Sunday, June 01, 2014

Six Lessons We Can Learn From Assad

It's alright to learn, even from your enemies. After three years of struggle Assad continues to cling to power and has proved the most tenacious of the old Arab breed of dictators. He has burned the country to a cinder, run its economy to the ground, and forced half the population to flee, but he is still the rooster of his pile of garbage. Surprisingly, he has survived not by being a political genius but by adhering to some very simple principles that have held true. These could be put down into roughly six key principles and Syrians everywhere would do well to take note of these. So, starting from the sixth and working our way to number one, the things we can learn from the Assad regime are as follows:

6. Live in the Land

You can't occupy a country without going to live there. That's one of the rules that Machiavelli highlighted in the Prince. Assad may or may not have read it. He certainly applies some of the principles in there, albeit badly. But in this one he and his father cannot be faulted. From the tiny village of Qirdaha, Assad's followers have reached the pinnacles of power in Damascus and held on tightly. In their view they conquered Syria and the Syrian people are their subjects. He bought his Alawite supporters to live inside Damascus in suburbs like Mazzeh 86. He who controls Damascus controls Syria. And men who know their families are behind them when they go to war fight harder and with more loyalty.

5. Consistent Narrative

In Assad's case this means lying through your teeth in the face of all sanity, evidence and reason. He lied in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. He's lying at the UN Security Council, and the media. He lied his way through Geneva 1 and Geneva 2. To get that message across he has utilised an already pre-existing network of propaganda channels, news pundits and journalists. He offers them the carrot of exclusive access and inside scoops so that they can start making a name for themselves. Most importantly, he formats and presents his narrative into regularly updated packages that are then trickled down his network of misinformation from conventional news and media outlets all the way to the average Twitter and Facebook user who wouldn't know how to justify Assad's brutality otherwise.

4. Choose your friends wisely

Assad's father was an Alawite in a predominantly Sunni country, in a predominantly Sunni region. He was surrounded by enemies within and without. Yet in spite of that, he spun a web of connections both nationally and internationally that have sheltered him from various storms. His alliance with Iran and Hezbullah, his cultivation of the anti-Saddam Maliki, his strong ties with the Soviet Union and countries such as North Korea, have all helped him get the kind of diplomatic and military cover that is now protecting his son. Furthermore, he cultivated ties with the Sunni economic and political class that was wise enough to acquiesce to him or be obliterated. These are all pillars that his regime now rests on, and that have helped him whether the storms.

3. Choose a winning team

Assad might be the central coordinator of his regime, but he and his father took great care to always make sure they had the right person in the right place. Seale's book on Assad mentioned how Hafez was always up till late at night going through personal files on different candidates and individuals. It was always a constant job to find, cultivated and recruit the best people for each role. Once that was done, he would allow each of them to feed at the corruption trough according to their rank and stature. This way they relied on him for their livelihoods but were also indebted to him. Anybody who got delusions of grandeur was quickly cut to size by the same corruption they were enticed with - recall Khaddam, Zoubi and countless other regime apparatchiks. The lesson here, know your people - choose a winning team.

2. Nobody is Irreplaceable

Apart from Assad himself and his immediate family, nobody is irreplaceable in the regime. Assad has lost his brother in law, possibly his brother, and countless generals, ministers, officers and intelligence big-shots, but almost on the same day that the opposition declare a major member of his regime eliminated, another is appointed to replace him. Assad knows who he has on his cards and what they are capable of. If somebody isn't doing a good job, he quickly replaces them and gets somebody who will.

1. Dig In

This is probably the most important rule. He never concedes, never gives up, never tires, never stops. He will let you hit him and wait until you tire. He will dig in and wait for the shelling to stop. He will wait until his international opponents are voted out of office; until public opinion tires and looks elsewhere. He will wait until the refugees starve and freeze to death, until his domestic opponents batter themselves out and die of old age and anguish. If he negotiates, it is not to surrender, but to give himself time. He will never give up.

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