If you’re interested in my analysis of the Syrian conflict — and, really, why would you be? — here’s what I wrote two months ago. Basically nothing has changed since then. Assad is still going to lose, it’s still going to take a long time, and a lot of people are going to be killed, maimed, impoverished or otherwise immiserated first.
For the record, here’s what I wrote back in August 2011: “Assad will still be in Syria, and still the leader of an internationally recognized (though very diplomatically isolated) government. It’s possible that he might be assassinated by then, but I don’t think it likely. I don’t see a blue-on-blue coup taking him out now, and I don’t think he’s anywhere close to cutting and running. Foreign military intervention is (for reasons I’ve discussed) unlikely... the regime may well have lost control of large swathes of the country. Syria will probably be increasingly violent, impoverished, and immiserated. And Assad may well be — in effect — just a powerful warlord in a country that has a number of warlords. But he’ll still be there, and will still be at least nominally the head of state. More’s the pity.”
I’ve been arguing with myself as to whether I want to re-up the bet for yet another six months. I’ve won twice now; why not go for the trifecta? Well ... in my opinion, those first two wagers (Assad will last a year beyond August 2011; Assad will last another six months beyond August 2012) were sucker bets. That first bet was something like 10-1 in my favor. I could have lost, but the odds were quite firmly on my side. The next six months... eh, the odds are still on my side. But not by as much. It’s still a good bet, but it’s no longer in the candy-from-a-baby category.
But that’s not why I’m hesitant about betting again. 2-1 is still good odds, after all. But I’m getting a little weary of betting on the loathsome dictator who is plunging his country into blood and horror. “Oh hey, another week, looks like I’m going to take some more of John Quiggin’s money” is fun. “Another week, another thousand people mangled or dead in the Syrian meat grinder” is not. Wagering on the outcome is starting to seem tasteless.
That bet grew out of a debate in August 2013 about dictators. John Quiggin thinks that dictatorship is an institution in decline, and that the number of dictators around the world is likely to decrease; I think that it’s an institution that’s in reasonably good health, and that the number of dictators around the world is likely to remain more or less stable. It’s only 18 months since we started watching this, so it’s certainly too early to declare a trend. But... in that time, the number of dictators has not changed significantly. One dictator (Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia) died of natural causes and has not yet been replaced. Zenawi was an old-fashioned charismatic revolutionary. His replacement as President is a mild-mannered figurehead, with a junta of revolutionary veterans really running things from behind the scenes. Those sorts of arrangements don’t tend to be long-term stable, so let’s see how this evolves over the next little while. Ethiopia’s an interesting place, and I could imagine a range of outcomes, from “heading for liberal democracy! hurrah!” to “more dictatorship” to chaos.
Meanwhile, though, Presidents Bongo of Gabon and Gnassingbe of Togo — two authoritarian African leaders who inherited the positions from their fathers — have both been growing steadily more dictatorial. Bongo, in particular, seems to be evolving into a classic old-fashioned African kleptocrat. I put both these guys on my “borderline” list back in August 2011. Today I’d move Bongo, at least, into the full-fledged dictator category today.
So, no net change. It’s still early days, but I have to say there’s more evidence for a “dictatorship is doing fine, thanks” hypothesis than the “dictatorship is inevitably doomed” position.
Finally, let’s note that Syria is proving a useful cautionary tale for dictators around the world. You want to tacitly tolerate those street protests, people? See where that leads! You want to end up like Syria? Guys like Lukashenka of Belarus and Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan — both of whom were visibly jumpy about the fall of Qaddafi back in August 2011, and clearly concerned that the Arab Spring might be heading their way — have visibly calmed down since then. State-controlled media in authoritarian countries around the world have been quick to depict the Syrian conflict as a plucky Assad attempting to hold the breach against terrorism, civil war, foreign intervention and chaos. At this point the Syrian conflict has turned into a small but real net positive for dictators around the world, and will continue so for a while no matter how it turns out.