Here’s something I wrote earlier today. Forgive me if it’s a little too inside. The Gause-Yom piece I discuss, by the way, comes highly recommended.
(Also, I forgot to post my Foreign Policy article earlier, so please read that if you haven’t.)
King Bashar: What the Survival of the Arab Monarchs Tells Us About the Assad Regime
The staying power of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has left many perplexed. Since 2011’s wave of Arab revolution, Assad has outlasted his contemporaries among the region’s republican autocrats. President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen are all (basically) finished.
The Arab monarchs, on the other hand, have persisted. From Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Oman, the Arab world’s monarchies weathered unrest and emerged whole. Even Bahrain, which faced the monarchies’ most regime-threatening uprising, is intact.
It’s a phenomenon of survival for which Sean L. Yom and F. Gregory Gause III offer a compelling logic in their Journal of Democracy article “Resilient Royals: How Arab Monarchs Hang On.” They cast that survival in strategic terms – and, reading the article this week, I couldn’t help but think that those terms also describe the Assad regime.
It may make sense, then, to think of Syria not as one of the last Arab republics standing, but rather as one of a host of Arab monarchies that refuse to die. The framework put forward by Yom and Gause might help explain how Assad has lasted so long – and why he could last substantially longer.
The central conceit of Yom and Gause’s article is a metric for longevity: three strategic factors for regime survival, of which each Arab monarchy possesses at least two. They dismiss explanations for monarchic survival based on the monarchies’ unique cultural legitimacy or their ability to remain above the political fray. Rather, the Arab kings, sultans, and emirs have survived by means of: 1) cross-cutting coalitions; 2) hydrocarbon rents; and 3) foreign patronage.
None of these factors are specific to monarchies, which is sort of the point – the Arab monarchies, after all, are basically just variations on autocracy. The same formula which explains the survival of Al Khalifa in Bahrain can explain the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. The Bahraini royals lacked a broad-based coalition of domestic support but had moderate hydrocarbon wealth and extreme wealth by association, as Saudi Arabia made clear that it would support the Bahraini monarchy to the hilt. In Egypt, by contrast, the decay of Egypt’s economy had hollowed out Mubarak’s popular base. Without real resource wealth to use and distribute, U.S. and Gulf support wasn’t enough to save the Egyptian president.
The Assad regime actually satisfies Yom and Gause’s definition of a monarchy – “a regime led by a hereditary sovereign who may hold varying degrees of power” – in all but name. In practice, the regime functions as an absolute monarchy, with no meaningful checks on the Assad executive. The iconography of the Assad regime – including the omnipresent portraits of Assad in shops, offices, and homes – hardly differs from the personalization of other Arab monarchies. Like them, Assad situates himself above the political fray. The state media makes clear that he is not a party to Syria’s national dialogue; rather, he only offers “notes and guidance” to “enrich” the process.
What’s most relevant, though, is that the Syrian state arguably possesses two and a half of Yom and Gause’s keys to monarchic survival. The regime isn’t resource-rich, but it’s being backstopped financially by foreign allies including Russia and Iran. So, like Bahrain, it enjoys hydrocarbon wealth indirectly – this is in addition to those countries’ apparently unlimited diplomatic and military support. Moreover, the regime’s core “cross-cutting coalition” of religious minorities and members of Syria’s Sunni majority alarmed by the prospects of Islamist rule may have frayed somewhat but seems essentially sound.
Yom and Gause’s three independent variables produce only one real dependent variable: a fall / not-fall binary. The Syrian regime’s points of commonality with the Arab monarchies help explain why it has survived until now. Moreover, given that none of these inputs are seriously threatened – Russia and Iran, for example, seem uninterested in making a trade for Assad’s head – the prospects for regime collapse according to the Yom-Gause rubric are bleak.
Of course, there are key differences between these cases. For all its bleating about Iranian conspiracy, Bahrain didn’t face the array of motivated enemies now funding and arming Syria’s opposition revolutionaries. Still, Assad’s domestic and international support give him cover for the sort of ruthless counterinsurgent campaign that could very possibly restore his control over the country.
Moreover, another point should worry those anxious to see Assad fall. As Yom and Gause note, “most of the monarchies in the Arab world today confronted social conflict early in the postcolonial era and thus rallied the coalitional pillars for their royal autocracies to survive.” The survival of this test is what separated the wheat of today’s royals from the chaff murdered by Nasserists in the streets of Baghdad.
If Assad survives, this war could be another Hama: a deadly threat to the regime that ultimately leaves it stronger. It seems that the evolution of Syria’s armed opposition towards Islamist militancy has only pushed Syria’s minorities and pro-regime Sunnis closer to the state. If the Syrian regime lasts for the next few years, then, it could conceivably have solidified a coalition that would allow it to last for decades more.
At that point – all nomenclature aside – it would be difficult to deny Al Assad its place next to Al Saud and Al Thani among the Arab world’s enduring monarchies.
Update: Weirdly, I forgot Qaddafi in Libya. So yes, he is also a republican autocrat who fell.