A year ago, Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, was reeling from an entrenched insurgency and facing the prospect of war against the United States and its allies. After Syrian government forces used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 civilians in August 2013, Barack Obama threatened air strikes against Damascus—before a last-minute deal to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles averted a conflict.
Today, Assad is almost an unofficial ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni extremist force that has swept from Syria into neighboring Iraq. The Syrian leader’s tale of political survival offers a brutal lesson about how dictators can use violence to radicalize their opposition and cement their rule.
Embattled tyrants like Assad can’t usually win international allies with a charm offensive. Instead, their best hope for gaining foreign support is to rely on that old adage: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. As Winston Churchill said during World War II: “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
Dictators can play the devil’s gambit: winning international sympathy by deliberately radicalizing regime opponents, so that these adversaries look like latter-day Hitlers. This approach is cynical, bloody, and potentially effective. “It’s obvious that Bashar al-Assad’s strategy is to present us with a choice of ISIS or him so that eventually we will choose him,” Senator John McCain has observed.
How does the devil’s gambit work? The goal is to make the opposition appear even more threatening than the regime. If you’re a despot like Assad, this is no easy feat. For one thing, Damascus has an appalling human-rights record, and a list of allies that reads like the Axis of Evil, 2014 edition, including Iran and Hezbollah.
Furthermore, back in 2011, the original Syrian resistance won many international friends. The opposition included a large number of moderates who sought democratic change using peaceful mass protests and strikes. These tactics of non-violent resistance can successfully undermine a dictatorship, by boosting mass participation in the resistance, peeling away regime supporters, and winning foreign backing.
The devil’s gambit requires transforming the opposition into something far more radical and dangerous. If non-violent resistance is effective at toppling tyrants, then dictators can incite rebels into using extreme tactics like terrorism. Autocrats want to turn today’s Gandhis into tomorrow’s jihadists. Here, dictators can benefit from the inherently vicious nature of civil war. A cycle of atrocities and revenge is like a centrifugal force that pushes all sides to the extreme. The center cannot hold, as the catalyst of violence hardens attitudes, marginalizes moderates, and forges the opposition into a more militant entity.
In Syria, three years of scorched-earth warfare, which has left 170,000 dead and ruined much of the country, have removed the restraints on war. Over time, the balance of power within the opposition has shifted from relatively moderate groups like the Free Syrian Army to extremists like ISIS.