Syria and the Numbers Game

01 July, 2012

His Excellency Bashar al-Assad

President of the Syrian Arab Republic,

THIS IS WITH REFERENCE to the confidential and sensitive task you had given me last week through the office of Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs.It is a matter of great pride and honour for us at the Central Bureau of Statistics to work towards the glory of our great nation.

We are indeed treading the most depressing of times. Terrorists and anarchists corrupted by their lust for power, or brainwashed by vile Islamists, are engaged in an untenable war to disturb the peace, tranquility and justice that we have been blessed with for the past four decades, first under the glorious leadership of your father, His Excellency Hafez al-Assad, and then under your just stewardship after his sad demise in 2000.

Now to the task you had given me—to collate data on major regime changes that have taken place over the past four decades in countries that were under single party or single leader rule throughout Africa and the Middle East, and to draw statistical inferences from these transitions and the fate of the deposed leaders.

I began by listing such leaders since 1970, relying on details given under the Wikipedia ‘List of Modern Dictators’. Your Excellency will kindly excuse the title of my data source. I personally mean no reference to your reign. I listed 30 names, not including heads of state who passed on in harness or continue to be in power.

I did a two-way classification of the data—1) the manner of regime change; 2) the fate of the leader. Under the first classification, I prepared three categories: i) peaceful transition; ii) military coup or external war; iii) violent widespread civil strife or civil war. Similarly, under the second classification: i) a life of relative tranquility, either within the country or in exile, without persecution or prosecution by the new regime; ii) imprisonment and/or national or international prosecution; iii) assassination or death during the power transition or legally sanctioned execution under the new regime. I further analysed the data over four time-periods: 1970-79, 1980-89, 1990-99, 2000-present, in order to draw some intertemporal inferences.

Across the four time periods, there were nine instances of peaceful transition to democratic rule. In no case was the erstwhile leader subjected to persecution or prosecution, after he ceded power.

In cases of internal coup or external aggression, it has been a mixed record. Of the six leaders deposed in 1970-79, five were assassinated, while one, Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, fled to Libya and then to Saudi Arabia, where he lived until his death in 2003. In 1980-89, only one leader ceded power during a coup d’état, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza of Burundi in 1987, who then remained in exile for six years before returning home and is now a Senator for Life as a former head of state. In 1990-99, six leaders were forced out of power by either coup or war, and five managed to stay alive. The one not so lucky was Burhânuddîn Rabbânî of Afghanistan who was assassinated in 2011. Three of the surviving five—Lucas Mangope of the Bantustan of Bophuthatswana, Hissène Habré of Chad, and Ali Salim al-Beidh of Yemen—fled to another country to avoid persecution and/or threat to life. Finally, since 2000, three heads of state were similarly forced out of power, of whom one survived the transition unharmed, one was assassinated and one, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, executed after a summary trial. It adds up to a 47 percent record of leaders unharmed during transition (a majority of whom had to flee their countries in order protect themselves), an equal percentage killed, and a lone case of a legal trial that resulted in an execution.

Finally, there are six instances of leaders stepping down as a result of protracted, often violent and widespread civil strife with heavy civilian casualties, which occasionally escalated into civil war. In every case, the leader was either killed in the struggle, or imprisoned or executed under the new regime. There were no instances of civil strife through the 1970s and 1980s, two during the 1990s, and four after 2000, most of which have happened over the past few years, the most recent being the civil war in the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya . Thus, not a single deposed leader emerged unharmed or unimprisoned during or after a widespread civil unrest.

I am certain that our Syrian Arab Army is firmly in control of the situation and will crush the rebellion. But may I humbly venture that the writing is on the wall if, by any misfortune, it does not succeed. We must, therefore, continue with the crackdown even more strictly. Your beloved father had decisively dealt with separatist forces, especially in February 1982 in the city of Hama, which resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 people and 1,000 of our fine soldiers. It was a sad but necessary price that our people had to pay to keep the fabric of our society intact.

Your Excellency is not in a much different situation now. You must act decisively against this small group of anarchists and Islamists. As per my analysis above, there is no middle ground left for you to contemplate.

Yours truly,

Chief of Central Bureau of Statistics

Government of Al-Jumhūriyyah Al-‘Arabīyah As-Sūriyyah

Anant Nath