Syria's Bashar al-Assad Chooses the Qaddafi Model

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Syria's dictator is following the same path that led Libya's leader to his death

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Assad today gave his first public speech in two months / Reuters

This morning, in his first public speech in two months, Assad made an angry, rambling, nearly two-hour long speech vowing to crush with "an iron first" the "conspiracy" against his regime. He made delusional claims that nobody believes: there have been no orders to fire on civilians, the protesters are all terrorists, foreigners are to blame. He sounded, in other words, like the "mad dog of the Middle East" himself, Muammar Qaddafi, whose defiant and wild-eyed speeches nearly a year ago presaged the Libyan civil war.

Back in April, an NPR producer wrote up the 11 steps that Middle Eastern dictators take on the path to losing power. Her list, like the many similar lists floating around Arabic-language blogs and social media, drew from the examples of Tunisia's Zine el Abidine ben Ali (fled in January), Egypt's Hosni Mubarak (forced out in February), and Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh (pressured by the U.S. to resign in early April, a still-ongoing process). The pattern looked indelible, and still does. Here's the list:

  1. Shut down the internet
  2. Send thugs (on foot or horseback)
  3. Attack and arrest journalists    
  4. Shoot people    
  5. Promise to investigate who shot people    
  6. Do a meaningless political reshuffle    
  7. Blame Al Jazeera    
  8. Organise paid demonstrations in favor of your regime    
  9. Make a condescending speech about how much you love the youth    
  10. Warn that the country will fall into chaos without you    
  11. Blame foreign agitators

Step 12 is the dictator's departure. But, in the Arab Spring's first year, two autocrats have resisted this formula, sometimes appearing to painstakingly avoid the paths of their fallen brethren: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Both actually did (and do) follow the above list, but only made it one half of their two-part strategy for staying in power. The other half is much simpler, a list with one item: open war against anyone who resists his rule.

In Libya, that strategy led to civil war, an international intervention, and the awful, bloody death of Qaddafi. Syria's path is a bit different but still surprisingly parallel. Defected soldiers and impatient dissidents are taking up arms as part of an insurgency that might well devolve into civil war, perhaps one that could divide Syria as it did Libya. The Arab League, long a club for dictators, appears to be slowly (too slowly) turning against Assad as they turned against Qaddafi. Their monitors, though initially sent in what looked like a lip-service gesture to international pressure, have witnessed horrific things and themselves been injured, something that will make it more difficult for the Arab League to avoid action.

The Democracy ReportThe international community, however, still seems far away from intervention. Russia opposes intervention absolutely. Syria's geography means a Libya-style, air-based intervention would not be enough; stopping Assad's crackdown would probably require ground forces, something for which the Obama administration appears to have zero appetite. Still, China's regional business interests might lead it to drop its opposition, which could in turn bring around Russia, and although a U.S. ground invasion will almost certainly not happen in this lifetime, the White House does appear to be gearing up for the possibility of some kind of action.

There's no reason to be sure that Assad will follow Qaddafi's path to the bitter end. Left to his own devices, he may well succeed in killing enough thousands of civilians to maintain rule over whatever is ultimately left, something that could look like a sort of North Korea on the Levant. But the Qaddafi model is an ugly one, and it ultimately failed the Libyan dictator, much as the Mubarak model failed the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. Assad may turn out to be luckier, but he would be the first of his clan of Arab dictators to make it work.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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