Assad on the Edge?
At least twice in my comments on Syria over the past several months I have dismissed the possibility that the Syrian opposition could summon the ability to storm the Assad regime’s “palace” and overthrow the regime by direct force. I have argued instead that the pressure mounted by the opposition was far more likely to stimulate some kind of coup that would get rid of the Assads and open the way for some sort of transitional arrangement, whether smooth or, far more likely, very messy. After the events of the past few days, and particularly yesterday’s decapitation of the regime’s core national security personnel, my certainty has diminished considerably.
One never really knows how brittle a regime is until it is tested by fire and iron. Most authoritarian police states, Arab and otherwise, are far less formidable than they seem, and indeed, the aura of their invincibility is a key asset in the longevity of such regimes that frequently makes up for their lack of genuine resilience and resolve. That, of course, is why such regimes are so careful about preserving their images, and also why they seem in retrospect to decay so quickly. That was certainly true of most of the communist satellite regimes in Eastern Europe, spectacularly so in the case of Ceauşescu’s Romania and very much the case, too, in the dissolution of the USSR itself. Yet we are continually surprised when this happens, even though we should know better.
No doubt there are all sorts of psychological reasons for the repetition of the embarrassing distance between our expectations and our experience of onrushing political reality in violent or revolutionary circumstances. I am not a psychologist, so I will spare you my pontifications on the matter. I will merely remind you of a marvelous remark by the late John Kenneth Galbraith who, writing about the onset of the Great Depression in October 1929, captured this psychological dynamic perfectly with the remark: “The end had come, but it was not yet in sight.”