Kofi Annan’s mission is unlikely to lead to a meaningful resolution to the crisis in Syria (see here). This is not only because the conflict has in all likelihood reached the point of no return, but also because the Syrian regime would have probably never acquiesced to a peaceful transition in the first place. It is useful to understand why Bashar al-Assad’s regime decided to fight it out, with only the flimsiest attempt to reform and placate opponents.
In the past year protest movements have rocked the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes. There have been three types of outcomes. In Tunisia and Egypt they have succeeded in deposing the autocrats without great loss of life. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were pushed from power without a civil war. This was greatly facilitated in Egypt with the defection of the military, a bulwark of the repressive edifice that Mubarak had built. In consequence, the future path of democracy is still uncertain in Egypt as many key parts of the coalition that Mubarak had built are still wielding power openly, and this is at the root of the frequent flare-ups of protests and clashes between the security forces and the protesters.
In another sub-set of these countries, typified by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the existing regimes managed to buy off the protestors via massive pay raises, expansions of government services and small political reforms. The situation has been very different in Libya and Syria. In both cases, the regimes decided to fight the protests with overwhelming force. In Libya the outside assistance enabled the rebels to conclusively defeat and depose Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria the outcome of the conflict, which began in March 2011, is still uncertain, and the death toll is rising constantly.
This path has been mostly shaped, and the possibility of reform shut out, by the underlying logic of the regime Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, created in 1970. On the face of it this was a one-party state under the control of the Ba’ath Party, which came to power in Syria via a military coup in 1963. Though the Ba’ath Party, which also brought us Saddam Hussein in Iraq, espoused a nationalist Pan-Arab ideology with heavy tinges of socialism, the reality in Syria is that it became a vehicle for a particular Syrian community, the Alawis. The Alawis, who make up around 10% of the Syrian population concentrated in the northwest, adhere to a particular interpretation of Islam. On assuming power in 1963 the Ba’athists, already dominated by Alawis, inherited a state molded by centuries of imperialism under the Ottoman Empire and a rather shorter span of French colonialism between 1920 and 1946. This state sat atop a set of extractive economic institutions, designed to enable the extraction of resources by a small minority from the rest of society. During the Ottoman and French times, this minority comprised the colonial powers as well as its allies in Syria. Under the Ba’athist rule, it comprised mainly the Alawis.
These extractive economic institutions have several consequences. One of the most important is poverty. No society which organizes the economy to benefit just 10% of the population will generate prosperity. To grow and become prosperous the most critical thing a society must do is to harness its talent and human potential, which is widely disbursed in the population. Though post-independence Syrian regimes have invested in education, heavily laced with propaganda, only those with the right connections stand to benefit from a government appointment or having the chance to open a business.