Bashar al-Assad and the 5 percent rule

The bombing in Damascus last week that killed the Syrian minister of defense and »»

The bombing in Damascus last week that killed the Syrian minister of defense and the brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad will probably go down in the history of the Syrian conflict as the decisive moment that proved to many Syrians that Assad was losing.

I say “probably” because the jury is still out on the direct and indirect effects of the successful attack on the inner circle of the Assad regime. It looks like the Syrian dictator has decided to try and turn the tide with one more wave of extreme violence against the centers of resistance. He has also warned other countries not to try to profit from last week's backlash by threatening to use chemical and biological weapons against possible external intervening forces.

The uncertainty about the significance of the bombing, however, is not related to the unlikely scenario of chemical warfare. The most important indicator regarding the impact of the killing of some of Assad's inner circle last week will be the number of people who are switching sides, and the composition of that group, in what amounts to a full-blown civil war in Syria. The Economist last week reported on the growing number of Christian Syrians who no longer believe Assad will be able to protect their interests. Other information coming from Aleppo, the commercial center of the country, suggests that the local merchant class is also about to switch its loyalties. Every day dozens of soldiers and a handful of officers decide to defect and join their colleagues in Turkey and parts of Syria already under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

In a very interesting short article on the website “Political Violence @ a Glance,” Will H. Moore, a professor from the department of political science at Florida State University, tries to explain what is currently happening in Syria. He uses the work of two American academics who have been conducting extensive research into collective action, popular resistance and the reaction of armed forces used by regimes under pressure.

In the 1990s, Mark Irving Lichbach came up with the 5 percent rule, suggesting that states cannot survive if 5 percent of the population engages in active collective action against it. His conclusions were based on popular revolutions in Iran (1979), the Philippines (1986) and Eastern Europe (1989). In all these cases, unarmed citizens took to the streets in large numbers, sometimes exceeding the 5 percent of supporters Lichbach claims would normally become actively involved in such a cause. The challenged regimes ordered the mass targeting of these citizens, and the moment the military refused to follow orders, fell.

Moore combines these older findings with the recent dissertation of Jacqueline DeMerrit, “Delegating Death: A Strategic Logic of Government Killing,” in which she tries to find out under what conditions security forces are willing to kill civilians and carry out other human rights violations, and under what conditions they are not. Her conclusion is that external monitoring of their activities plays a key role in the decision to obey orders or otherwise. When soldiers and police officers realize that civilian deaths will have a huge impact on their own lives and liberties because they will be held responsible, they tend to refuse to engage in such activities, or defect. That is why the work of organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is so important. By purchasing satellite images, they closely watch events in Syria, thereby letting everyone know that indisputable evidence of targeting is on the public record. Based on DeMerrit's work, Moore further argues that in Syria the willingness of soldiers and police members to use violence against unarmed civilians will drop as monitoring rises.

Let me finish with Moore's conclusion because, in my view, it perfectly summarizes the situation in Syria: “The calculations that the agents of coercion throughout Syria are making today, I suspect, are thus producing different odds. To be sure, there are those with sufficient blood on their hands and other ties to Assad's rule that they will not defect until they are safely in a prison cell. But there are tens of thousands of others, and if I had to place a wager, I would bet that more and more of them are going to conclude that Assad will lose. Let the mass shirking begin, and I suspect it will be only days or at most weeks before we see the key act of insubordination that will collapse Syria's current regime.”