The reason why the Assad regime survived for so many decades, and why in particular it has survived for the last three years, has little to do with how smart its leaders are. Cruelty and Machiavellian tactics are signs of intelligence. Moreover, the Assads simply came to grasp, in time, an obvious fact about their position, namely that they have become in charge of a country where change in leadership and system of governance requires consent from a variety of regional and international actors, and is not a purely domestic affair. They also understood that regional and international rivalry will make consensus in regard to change in Syria well-nigh impossible to achieve, a fact that gave them ample leeway to do what they wanted internally, and to occasionally engage in some regional adventurism of their own.
In other words, the Assad regime survives by indulgence, that is, due to the willingness of certain powers to keep it in place and intact. This may not the case anymore. But the matter will not be decided by the Assads themselves. That is no longer their decision to make, and may never have been. Iran, and to a lesser extent Russia, will have to come on board. Or, the change will have to be wrought in the face of their opposition, a development that lacks support from the United States and other Western powers.
People who attribute the survival of the Assad regime to the intelligence of its leaders fail to understand this important dynamic, or, they simply want to ignore it for a variety of ideological reasons. But, I find it particularly disturbing when many Syrians seem to think along these lines. For so long as we take mere survival as a sign of intelligence irrespective of the price incurred for it we cannot see the real intelligence that lies behind the willingness to gamble on allowing change to happen unhindered, if not even lead it. This is a dangerous trend indeed. For people who think along these lines are liable to replicate the same mode of behavior that the Assad exhibited once they themselves are in position of power.
Bashar Al-Assad could have been by now the democratically elected president of a country that is rapidly emerging as a developing Middle Eastern country, taking full advantage from its geographic and even demographic advantages. Syria’s demographic and regional diversity, properly leveraged, could have brought amazing investments from around the region and the world. The inability to see this potential and take a calculated gamble on it, rather than continue to gamble on surviving by oppression and the willingness to unleash mayhem on the country if necessary not to mention the neighborhood, makes one really dumb in my book.
There is a type of adaptation skills that allows for mere survival, and another, a riskier one admittedly, that brings with it the potential for major improvement and growth. Those who are not willing to take that gamble on the latter type will continue to be fodder for those who do, notwithstanding the risks involved. Losing while reaching out for the stars is far nobler than thriving as bottom feeders.
And the Assads are bottom feeders. Many of their opponents might have been scattered to the four winds at this stage, but so what? For centuries now, Syrians have thrived and prospered more abroad than they did in their original homeland. The type of adaptation skills that lead to growth is in their DNA it seems, and now they have no choice but to fall back on it. They will thrive again, and not too long from now.
So my message to the Syrians who gambled on the revolution is simple: embrace this bitter experience, no matter where you are, for your gamble will pay off in due course, albeit in unexpected ways.