Put yourself into the shoes of Bashar Assad. He and his wife and children could make a run for it, and the Russian soldiers and sailors in the port of Tartus are no doubt on standby to ship him to Moscow. But what is there to do there? No more power, no more looting billions from the Syrian state, no more travel in case someone thinks of arrest and an international court. Besides, the Syrian state forces are huge, and far better equipped than the raggle-taggle opponents.
The rewards that come from fighting it out successfully, then, look more appealing than the loss and the risks of throwing the hand in. And in any case the political culture dictates the decision to fight it out. There aren’t — and never have been — the institutions to mediate clashes of interests, and so victory goes to the strongest and everyone else has to make what terms they can with that. The one certain way of dislodging the strong man is to kill him, and his only certain insurance against such a fate is to get his killing in first.
Since the Arabs obtained independence, kill-or-be-killed has been the ultimate political mainspring of their politics. In a ghastly precedent, the Hashemite family once ruling Iraq, and their prime minister Nuri Said, were trampled to death by a mob in the street. King Abdullah of Jordan, Anwar Sadat, Saddam Hussein, Saad Hariri, Moammar Qaddafi — their fates illustrate what happens in the operation of this political culture.
Torture, massacre, and defilement of the dead replace every moral consideration in people afraid that they are likely to be killed. The murder with a bomb of Assef Shawkat, Bashar’s brother-in-law, is certain to up violence in reprisal. But the more Bashar and his henchmen in the Alawite minority kill the majority Sunnis, the closer comes the threat that they will use their chemical weapons. When push came to shove for Saddam Hussein in another frightful precedent, he saw no obstacle to gassing his Kurdish minority.
Bashar Assad had the opportunity to break the regressive political culture, but instead he exemplifies it. Russia and China and Iran form an Unholy Alliance that licenses his rule and ensures that the political culture of kill-or-be-killed has to work its grim way out. He will not be regretted, but unless or until that same political culture is reformed it must repeat itself in any successor, and everyone is going to have to fear whatever then happens.