syrian regime would have probably never acquiesced to a peaceful transition in the first place. It is useful to understand why Bashar al-Assad’s regime decided to fight it out, with only the flimsiest attempt to reform and placate opponents.

                                          Syria burning

In the past year protest movements have rocked the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes. There have been three types of outcomes. In Tunisia and Egypt they have succeeded in deposing the autocrats without great loss of life. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were pushed from power without a civil war. This was greatly facilitated in Egypt with the defection of the military, a bulwark of the repressive edifice that Mubarak had built. In consequence, the future path of democracy is still uncertain in Egypt as many key parts of the coalition that Mubarak had built are still wielding power openly, and this is at the root of the frequent flare-ups of protests and clashes between the security forces and the protesters.

In another sub-set of these countries, typified by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the existing regimes managed to buy off the protestors via massive pay rise, expansions of government services and small political reforms. The situation has been very diffident in Libya and Syria. In both cases, the regimes decided to fight the protests with overwhelming force. In Libya the outside assistance enabled the rebels to conclusively defeat and depose Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria the outcome of the conflict, which began in March 2011, is still uncertain and the death toll is rising constantly.

This path has been mostly shaped, and the possibility of reform shut out, by the underlying logic of the regime Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, created in 1970. On the face of it this was a one party state under the control of the Ba’ath Party which came to power in Syria via a military coup in 1963. Though the Ba’ath Party, which also brought us Saddam Hussian in Iraq, espoused a nationalist Pan-Arab ideology with heavy tinges of socialism, the reality in Syria is that it became a vehicle for a particular Syrian community, the Alawis. The Alawis, who comprise around 10% of the Syrian population concentrated in the northwest, adhere to a particular interpretation of Islam. On assuming power in 1963 the Ba’athists, already dominated by Alawis, inherited a state molded by centuries of imperialism under the Ottoman Empire and a rather shorter span of French colonialism between 1920 and 1946. This state sat atop a set of extractive economic institutions, designed to enable the extraction of resources by a small minority from the rest of society. During the Ottoman and French times, this minority comprised the colonial powers as well as its allies in Syria. Under the Ba’athist rule, it comprised mainly the Alawis.

These extractive economic institutions have several consequences. One of the most important is poverty. No society which organizes the economy to benefit just 10% of the population will generate prosperity. To grow and become prosperous the most critical thing a society must do is to harness its talent and human potential which is widely disbursed in the population. Though post-independence Syrian regimes have invested in education, heavily laced with propaganda, only those with the rights connections stand to benefit from a government appointment or having the chance to open a business.

A second set of implications is political. Extractive economic institutions do not exist in a vacuum. They need to be supported by extractive political institutions, concentrating power in the hands of the same narrow elite controlling the economy, and stripping away any constraints on the use of this political power. The logic is simple: how else would the elite convince the rest of society to go alone with this extraction? It is thus no coincidences that Syria ended up with a repressive dictatorship in which the same elites controlled all levers of power. Despite all that repression, extractive political institutions are not fully stable. An obvious source of instability is that when institutions are extractive those at the top do very well from the extraction. This means that other people would like to replace them and benefit from the extraction themselves. This is one way to think about the transition from Ottoman to French, and then to Ba’athist and Alawi rule. Any of these groups could have changed the organization of society away from extraction, but they saw it in their interests not to. All that extraction creates deep-rooted grievances and resentment in society as people wish to change the institutions which block their chances and aspirations.

The regime in Syria has faced discontent before March 2011 and it has always reacted in the same way, by using repression to preserve its extractive institutions. In 1982 the Sunni Muslim community in Hama revolted against Hafez al-Assad who sent in the army to crush it. Possibly 40,000 people died. Other revolts were staged by the Muslim Brothers in the 1970s and early 1980s, by the Druze in 2000 and the Kurds in 2004.

Why haven’t any of these challenges led to meaningful reform? Why didn’t the elites in Syria attempt a managed transition like the one initiated by the Egyptian military? Part of the answer is that the regime in Syria, like that in Libya, was even more extractive and more repressive than the ones in Egypt and Tunisia, thus those controlling power had more to lose from reform. Given their existing repressive operatives, they also deemed it feasible to use force to ride out the protests. But perhaps more important is what those extractive institutions have done to Syrian society. Though the politicians around Mubarak, the businessmen closely connected to him and his sons, and the military were all part of the ruling elite in Egypt, this was no monolithic group, and had not suppressed all of the Egyptian civil society. So when the protests arrived there were organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, that could play a leading role; and parts of the elite, most notably the military, could see a way out in a managed transition that would shed Mubarak and some of the old guard, but largely protect their interests. Because the ruling elite in Syria is more monolithic and more likely to be swept aside when its tight grip is loosened, there was always less room for such a managed transition. And once the choice was made for using overwhelming force, any small possibility of a negotiated settlement that existed disappeared, and the cleavages in Syrian society became even deeper.

This perspective thus suggests that a peaceful solution is not on the cards. The Assad regime is very unlikely to go voluntarily. If so, then the pretense that international negotiations can achieve such a voluntary departure is just that — a pretense.

But the genie is out of the bottle. The regime cannot survive given the mobilization of society. There is no clear timetable when it will be toppled. Next year this time, it may still be in power, but if so, its ability to control many areas will have been much diminished; we are now probably in the final act of the Assad regime.

The real challenge facing Syria lies in the next act: the Syrian people — not the international community — will be the ones to build and safeguard the new institutions. And they have to watch out that the transition away from this noxious regime doesn’t repeat the vicious circle that replaced the French extractive rule by the even more extractive Ba’athist and Alawi regime. A tall order!

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