Steven Heydemann on the “Family Business” in Syria

Steven Heydemann at the “Engaging Afghanistan” conference at Brown

Steven Heydemann is picking apart my metaphor of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as Michael Corleone – the Godfather’s gentler son from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic mob film, who took a sudden turn towards violence and thuggery when confronted with the pressures of a kingdom under siege. In Michael’s line from the movie: “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.” Bashar al-Assad is an eye doctor by training – in London, no less – who came home to pick up the reins when his father passed away in 2000. Ten years later, his security forces are cracking down Gotti-style on a small but spirited group of pro-democracy protestors, and no one on our side seems to want to do much about it. I’m asking: will the democratic wave that seems to be sweeping the region finally run aground in Syria?

Now a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Steven Heydemann is the original Syria expert. He started studying the country in the eighties, he says, when all his colleagues were preoccupied with Egypt and Lebanon. His book, Authoritarianism in Syria, Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946 – 1960, is a classic guide to the ways of non-democratic governments, not just the family rule but the state- and service-building too, the ways in which despots build constituencies. In Syria it’s a story, in short of how the Assad family built a ruthless state, and made a lot of people like it.

The last few weeks in Syria has been a story of how conditions endemic to the Arab world – youth unemployment, corruption, distrust – mingle with the freedom aspirations blowing in from Egypt and a whole lot of malaise about what comes after Assad if the regime should fall. We should hope for the best, Steven Heydemann says – democracy, secularism, maybe even peace with Israel – but not rule out the worst.

Let’s also be aware that what happens when we think about politics in Syria through the lens of this Mafia metaphor is that we imagine that what we’re dealing with is not an authoritarian system of rule, with institutions and processes and procedures, and a ruling party, and an infrastructure that extends across the entire country, and the capacity to manage problems of governance in ways that are bureaucratic, not simply patronage-based; it’s not simply as if he sits in his office and gives orders to his Consigliere and they get carried out. There’s an enormously simplifying effect that happens when we think about Syria in terms of the Corleones that I think does a disservice. Why? Because it suggests on one hand that if we got rid of this family we could solve Syria’s problems. We ran into that in Iraq. Getting rid of the guy at the top did not solve Iraq’s problems. When we dismantled one of the critical institutions in Iraq, the Baath party and the military, we found ourselves facing a power vacuum and had to reconstruct a system of governance that was, as it turns out, both sectarian and extraordinarily violent in its own right.

Steven Heydemann with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, May 7, 2011.

Related Content

  • Steven Heydemann gives a pro forma and formulaic nod to the Arab Revolt or Arab Spring but seems at bottom to fear, not that the Arabs will fail but that they will succeed.
    In the back of his mind is the “uber-question”, “Is this good for Israel”?
    The truth of the matter is the obverse/converse and reverse of all of these Steven Heydemann “bafflegab” exercises because:

    1. Israel’s government wants all the land it can absorb and plans to give up zero. Its attitude is: we’ll give up Arab land when you Americans give up California and New Mexico. We’re copying your precedent. We will allow an Arab Bantustan or “Indian reservation” and will give up Gaza in exchange for a total Arab/ Muslim surrender on a worldwide basis with an “eternal quitclaim.”
    2. since Israel has a nuclear stockpile that makes any Arab or Muslim military counterweight nugatory, Israel has no intention whatsoever of coughing up land.
    3. It is said in Israel that the US Congress is more pro-Israel than the Knesset.
    4. Therefore, from Netanyahu’s point of view: what’s to worry?
    5. Netanyahu’s biggest political regret is that Begin gave back the Sinai to Egypt. Netanyahu was in favor of placing air bases all over Sinai and with Israel’s nukes dominate the region and Africa too. Nobody wants to “grok” these inconvenient truths because they sound mad and are mad. Netanyahu opposed Camp David for this reason among others.
    6. As a Jabotinsky follower—Jabotinsky’s picture hangs on the wall of his office behind his desk—his real target is the Jews since he wants, in the manner of Jabotinsky, to foster and promote war and conflict because that will refashion the “left sissy” Jews into Hebrew warriors which is the essence of the Likud program.
    Netanyahu-ism is profoundly anti-Jewish. No one wants to see this.
    7. Netanyahu welcomes a conflictual world with a clash of civilizations because that will encourage anti-Jewish incidents which will frighten the Jews into moving to Israel. Likud governments sent agents into the Jewish Marais district of Paris repeatedly over the decades hoping to incite anti-Jewish incidents.
    8. He can then say: you see everybody hates us and we need all the land we can get and make Fortress Israel.
    9. The only concern he has about the Arab Spring/Arab Revolt is that it could makes Arabs seem less simian to Americans and that’s what he dreads. He doesn’t give a rat’s keister about their democracy or its absence except in this PR and imagery dimension.

    Thus Steven Heydemann’s (Zionist) evasiveness conceals these truths which he half-knows and semi-senses but can’t reveal.
    What Assad does or doesn’t so or say is irrelevant and a red herring.
    In other words: as always, all discussions are twisted out of shape in multidimensional contortionist pretzels because of the need to mask Israel’s nature.

    Lastly: For complex socio-political-colonial reasons, Arab countries are not Western-style nation-states but rather “tribes and communal groups with flags.”

    It is therefore true that totally clueless Americans who don’t understand the inner makeup of these societies are always on a Graham Greene “quiet American” crusade caught between total ignorance of the inner architecture of the societies such as minority Alawite/non-Alawite relations in Syria) compounded by the absolute necessity of not seeing or wanting to see Israeli perfidy and “mayhemization” in the region with its endless “false flag” murder and disinformation campaigns.

    Thus we have a strange brew of American nescience and mendacity, hidden from view by techno-rampages.

    Is this sort of view now potentially “overtaken by events.”?

  • Pingback: What will a post Assad Syria look like? « Arun with a View()

  • Pingback: Podcast | Episode 94 – Binary-Centric()

  • Pingback: RADIO OPEN SOURCE: CFG COMMENTS « Cambridge Forecast Group Blog()

  • Thanks for this interessting Interview, I read and heard a lot about Steven Heydemann. It is interessting to hear him in a radio interview.