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Not a house of glass

July 27, 2012

THERE is an assumption that once President Bashar al-Assad steps down, the authoritarian state, a family-based regime, will crash like a house of glass. But the structure of the authoritarian state in Syria is likely to remain in place regardless of the timing of his departure.

The Assads have spent more than four decades safeguarding the building blocs of political authoritarianism and co-opting a broad coalition of social, political, sectarian and ethnic communities. The Alawis, a minority sect within Islam, are the spearhead and power base, but other interest groups play a critical legitimising role, such as Christians, Druzes, and an important segment of the Sunni merchant class and the new bourgeoisie, all of whom benefited from Assad’s neoliberal economic policies.

The durability of the Assad rule has depended not only on coercion and hegemony but also on co-option and the balancing of various interest and communal groups. For example, the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, reserved top senior posts for Sunnis. Both the father and the son cultivated relations with Sunni businessmen and promoted financial and business networks, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's centres of political and economic life and home to more than one-third of the country’s 23 million people.

To legitimise their rule, the Assads invested the authoritarian state with an identity and ideology of pan-Arab nationalism and resistance to Israel, an ideology that resonated among many Syrians and Arabs. By portraying Syria as a vanguard of defiance and resistance to the US-Israeli dominance in the region, the Assads earned precious political capital at home and in neighbouring Arab countries.

It is no wonder that after the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, Bashar al-Assad boasted that he was immune to the contagion because Syrians approved of their country’s anti-hegemonic regional and foreign policies.

It is only by understanding the thick layers and insulations of the authoritarian state in Syria that an appreciation of its longevity is possible, as well as the likelihood of its collapse. The coalition painstakingly built by the Assads appears to be fraying and thinning under the blows of a persistent and dynamic armed uprising.

Increasing evidence points to cracks within the system and loss of confidence in Assad’s viability, including defections by senior and junior Sunni officers and the flight of the middle and professional classes, his social support base. Punishing sanctions by the western powers have exacted a heavy toll on the Syrian economy and weakened the regime’s ability to purchase influence.

The armed wing of the opposition has recently thrown Assad off balance with a strategic surprise — killing four of his top generals in a swift blow and taking battle to the very heart of Damascus and Aleppo.

Although Assad is bleeding, besieged internally and externally, and facing what appears to be a moment of reckoning, it may be too early to write his obituary or that of the authoritarian state.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.—The Guardian, London