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Nael M. Shama

Neither amnesia not amnesty for criminal Assad

Impunity for Assad sets a dangerous precedent for the region's dictators, writes Nael Sharma [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 October, 2018

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Comment: Assad's victory will be a harbinger of more violence across the region unless he faces justice, writes Nael Shama
Bashar al-Assad is winning the war in Syria. The dictator who has turned his country into a veritable hell is now so at ease that he mocks his opponents and flashes the victory sign over ruins of his own making.

There is always a price to be paid for emancipation from authoritarian regimes, but the enormous price the Syrian people have been paying since 2011 - the unspeakable horrors, the souls perished, the lives shattered and the torment suffered - may have been paid in vain.

The trouble, however, with the outcome of the Syrian conflict lies not only in its moral implications, as excruciating as they are, but also in its future political repercussions. As the dust settles in Syria, political leaders, army generals and diplomats in the region will look to the strategies, tactics and rhetoric of the winning side for lessons from the war.

For them, it would be tempting to emulate the man whose political dynasty - the House of Assad - has managed to stay at the apex of power for nearly 50 years against the backdrop of war with Israel, regional turmoil and internal revolt.   

Although learning is an integral aspect of the dynamics of international relations, especially among dictatorships, its impact is usually understudied and underestimated. In their search for effective methods of survival, authoritarian regimes seek out examples of success in like-minded regimes and then mimic them in order to eliminate opponents and keep their tenacious grip on power.

There is a general consensus among political researchers that the resilience of authoritarian regimes is due to this process of "authoritarian learning". For instance, alarmed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese regime undertook various pre-emptive actions in order to avoid a similar fate. Two decades later, the Kremlin borrowed tactics used by the Belarusian regime to contain the Snow Revolution - the protests that contested the 2011 Duma election results.
The Arab Spring was the product of this type of social learning

Also, Arab regimes, even prior to the eruption of the Arab Spring, have habitually taken stock of each other's successes and failures to upgrade their authoritarian capacity vis-à-vis both popular protests and military coups.

Obviously, these processes of learning and emulation do not take place at the level of elites and leaders only, but also of social groups and actors. This explains why dramatic historical events often take the shape of "waves" (eg: waves of democratisation, revolution, violence, etc), where an earth-shattering event in one place spreads by the politics of learning and contagion.

The Arab Spring was the product of this type of social learning.

This kind of domino effect is particularly prevalent in regions sharing political and cultural affinities. A case in point is the Arab world which has a distinct mental geography. Its states were part of one political entity - the Ottoman Empire - until around one hundred years ago. Its regimes are all autocratic, albeit in varying degrees, and its people predominately share a common language, religion, values and way of life.

As a result, the diffusion of social and political practices through processes of learning, ripple effect, and the snowballing of events from one country to another happens quite smoothly in this region.     

The Arab world, moreover, is plagued with a volatile, even explosive, mishmash. It is loaded with socioeconomic plights, scarce with democratic norms and awash with sectarian forces, religious zealots, patrimonial armies, praetorian guards and nefarious officials. At the helm are many mad or quasi-mad men, whose dominion is upheld by armies of mukhabarat ["intelligence" or "secret police"] officers, nomenklatura bureaucrats and diehard supporters.

Assad's victory sets an example for these autocrats and their henchmen, whose appetite for killing is already too big and fidelity to the law too little.   
The Syrian conflict is a very bad teacher. It shows that power, not morality or rationality, is what matters in the realm of politics

It is true that the Arab Spring has been dormant for a while, thus seen as merely a parenthesis in a long saga of repression. Yet, the resumption of turbulence is still likely given the bottomless grievances and limitless aspirations of Arab people. In the event of a popular uprising, the region's political and military leaders would impetuously gird for battle, not opt for dialogue or national conciliation.

With Assad's playbook in mind, they would think: "So what if we kill thousands of civilians, displace millions and use barrel bombs and chemical weapons unsparingly? Everybody will turn a blind eye, and we will ultimately prevail."  

As it stands now, the Syrian conflict is a very bad teacher. It shows that power, not morality or rationality, is what matters in the realm of politics; that pro-democracy movements represent a juncture, not a new home; that crude force, devoid of any limits, mercy, sobriety or sanity, can take the wind out of the sails of protesters; and that self-restraint is both fatal and foolish.

But in the age of digital and social media, how could other Arab regimes justify such ghastly actions to their peoples? Again, by using Assad's discourse: feigning innocence and preaching the gospel of patriotism, writing off any critics as terrorists, and posing as the only hope for preserving the unity of the state and protecting minorities.

"There will be no Syria after Assad," Bashar's apologists keep saying. To be sure, amid the carnage and anarchy of war, uttering hollow falsehoods could bear fruit.  

Bashar al-Assad and other Syrian war criminals should not be allowed to slip away from justice. Even if the Syrian regime prevails, or if a new ruling coalition emerges that includes some elements of the current regime, the international community should exert great efforts to prosecute those who scorched the land and precipitated whirlwinds of blood and torment.

There should be neither amnesty nor amnesia for these criminals.

If the world really wants to avoid another dark season of killing from descending upon another Arab country, it should make of Assad an example of justice and accountability, not allow him to be a model of victory and predominance.

Dr Nael Shama is a political researcher and writer with a special interest in the politics of the Arab world.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.


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