Does Bashar al-Assad Need a Common Enemy?

A friend recently wrote that he was surprised that Assad had not diverted Syrians’ attention abroad:

All Assad has to do is make a preemptive strike on Israel and both the opposition and loyalists have a common enemy.

My two cents: Assad has not done so, and will not do so, because he is worried that the military would not accept the order: Assad’s main concern since taking office has been a coup, as Eyal Zisser (among many others) has observed:

He has failed (or never tried) to create an inner circle of senior-echelon political, security, and military personnel on whom he could rely.

While Assad is now facing a non-trivial threat of removal from citizens, the most clear and present danger remains a coup, and my friend’s observation further runs afowl of a well known theoretical conjecture due to Alastair Smith: countries like Israel will anticipate the advantage the troubled leader of a rival country can achieve by rattling sabres, and will carefully avoid provocation.  In Assad’s case, I suspect that the domestic threat to survival from a coup is a bigger reason than Israel avoiding confrontation, though both likely play a non-trivial role.

Interestingly, if a panel at the most recent Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting is a guide, there is a resurgence of interest in the trade-offs that autocratic leaders must make between fending off coup threats v rebellion threats.  The former is, rather unfortunately, apparently referred to as “coup-proofing” (replacing this style of coining terms with proper conceptualization would be a welcome change), though it is rather unclear to me why extant theories of office retention behavior such as Bueno de Mesquita and colleagues offer are unable to handle such trade-offs.  For my money, there is likely to be considerable value to theorizing about how an incumbent politician allocates resources given threats to her office from: (a) the political process, (b) extra-legal removal by other state actors, (c) extra-legal removal by dissidents, and (d) removal by foreign government(s).  Both theoretical and empirical treatments of those trade-offs will be complex, but Bashar al-Assad’s current circumstances highlight, the trade-offs are far from fanciful for some, if not many, political leaders.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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