Point of No Return

Deepak Shenoy
·Atlas Invested

Some are born dictators, some achieve dictatorship, and some have dictatorship thrust upon them. Syria's Bashar al-Assad falls in the third category. Faces are hardly infallible guides to character, but comparing Bashar's to those of his father Hafez and elder brother Basil is instructive. Bashar's grey-blue eyes would seem compassionate had they not been set so close together. The fuzz on his upper lip appears always a little short of a proper moustache. His chin recedes radically, making for a triangular head that sits on a disproportionately long neck. It's as if a sculptor had five different ideas of how to mould a bust, and finished the job hastily, leaving its elements unresolved.

There was nothing unresolved about the features of Hafez and Basil al-Assad, or of charismatic rulers in the neighbourhood such as Muammar Gaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. You could easily imagine these people ordering the bombing of civilian settlements and the massacre of thousands, as Hafez al-Assad did to quell a revolt in the town of Hama in 1982. The Assads are Alawis, members of a small Shia sect considered heretical by Syria's majority Sunni population. An Alawi can hope to maintain power in Syria only through brute force. Hafez al-Assad never flinched from brutality, and his eldest son Basil, lover of guns, thoroughbreds and fast cars, made a perfect heir. But when Basil ran his Mercedes into a roundabout, Bashar, studying ophthalmology in London, was called home and conscripted into politics as Rajiv Gandhi had been following his impetuous brother Sanjay's fatal accident.

Hafez al-Assad died not long after, and his funeral gave the world its first proper look at his gangly, tentative son. Bashar spoke of liberalisation, freed political prisoners, and considered rolling back emergency measures in place since 1963. But as the Damascus Spring began threatening the foundations of his government, he clamped down, seemingly a man caught in dictatorship's net, getting increasingly entangled even as he struggled to free himself.

I travelled to Iran and Syria in 2009, just before the Iranian election that sparked the first revolt against tyranny in the region. Any criticism directed at Iran's government only serves to strengthen the theocracy's belief in its own righteousness, because the Shia martyr cult is based on the story of a few pure souls confronting a massively superior enemy. Iran can take on the Arabs, the Zionists and the corrupt West, thanks to its faith and its oil. Syria's administration has neither much faith nor much oil. It is a secular government that has somehow managed to befriend radical Islamists, whether Hezbollah in Lebanon or Iran's Ayatollahs. One can wear what clothes one wants in Damascus, and walk down the streets sipping beer, but public debate is severely curtailed. When I visited, sites like Blogger and Facebook were accessible in Iran, but blocked in Syria. It was easy to have a conversation about politics in Tehran, but in Aleppo one felt fear and suspicion on broaching controversial topics. It seemed to me the rulers could stay in power indefinitely in Iran, but in Syria the internal contradictions and economic pressures appeared very great. Something had to give sometime soon. That time has come now.

And it is now, ten years after assuming office, that Bashar al-Assad is becoming a dictator in his own right. To be a true dictator, you have to order a massacre of your own people. Public demonstrations provide the perfect opportunity. Authoritarian administrations cannot permit open protests, no matter how peaceful. There's a fundamental incompatibility between such voicing of dissent and the illusion of consensus kept alive by enforced civic order. Unhindered, demonstrations inevitably grow large enough to undermine repressive governments. When leaders of liberal democracies demand that an autocrat allow peaceful agitation, they are effectively asking for his abdication.

Faced with widespread public anger, rulers face a moment of self-definition. To stay in power, they need to act in a manner that will destroy their carefully cultivated image of being democratic. The only alternative to that is giving up power. Exactly twenty-two years ago, the rulers of China faced such a crisis. In May 1989, Chinese protestors, mainly students, took over Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The Communist government dithered, caught between General Secretary Zhao Ziyang's favoured strategy of negotiation and gentle persuasion, and Premier Li Peng's advocacy of martial law. The world's media, invited to China for the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev for a Sino-Soviet summit in mid-May 1989, covered the protests extensively. Chinese newspapers, experiencing a period of unprecedented liberalism, faithfully reported events. A number of editorials expressed sympathy with the students' cause. By late May, the argument was settled by China's most powerful man, the semi-retired Deng Xiaoping, in Li Peng's favour. A bloodbath followed, claiming many hundreds (in some estimations, many thousands) of lives.

The reformist leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, faced his moment of self-definition not long after. He had allowed the demolition of the Iron Curtain but, when protests threatened his own country, in Azerbaijan and the Baltic states, he ordered in troops, who dealt with the demonstrators the only way troops can. At this point, Gorbachev could have rationalised, like Macbeth:

I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er

Instead, he reversed course, as Indira Gandhi did after twenty-one months of the Emergency. Further protests in Soviet republics were allowed to proceed without hindrance. Within two years, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and a political party prominent in world affairs for seventy years was thrown out of power. Azerbaijan slipped into war with Armenia, a conflict in which some 30,000 soldiers and civilians died. Gorbachev's troops had killed relatively few, and it's arguable that, had he taken the Chinese line, he could have kept the USSR intact. But he'd also have marked himself for ever as a tyrant.

Gorbachev seems happy with the choice he made. The encomiums he received recently on his eightieth birthday must have strengthened the Nobel Peace Prize winner's conviction that he took the just path. If he could, he'd even reverse the initial command to the military to act against demonstrators. "The declaration of a state emergency in Baku was the biggest mistake of my political career", he has said.

In the past months, half a dozen Arab rulers have been come up against a moment of truth similar to those faced by Zhao Ziyang, Li Peng, Deng Xiaoping and Mikhail Gorbachev. The soft dictators of Tunisia and Egypt, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, eventually chose abdication. Muammar Gaddafi opted for carnage. Bashar al-Assad is leaning in the Gaddafi direction, but he still has a choice to stop wading in blood, to be more like the liberal eye doctor he used to be. He should consider he might end up not like his father or Deng Xiaoping, who could justify their murderous reigns by pointing to stability they created in their respective countries after years of strife, but like the Shah of Iran, who dealt ruthlessly with protestors but found each dead demonstrator being replaced by a dozen living ones, until the numbers reached a level no army could contain.

Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.