Assad Regime Will Remain in Power Due to Russian Help, Harvard Prof. Argues

Melani Cammett

Governance in the Middle East is hard to talk about broadly because there are so many different countries in a variety of stages of political and economic development, according to Melani Cammett, a professor of government at Harvard University. She believes each country needs to be considered on its own when people talk about its future.

In an event hosted Thursday by the Islamic Civilization and Studies Department and sponsored by Institute for the Liberal Arts and the Islamic Civilization and Societies Program, Cammett and Eva Bellin, a professor of Arab Politics at Brandeis University, spoke about their perspectives on the future of governance in the Middle East.

In addition to being a professor at Brandeis, Bellin was named a Carnegie Scholar by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for 2006 to 2008.

Cammett defined governance as a government’s ability to make and enforce rules and deliver social services regardless of whether that government is democratic—countries do away with arbitrary exercise of power, corruption, and abuse.

Syria’s civil war began as a peaceful protest but the movement transitioned into violence that was exacerbated with the rising sectarian tensions, she said. She predicted that the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria will stay in power with the help from Russia, a transnational militia, and recent collaborations between Turkey, Iraq, and Russia. Although Cammett thinks Assad will stay in power, she also predicts some degree of decentralization within the government.

In order to do away with arbitrary exercises of power, corruption, and abuse, Bellin said, states need to be able to implement an “institutional toolkit.” The toolkit that she described included an effective judiciary, police force, military, competent bureaucracy, regulatory agencies, and a civil service. These institutions help protect and serve citizens.

Bellin shared four lessons that she has learned during her studies about the formation of good government. First, that it is often achieved inadvertently. Next, structural conditions matter and states must have a decent political and economic foundation to achieve a good government. Third, states must cultivate buy in from other states or institutions, meaning that other states or institutions need to give them support or recognition. Lastly, the state must empower the people.

After explaining the components of what is needed for a government to operate well, Bellin explained her outlook on the future of the Middle East, some negative and some positive. On the negative side, she sees a region full of authoritarian regimes, overwhelmed with by security crises, and societal fragmentation. These conditions make the short term future look bleak, but Bellin is hopeful when it comes to the long term.

“I do see these socioeconomic and technological trends, which do point in a positive direction in the long term,” she said.

According to Cammett, having a capable state is the foundation of being able to have a stable government. A capable state is one that can enforce laws, collect taxes, provide services to its citizens, and manage social and economic affairs. The more capable a state is, the brighter future it has.  

Some of the Gulf States with rich resources, for example, have significantly better economies than countries lacking in natural resources, so it’s hard to generalize governance across the Middle East.

“Some of the major Arab Uprising countries would fall into this category, that don’t have much resource wealth and their challenge really is to build more inclusive economies, more competitive economies, and to try to bring economic economic transformation.” she said.  

Cammett described how countries such as Syria and Iraq can’t think about a competitive economy with their current political climate, which will hinder their transition to being a capable state.

She cited a few specific examples of Middle Eastern countries and evaluated their governments. She talked about Egypt and how the state is capable, but there is rising political violence and the state has been receiving a lot of economic help from other countries and may not be able to sustain its economy on its own.  

Featured Image by Jake Evans / Heights Staff