The Syrian government has refused to yield to the demands of its opponents so far.
But the growing turmoil in the country cannot be good for the Assad regime.
The violence is depressing Syria’s economy, which in turn is diminishing the regime’s income and its ability to keep the money flowing to supporters.
Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks to Alastair Smith, professor of politics at New York University.
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Lisa Mullins: So far the Syrian government has refused to yield to the demands of its opponents. The growing turmoil in the country is not helpful to the Assad regime; for one thing, the violence depresses Syria’s economy and that in turn diminishes the regime’s income and it’s ability to keep the money flowing to supporters. Syria is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Alastair Smith is a co-author of an article about this in Foreign Policy magazine. He’s also a professor of politics at New York University. You say in the article you believe that reform in Syria is inevitable. How come?
Alastair Smith: Well, leaders often get themselves into trouble, dictatorial leaders, when they can no longer promise to keep paying their backers. So Assad is very similar to many dictators where he relies upon a few thousand key supporters, several thousand key supporters, and he needs to be able to reward them well and he needs to be able to pay the military. If he doesn’t have the money to do that they’re gonna turn to the next person who they think can. His big problem those is oil is no longer the lifeblood of the regime, and so he has to find a source of income, and this is increasingly been taxation. The economy is growing well over the last 5-10 years, but the trouble with liberalizing the economy is it frees up the people to protest against it.
Mullins: At the same time the people are protesting in part because of what he has been and his government have been doing, allegedly killing an estimated 5,000 people.
Smith: Right, but here it all comes down to money. He would like to keep repressing the people, but he’s gotta be able to pay. The fact that with the repression going on the economy is stagnating, it’s going to make it harder and harder to keep paying that wage bill to keep his supporters happy.
Mullins: So you’re saying that you know, despite the fact that we think of him as a dictator, he is sort of the titan of a company. He needs a small but loyal bunch of people around him to survive, and therefore, he needs the money to pay those people. How specifically does he keep them happy? How does it work?
Smith: You’ve hit the nail on the head. So we like to think of people, of dictators, they have this sort of omnipotent power and they dictate everything in their country, but the reality is you need people to carry out operations. You need people to run security forces. You need people to run the courts, have people arrested, run public policy, sort of a very opaque country. It’s a very opaque country for a reason, is the rewarding of 3,000-4,000 people you do through bribery, corruption, grafts, privilege to the few, at the expense of the many. This is how the regime survives.
Mullins: It sounds like he would have to be thinking logically, and from the international perspective he doesn’t seem to be thinking that way at all.
Smith: Oh, I completely beg to differ. So, this is a classic thing is that we accuse leaders of being crazy, whether it’s the recently departed Kim Jung Il, Saddam Hussein, we accuse these leaders of being crazy. But they’re not crazy, these are people who’ve come to power and have held power for a really long time. They know what they’re doing. What they’re doing is finding ways to reward the few, find out through crazy policies, find out who’s actually really behind them, who is really loyal and who thinks that they would like to switch to another leader.
Mullins: At the same time though how is it in his interest to keep having his supporters attacking their people? How does that reward him?
Smith: He has to keep those around him loyal and if that means making the lives of the people miserable, that’s what he’s gonna do. We shouldn’t infer that he’s crazy because he makes the people suffer, which infers a good leader because he makes the people suffer.
Mullins: What’s the timeline in your view here? How long do you think he has before reform happens whether or not he likes it, and whether or not Syrians even believe in that reform?
Smith: Well, I think that we’re looking sort of 3-4 years down the line. I mean I see in the short term he manages to hold it all together because the likes of Iran and Iraq are funneling money to him in the billions of dollars of aid. There’s lot of investment going in in trade. Should any of those resources dry up then we’re gonna find that he’s no longer gonna be able to payoff his cronies, and the only way then at that point is to actually reform.
Mullins: Alastair Smith is co-author of the book, The Dictator’s Handbook, and he cowrote Assessing Assad in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Thanks a lot.
Smith: Thank you.
Mullins: You can find more of our in-depth coverage of the unrest in Syria and get the latest news from our partners at the BBC through the weekend; it’s all at theworld.org.
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