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.

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