Assad's Playbook Is Now Empty

The last of the three conditions keeping Syria's dictator in power finally collapsed this week.

RTXD2UT-615.jpg(Khaled Al Hariri/Reuters)

The Assad dynasty, which has ruled the most strategic chunk of land in the Arab world for more than 40 years, may now face insurmountable odds. The three fundamental rules in a dictator's playbook of power have changed over the past two weeks.

Although modern autocrats rarely rally a majority, my experience is that they need at least 30 percent support at home to survive serious opposition challenges. They also need powerful foreign allies to prevent international isolation or invasion. And they also need to prevent viable, credible, or recognized alternatives to their leadership so they remain the only source of order.

President Bashar al-Assad is now closer -- much closer -- than at any point in the 20-month conflict to losing out on all three. And his use of imprecise but deadly Scud missiles against his own people this month demonstrates that he has no backup game plan.

Assad has lasted the longest, but also at the greatest cost to his base of support.

That doesn't mean that he will be forced out quickly or easily. In many historic last-gasps, the final battle is the bloodiest. But the odds are now decisively against the Assad regime's open-ended survival.

First, every indicator suggests the despot of Damascus no longer has one-third of the population behind him. The Assad father and son had relied on an unusual collection of minorities with interconnected political and economic self-interests. The political math added up large chunks of Alawites (12 percent), Christians (10 percent), Kurds (9 percent,) plus business elites, the corrupt who were bought, and civil servants in a bloated bureaucracy who were loyal (or apolitical) in exchange for jobs.

The numbers were important as much for security as for politics in a country without any real rights. They ensured Assad could recruit security forces with motives worth putting their lives on the line for him.

But the critical quota has been dwindling since the summer, as the regime's crackdown has grown ever more bloodthirsty and rebels have seized territory. A growing number of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam to which the Assad family belongs, are alarmed enough to distance themselves from the ruling clan.

Assad's army -- on paper -- was about 300,000 strong when the first protest erupted in remote Daraa, after teenagers were arrested for scribbling anti-government graffiti on public walls in March 2011. Today, the number of reliable troops may be as low as 70,000 to 80,000 in a country of 22.5 million, according to Arab and Western officials.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh lasted 13 months because he still had significant political and military support. Libya's Moammar Qaddafi held on for eight months because he had a mix of the military, tribes or clans, and the oil-corrupted. Assad has lasted the longest, but also at the greatest cost to his base of support.

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Robin Wright is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former diplomatic correspondent for the Washington PostMore

She has been traveling to Iran regularly since 1973 and is the author of four books on the country’s revolutionary ideology, leaders, politics, culture and conflicts. A recipient of the National Magazine Award for her reporting in Iran, she has also worked at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, and Yale University.

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