Aspects of Legitimacy and Coercion in Contemporary Syria
Civil obedience under the regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria is demanded through a combination of legitimacy and coercive reinforcement. Voluntary compliance to the regulations of the regime is produced through a system of symbolic manipulation and regulation of political discourse which atomizes the Syrian population and alienates each from one another, preventing them from becoming politically active. Coercive reinforcement is applied to assist this insulation process and prevent any transgressions from gaining momentum and affecting substantial change or damaging the power-system of the regime.
To demolish this self-enforcing system of political domination requires two things: the surfacing and recognition of this dissimulation through permissible transgressions, and a subsequent opposition of sufficient magnitude to produce a cascade of protest and refusal to obey the demands of the regime. This deprives the regime of its legitimacy and forces it to rely solely on coercion, which can only be enforced to an extent, beyond which it must reorganize, dissolve, or somehow regain an adequate amount of voluntary compliance.
How the government achieves its legitimacy:
Cluttering the public space with symbols and iconography that project the power of the regime, and forcing citizens to participate in the activity, exhausts the minds and bodies of civilians and conditions them for proper dissimulation. By confronting citizens individually, consistently, and elaborately with the implicit nature of the regime’s power it can generate an environment in which citizens will constantly assume they are under the surveillance of the regime and behave according to its satisfaction. This is done through the utilization of spectacles as a means to afford grandiosity and awe to Asad and his regime.
The regime also employs a strategy of maintaining an official discourse which pervades and defines all conversations of political topics. Through manufacturing a prescribed set of narratives which buttress the regime it creates an illusory stable political system, and it additionally enforces its own perceived power in the eyes of the citizens through commanding of them absurd and unreal beliefs. The effect of this official discourse is a public dissimulation in which citizens behave as if they ascribe to the irrational claims of the regime, when in fact they are merely pretending to avoid a harsh recourse.
The regime also invokes familial metaphors in its semiotic content referring to Asad as the father – who traditionally is afforded obedience in exchange for providing – and referring to Syrian state as the mother – who is the home under the care of the father – and referring to citizens as the children, which serves to depoliticize them. By transforming the entire population of citizens into children of the state they are no longer considered to have rights or political power, they are simply subservient units to the father in exchange for his service as protector and provider. Therefore, when there occurs opposition to Asad he is vindicated in his harsh repressions because it is the father’s right to maintain order within the home.
How the government enforces its legitimacy through coercion:
The regime coerces obedience through fear of punishment, without which it would surely fail, administered by the regime and delivered by the security apparatus. Coercion reinforces the government’s legitimacy by applying a swift and brutal chastening whenever an intolerable transgression takes place. Fred Lawson describes the Syrian military as one of the most foreboding in the Middle East – a region characterized by high security spending – which at one point in the late 1980s consumed as much as twenty percent of Syria’s gross national product (pg. 425).
The effect of these domination techniques results in the atomization of the population. It produces an environment of unease and distrust in which fear of reprisal prevents anyone from transgressing the boundaries set by the regime. Insulating the individual deprives a population of its power in solidarity, and as no individual could dream to topple the regime single-handedly it is a powerful method of domination.
No authoritarian regime can exercise total domination or control over its citizens, there are always some aspects of public and private life that escape its grasp. The concept of a totalitarian regime – in essence – is an unfeasible one, because if nothing else the realm of the subconscious mind will remain unfettered. Asad’s regime allows some “permissible transgressions” against it, within clearly defined boundaries set to prevent any public galvanizations of retaliation against the regime. These transgressions may initially appear arbitrarily designated, but they do follow a prescribed formula. Political activists in Syria must resort to creativity in raising points, or political commentary, because if they cross the boundaries it will result in censorship or perhaps punishment. However, if they can succeed in addressing taboo political issues while appearing facially neutral to the censor boards, they can generate a cohesive sentiment of shared unbelief among their viewers. This cohesion is a weapon against the atomizing agents of the regime.
As Abbas discussed in “The Dynamics of the Uprising in Syria” by the time the revolt broke out the regime had already made its decision on how it would be dealt with, that was the security option. There was no room for negotiation, for peaceful talks, or even for strategic non-violent manipulation, it was instead decided that demonstrators would be forcibly removed from the streets through the use of the military and that the resulting death and violence would be a useful tool in preventing the movement’s growth. Soldiers were told to use any form of violence to suppress the movement and that citizens were to be humiliated (pg. 5), to remind them of their position in the hierarchy of power. This is an example of the regime losing legitimacy. Once voluntary compliance is no longer present the regime is left only with their use of force, which for many is a strong and effective deterrent, but for a population accustomed to the frequent use of violence as a means of control it can be expected to be somewhat less effective.
How the citizens may oppose government and reclaim power for themselves:
The precept of isolation as a means of depoliticizing Syria’s citizens creates conditions in which opposition to the regime must accrue in what Wedeen describes as a “cascade” effect of transgression (pg. 152). That is, once an initial transgression occurs in a publicly observable context the dissimulation is broken and the presence of mutual understandings of unbelief create conditions in which more citizens are likely to break character and join the revolt. As more join in it becomes a full-scale demonstration with burgeoning participation and as the cascade of opposition grows, so reduces the options of the regime in dealing with it.
A clear example of this cascade effect is demonstrated in the opening of the Abbas article which describes the primary symptom of the current revolt in Syria. In the commercial market in Damascus a traffic police officer reprimanded the son of a trader who in turn was steadfast to preserve his dignity and cursed the police officer. Other traders witnessing the incident stood in support of the young man and so began a protest on his behalf. The situation escalated until eventually the Minister of the Interior convinced the traders to end their protest (pg. 1). Although Abbas attributes this incident to the influence of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia – which is quite possible when considering the timeframe – the process by which the protest began and subsequently gained momentum is a cascade effect of transgression.
The amalgamation of political strategies of domination in Syria prevents civil society from political participation by atomizing its population. This is achieved through establishing a system of voluntary compliance reinforced with coercive recourses. Surfacing the mutual sentiments of unbelief through permissible political transgressions is the first step towards bringing about solidarity to replace the isolation of the population. Once concerted efforts can be organized and directed – should they be juxtaposed to voluntary compliance – the regime must resort to the recourse of coercion through force. This strategy of domination as a singularity is inadequate to achieve the required obedience of the civilian population and will force the regime to reorganize, dissipate, or regain its previous level of voluntary compliance.
Wedeen, Lisa. Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.
Abbas Hassan. “The Dynamics of the Uprising in Syria.” Arab Reform Initiative, 51. October 2011. Print
Lawson, Fred. “Syria.” Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East. Ed. Michelle Angrist. Boulder: Rienner 2010. Chapter 18. Print.