Leadership: Even Dictators Need Friends


May 23, 2011: The current "Arab Spring" uprisings tested the strength of police states and monarchies throughout the Arab world. One lesson learned is that even dictators need friends, particularly foreign ones. For example, the long-time dictator of Libya, Moamar Kaddafi was never very friendly to anyone. He antagonized fellow Arab rulers, and non-Arabs even more. So now Kaddafi, alone among the besieged despots, is being bombed and blockaded by Western, as well as Arab, warplanes and ships.

In contrast, close American allies like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been gently treated by Western, and Arab, nations. Both of these Arab monarchies have carefully cultivated domestic and foreign allies over the decades. Saudi Arabia has been so successful at this that there has been no appreciable unrest within the kingdom. This proves that, even for absolute monarchs, money can buy happiness. Bahrain, however, has an additional problem, in that the ruling family, and its closest allies, belong to the Sunni Arab minority. The less affluent and educated Shia majority want a democracy so they can run the wealthy state. But the Sunni Arab ruling class stand to lose a lot if this happens, and are calling in all the favors they have earned over generations of cultivating useful allies. This is paying off. Not only have they received gentle treatment from foreign diplomats, but some have sent police and troops to help keep the Sunni minority in power.

But the most interesting case is Syria. The ruling Assad family belongs to the Shia minority. Not surprisingly, Syria became friendly with Iran (a Shia majority pariah state to most Arab nations). Syria also became cozy with Russia and maintained civil relations with the United States and most Western states. Syria stayed in touch with archenemy Israel, and always left open the possibility of negotiating away their many differences.

One thing Syria has in common with Libya (aside from being a police state) is its willingness to provide sanctuary to a large number of terrorist organizations. Five years ago, Libya got clean, expelled the terrorists and was recognized as no longer being a "state supporter of terrorism." But Syria (along with Iran, Sudan and Cuba) remained on the list. Unlike the other three remaining terrorist supporters, Syria managed to maintain good relations with many of the countries that were the target of terrorists hiding out in Syria.

Given the situation, the Syrian government has done remarkably well holding on to power. But ten weeks of growing violence has begun to shake apart the Bashir Assad government and weaken the Baath party's control of Syria. Over 800 people have died so far, thousands have been wounded, and over 2,000 have been arrested. But despite week after week of demonstrations, and dead demonstrators shot down by uniformed and plain clothes gunmen, the Assad clan is still in charge.  The Assads adapted and moved on each problem with some kind of solution.

Over 300 low level members the Baath party resigned in protest against the killing of demonstrators last month, but apparently the party brass, and enforcers, managed to halt the defections. Some army units in the city of Daraa rebelled when ordered to fire on civilians and fought with loyalist troops (of a division run by the president's brother Maher Assad). Again, the government managed to put an end to this sort of thing, although soldiers continue to be friendly with demonstrators, not firing on them. However, the troops have remained loyal enough to go where ordered, and sit there, with their armored vehicles and automatic weapons, without firing on anyone. It's all about intimidating the opposition, showing them that the army is still somewhat loyal to the Assads.

The government blames all the unrest on foreign agitators, and keeps running pictures of dead soldiers on TV and trying real hard to demonize the demonstrators. This is not working, but the Assad loyalists continue to believe they can massacre their way out of this. Iran has apparently promised all manner of support, and ordered its Lebanese client Hezbollah to provide reliable gunmen for the nasty jobs (killing civilians.) Most Western governments have advised their citizens to get out of Syria, or stay out if they were planning a visit.

Syria is not seeing a lot of outright violence, but there is obvious, and widespread, unrest and anti-government activity. The unrest tends to operate on a weekly cycle, peaking on Friday (the Moslem holy day). Posters of president Bashir Assad are disappearing from the sides of buildings and from along roads. There is a lot of anti-Assad graffiti. The security forces are patrolling more, and apparently have orders to look more menacing. The people look back at the soldiers and police in an even more hostile fashion. The revolution has turned into an endurance contest, with most of the action being low key and not violent. So far, the government is losing, but it has not yet lost.

Turkey is trying to pressure the Syrian government to halt the violence against its own people. But Turkey is doing this quietly, so far, and is not openly criticizing the Assads. That may change if the killing continues. In an effort to help that along, the exiled leadership of the Syrian branch of the Moslem Brotherhood called for members in Syria to join the demonstrations and fight to overthrow the Assad government. The Syrian branch of the Moslem Brotherhood was crushed, with great brutality and loss of life, over 25 years ago. The surviving leadership fled the country, but some members remained behind, and have quietly recruited and prepared for another uprising ever since. The Brotherhood in Syria does not have a lot of manpower (a few hundred core members), but a large minority of Syrians are inclined to back Islamic radical organizations like this (because they are seen as fearless and less corrupt.)

Efforts to get the UN to impose some sanctions, or at least condemn the use of force by the Syrian government, have failed because of Russian and Chinese opposition. China, of course, is still a communist police state, and is currently committing the same kinds of atrocities as the Syrian government. Russia, while a democracy, invented the form of police state so popular in dictatorships these days, and still does business with most of them. These two permanent security council members (who can veto anything) are supported by other dictatorships (Cuba, North Korea) and countries controlled by radicals (Lebanon, Venezuela). Sort of thug mutual assistance league. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Syria, especially individuals in the ruling elite. This hurts, but not as much as UN sanctions.

A lot of Arab dictators and monarchies are going to survive the Arab Spring. This makes the point that despotisms (and the cultures that sustain them) which took generations, or centuries, to create, are not going away quickly, or without a little more thought and organization on the part of the reformers.


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