Syria and (the lack of) the Soviet Union

With mounting evidence of the Syrian regime’s willingness to resort to the use of unrestrained force to try to stop protests in that country (see here, here, and here), including the use of soccer stadiums to hold prisoners, I wanted to draw attention to a point I made in my original comments about the usefulness of 1989 in the (soon to be post-) communist world as an analogy/heuristic for what was going on in Northern Africa and the Middle East in 2011. One point about the differences between the two regions is worth repeating now:

One fundamental difference that I can not help noting between 1989 and 2011, however, is the lack of a powerful external actor enforcing the non-democratic regimes in the Middle East. East-Central European communist propaganda notwithstanding, few probably doubted by the 1980s the most of the region would throw off communism if Moscow ever gave them the opportunity to do so. Thus perhaps the most crucial information transmitted by the success of the Polish and Hungarian revolutions was precisely the fact that the Russians were not planning on intervening. I’m not sure there is anything analogous in place in the Middle East.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’ve watched the escalation of violence in Syria. Unlike a Poland or Czechoslovakia, for example, Syria has never relied on outside intervention (or even the threat of outside intervention, as in Poland in 1981) to maintain power.1 Thus in watching Mubarak fall in Egypt or Ali in Tunisia, Assad may very well have gotten a sense of the danger he and his regime could face, but he wouldn’t have had the same “the jig is up” feeling that would have gripped leaders of communist countries realizing that the days of 1956 and 1968 were over and that the Soviet Union would no longer be intervening to protect hard line communist rulers. As time passes, I wonder if this will prove to be one of the fundamental reasons why the collapse of successive communist regimes in Eastern Europe came to be seen as inevitable, while successive developments in the Middle East seem to be encouraging surviving regimes to dig their heals in even harder.

1 Perhaps Lebanon and Bahrain might be exceptions to this claim, but in general the point holds throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.

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On other observation: while I thought labeling developments in Northern Africa and the Middle East as colored revolutions (e.g., Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution) was inappropriate because they did not following elections and electoral fraud), the catchy phrase Arab Spring could turn out to be a depressingly prophetic choice in many countries. After all, the Prague Spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia – on which I assume the phrase “Arab Spring” is modeled – did not end with a democratic Czechoslovakia, but rather with a massive show of military force (in this case from the Warsaw Pact) leading to the complete and utter destruction of the movement as well as a two decade delay in the advent of democracy in Czechoslovakia. I’m not saying that’s where Syria et al. are necessary headed, but perhaps not the best choice for a shorthand reference to these protest movements…

[Cross-posted at the Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.