President Bashar al-Assad's Strategic Mistake

As the wave of unrest rolls across Africa and the Middle East, the leaders of each country must decide how to deal with the call for democratic reforms.  We have already seen a variety of responses, from Mubarak's attempt at appeasement to Ahmadinejad's swift and certain crackdown.  Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, has tried to take a middle ground approach, offering the promise of a future of reforms but dispersing troops to rapidly quell any unsanctioned gathering.  The lessons from the most recent uprisings, as well as from uprisings throughout history indicate that, by offering the promise of reform, President Assad has made a strategic error that will ultimately lead to his downfall.

This is not to say that Assad will lose power immediately, for he has shown a willingness to use significant force against his people.  But his recent actions all but guarantee that reform will happen; it is just a matter of time.  President Assad's mistake is quite simple -- he acknowledged the arguments of the reformers.  Though seemingly innocuous, this was a significant mistake.  By promising reform, even if he doesn't mean it, President Assad has implicitly validated to the Syrian people that the arguments of the democratic reformers have merit.  

This acknowledgment is a significant mistake because the authoritarian rule in Syria, as in most other autocratic countries, is fundamentally incompatible with the democratic reforms being demanded by the Syrian people.  The foundation of democracy, that political power ultimately resides with the people, cannot be reconciled with the foundation of the Syrian autocratic regime, where political power begins and ends with the President.  President Assad must now try to uphold his near-absolute authority while attempting to provide democratic reforms.  But he can't have it both ways.

This was Mubarak's mistake.  He tried to preserve his power while agreeing to ultimately give it up.  As soon as Mubarak agreed that he would work to implement democratic reforms he lost any claim to have legitimate power.  The rapidity of Mubarak's ouster in Egypt was hastened by his unwillingness (or inability) to swiftly put down the protests, further emboldening the people.  This is in stark contrast to Ahmadinejad in Iran, who publicly rejected the calls for reform -- thereby upholding the principles on which his power is based -- and who decisively put down any and all protests with a show of considerable force.   

While Iran may ultimately become democratic, Ahmadinejad's response recognized that democracy was at its very core incompatible with the democratic principles being espoused by the reformers.  Any acknowledgment to the reformers would be a subtle, but ultimately fatal, crack in the foundation of Ahmadinejad's power.  By not holding fast to the autocratic principles, President Assad will almost certainly face even greater resistance and he will have to escalate his military response accordingly.  But for Syria, democratic reforms are now only a matter of time.

Patrick J Howie has spent over two decades studying the social process of change and is the author of The Evolution of Revolutions.
As the wave of unrest rolls across Africa and the Middle East, the leaders of each country must decide how to deal with the call for democratic reforms.  We have already seen a variety of responses, from Mubarak's attempt at appeasement to Ahmadinejad's swift and certain crackdown.  Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, has tried to take a middle ground approach, offering the promise of a future of reforms but dispersing troops to rapidly quell any unsanctioned gathering.  The lessons from the most recent uprisings, as well as from uprisings throughout history indicate that, by offering the promise of reform, President Assad has made a strategic error that will ultimately lead to his downfall.

This is not to say that Assad will lose power immediately, for he has shown a willingness to use significant force against his people.  But his recent actions all but guarantee that reform will happen; it is just a matter of time.  President Assad's mistake is quite simple -- he acknowledged the arguments of the reformers.  Though seemingly innocuous, this was a significant mistake.  By promising reform, even if he doesn't mean it, President Assad has implicitly validated to the Syrian people that the arguments of the democratic reformers have merit.  

This acknowledgment is a significant mistake because the authoritarian rule in Syria, as in most other autocratic countries, is fundamentally incompatible with the democratic reforms being demanded by the Syrian people.  The foundation of democracy, that political power ultimately resides with the people, cannot be reconciled with the foundation of the Syrian autocratic regime, where political power begins and ends with the President.  President Assad must now try to uphold his near-absolute authority while attempting to provide democratic reforms.  But he can't have it both ways.

This was Mubarak's mistake.  He tried to preserve his power while agreeing to ultimately give it up.  As soon as Mubarak agreed that he would work to implement democratic reforms he lost any claim to have legitimate power.  The rapidity of Mubarak's ouster in Egypt was hastened by his unwillingness (or inability) to swiftly put down the protests, further emboldening the people.  This is in stark contrast to Ahmadinejad in Iran, who publicly rejected the calls for reform -- thereby upholding the principles on which his power is based -- and who decisively put down any and all protests with a show of considerable force.   

While Iran may ultimately become democratic, Ahmadinejad's response recognized that democracy was at its very core incompatible with the democratic principles being espoused by the reformers.  Any acknowledgment to the reformers would be a subtle, but ultimately fatal, crack in the foundation of Ahmadinejad's power.  By not holding fast to the autocratic principles, President Assad will almost certainly face even greater resistance and he will have to escalate his military response accordingly.  But for Syria, democratic reforms are now only a matter of time.

Patrick J Howie has spent over two decades studying the social process of change and is the author of The Evolution of Revolutions.