Posted by Joshua on Friday, December 18th, 2009
Brian Whitaker extracts the most important part of Peter Harlings ICG report for our edification in his “When is a dictator not a dictator,” Guardian article copied below. This is the Syria I know. All Syria watchers scratch their heads, wondering why the president does this or that and, more importantly, why he doesn’t do X or Y. It often seems such a confused mess, but their is an explanation, which Harling captures well and Whitaker summarizes for us. Because Syria has no political parties, various factions are allowed to struggle and compete over policy formulation. The problem is that Syria has a “policy” in only the very broadest terms. Powerful individuals are able to undermine and sabotage the initiatives of their competitors at every turn. The president only interviens infrequently and very rarely not decisively, allowing the losing personality to plot a return and stay in the game. Of course much of this depends on the personal style of the President, but it is a system of sorts. It was established by Hafiz al-Assad and has been copied and in some senses upgraded by the Bashar, but not substantially altered.
For example in the Foreign Policy community, there are only a handful of people who can come up with an initiative on their own. Remember, there are no think tanks, policy centers or institutional bodies for policy development. Individuals drive the process and launch initiatives, but they must do so with caution. As soon as they push a policy forward the others will take a position, some will try to undermine it so as not to be left out or allow their competitors a success. Rarely does the president intervene. It makes for very slow and grinding policy advances. Often the policies are filled with contradictions and are not justified with or accompanied by position papers that explain how they fit into the larger world view or values of Syria. Everything is very ad hoc and often left incomplete. In the economic sphere, this method of policy development is particularly damaging. Damage control drives the policy process.
Bashar al-Assad leads an authoritarian regime, but the workings of power in a country such as Syria are surprisingly complex
By Brian Whitaker in the Guardian
Friday 18 December 2009
Decision-making in authoritarian regimes can be a lot more complicated than it looks. The idea that dictators simply dictate is often wide of the mark: they may not care much about public opinion but they do have to juggle with conflicting demands inside their own power base, and sometimes they can’t even be sure their instructions will be implemented.
Syria is one country where the inner workings of the regime can seem baffling. A diplomat in Damascus once told me that although Bashar al-Assad’s position as president seems secure, nobody knows how much power he really has.
A report published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) earlier this week – mainly about Syrian foreign policy – sheds some light on this intriguing puzzle. In Syria, it says:
Many decisions witness a contest between various lines of thought that coexist within the regime, each reflecting a slightly different worldview, diverging private interests or personal rivalries. Some decisions ultimately reflect a balance between diverse institutional power centres; others, a more decisive victory by a particular one … Further confusion arises from the fact that officials occasionally take initiatives or make pronouncements that are inconsistent with the authorised line – in an attempt to influence it; as a means of drawing attention to themselves; in order to express frustration; or, quite simply, out of ignorance.
In theory at least, the president’s decision is final but much of the time he sits back, waiting to see which way the wind will blow. One Syrian official told the ICG:
Overall objectives are set by the president with input from those around him. Then, it’s up to others to suggest how to achieve them. For instance, if the minister of foreign affairs makes an interesting proposal, the president will give him some leeway – but only up to a point, because he still has to contend with other tendencies. Moreover, the leadership tends to maintain multiple, parallel channels on any given issue. But, in the end, the president always remains in a position to arbitrate and distribute roles. The balancing and real decision-making takes place at the top. No one else is even fully in the picture.
Even the most loyal official, familiar with the workings of the system, can find this confusing. But then there are others who think they know what the policy is – and try to subvert it. In an opaque, compartmentalised and heavily bureaucratised system such as Syria’s it’s by no means certain that decisions, once made, will stick. “Follow-through often is lacking, as the process creates considerable room for either active or passive obstructionism,” the ICG says. “Policies frequently are adjusted or rectified, even after apparently final decisions are made.”
One recent example was Syria’s association agreement with the EU, which both parties spent years negotiating. Then, just as it was about to be signed, Syria unexpectedly put it on hold – possibly because of objections from local business interests.
This chopping and changing happens at a national level too. A Damascus lawyer told the ICG: “There are several centres of power. Much-needed legislation can be enacted and then, within a few months, is amended and amended again. The reason is that the legislation interferes with the interests of people influential enough to step in and have their way”.
Clearly, Syria is not a one-man dictatorship and a senior official quoted in the report sees this as a positive development, a “sign of a dynamic debate”. Dynamic it may be, but it’s still a closed debate, conducted mainly in private, by those in the loop. The rest of the country is excluded.
On the domestic front, this opacity is likely to slow down the pace of reforms or limit their extent. In order to succeed, such reforms will need buy-in from the public as well as the regime’s insiders and the only way to achieve that is through open debate that helps ordinary Syrians to understand the rationale behind them.
Internationally, the opacity makes Syria one of the most difficult countries for negotiators to deal with. Martin Indyk, an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, told a congressional committee last year:
Just about every leader that has attempted to deal with President Bashar al-Assad has come away frustrated. The list includes Colin Powell, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The cause of their frustration is the disconnect between Assad’s reasonableness in personal meetings and his regime’s inability or unwillingness to follow through on understandings reached there. It is unclear whether this is because of a lack of will or a lack of ability to control the levers of power.
This was echoed by a foreign official who has worked closely with the regime and is quoted in the ICG report as saying:
In dealing with Syria we always need to ask ourselves, ‘Are they reluctant to do this or simply can’t they do it?’ … We should not take any promise as a given, if only because many are beyond their capacity. This is a systemic problem. Syria is an authoritarian system of a particular kind, in which the ruler isn’t necessarily obeyed. Besides, the system is largely inefficient. People step on each other’s toes; institutions lack capacity; and things are disorganised.
And even when the president speaks, it’s difficult to know whether he’s telling people what he really thinks or what he thinks they want to hear. A Turkish official interviewed by the ICG said: “Bashar has two lines of speech, one for the region and one for the west. He doesn’t say the same thing on BBC and al-Jazeera. It’s double-talk. Here [in the Middle East] it is acceptable. His interlocutors must understand this is not unusual in the region. Americans might think it devious. He sees it as being polite”.