The Survival of Authoritarianism and Syrian Identity Crsis: Explaining the Resilience of Assad's Ruling Bargain

Joshua Vasquez, University of Washington Tacoma

I wrote the original back in June of 2015. The dynamics of the Syrian conflict have shifted since then. Therefore, this one is updated which mentions the Russian intervention. Also, I revised and edited the original.


The Arab Spring was a remarkable event that occurred in 2011, which forever altered the political and social structure of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It was a regional social mobilization where citizens took to the streets and confronted their corrupt, oppressive and distant dictators. The citizens of the region demanded the end of corruption, democratic elections and human rights. Instead of heeding to their citizens demands, the various dictators of the region attempted to restore order through coercion. However, this strategy backfired by increasing the revolutionary zeal of the people, which unraveled ‘ruling bargains’ in the Middle East, which have been resilient since the early 1950s. Before discussing anything further about the Arab Spring, it is important to define the term ruling bargain. According to Mehran Kamrava, “ruling bargains are corporatist arrangements in the national political economy whereby the state brings into its orbit, and politically pacifies, strategic social actors such as the civil service, entrepreneurs and the broader middle classes.”[1] Simplicity, a ruling bargain is a contract where the state promises to provide public services in exchange for political legitimacy from the society.

However, overtime the state proved to be insufficient to provide such services, where it became dependent on cooptation, legitimacy, external actors and repression to preserve the status quo. However, in 2011, the ruling bargains in the region unraveled where in Tunisia Ben Ali was ousted in three weeks and fled to Saudi Arabia. After two weeks of demonstrations in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak resigned from the presidency because the Egyptian Armed Forces defected to the opposition. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi was ousted in an eight month civil war supported by NATO intervention, which resulted in his demise. Lastly, in Yemen Abdullah Saleh resigned from mounting domestic and international pressure. Despite the successful revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, some ruling-bargains have survived to today, such as in Syria.

In the beginning of the Syrian uprising, it appeared Assad’s ruling bargain was unraveling and it was only a matter of time before he met a similar fate like other regional dictators. However, the revolution where Syrians sought bring democracy gradually morphed into a sectarian struggle that divided the country among sectarian and socioeconomic lines. Therefore my research question is how does identity politics explain the resilience of Assad’s ruling bargain? This question is important because it will explain how authoritarian regimes survive and how identity politics hinder the perquisite for democratization, the need for national unity. This research will also help U.S. policymakers by showing them the concerns of minorities if Assad falls. Minorities are convinced there is no future for them in a post-Assad Syria, so they support the regime largely out of fear of the alternative. Guaranteeing these communities a future will bring down Assad and may bring democratization.

[1] Mehran Kamrava, “The Rise and Fall of Ruling Bargains in the Middle East,” in Beyond the Arab Spring: The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East, ed. Mehran Kamrava et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 19.