End Game and the Standing Ovation Syndrome

By William Dowell, July 18, 2012
(This article originally appeared in The Essential Edge)

It may be premature to rule him out quite yet, but Bashar al-Assad's future looks increasingly shaky as a cumulation of events begins to build a critical mass that is likely to tip the scales against him as well as those caught supporting his brutal regime

The ongoing fighting in Damascus may be more important for its psychological impact than for any territory actually held. All wars require individual bets on who is most likely to win, and the odds on Bashar al-Assad emerging victorious are declining daily.  Something worth noting is a sociological phenomenon known as “the Standing Ovation.”

As Mark Turrell, the CEO of OrcaSci ( , a social media consulting firm that defines its specialty as “the science of spread,” explains it,  standing ovations normally have two trigger events.  The first is when a few people in the audience stand in order to show their enthusiasm  at the end of a performance.  To be effective, they need to be near the front and visible to everyone else in the audience.  Most people look on and wonder whether they, too, should join in.  No one wants to risk exposing himself if the rest of the audience disagrees, so there is a brief period of evaluation.  What is needed for the standing ovation to take hold is a second trigger that indicates that the majority actually agrees with the first group.  This can be as little as a few shouts of “bravo, bravissima!”  As more people stand and applaud, the reaction reaches a critical mass and at that point anyone who does not stand risks being isolated from the crowd. In a sense, the standing ovation is a way for the public to realize its own expectations and to arrive at a common consensus on how to proceed. 

In politics and war, the phenomenon presents itself in different ways.  In Egypt, the few demonstrators that demanded  Mubarak’s ouster were initially seen as little more than an interesting group of passionate outliers.  They gained attention, but relatively few people actually joined them.  Mubarak’s use of violence to put down the group, and more important, his decision to cut off wifi and mobile phone communications, alerted everyone not involved at first that a major change was underway.  The desperate flailing by the government’s unofficial thugs then solidified a critical mass against the Mubarak regime. Anyone who did not join the movement to overthrow Mubarak subsequently risked isolation and rejection by the rest of society.

Bashar al-Assad, who lacks the political shrewdness of his father,  now seems to be moving down the same path as Mubarak, only with differences that are specific to Syria.  In contrast to Egypt,  which, despite its faults, strives for social harmony,  and to Libya, which under Gaddafi was mostly hot air, Syria has always been  a more ferocious and potentially dangerous player in Middle Eastern politics.

Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was relatively uneducated, but he had common sense and a deep emotional connection to the Syrian public. He knew how to use force and terror to retain power, but he also knew when to pull back.  He told me once in an interview that he thought Saddam Hussein was crazy and out of control. He was an admirer and a friend of Romania’s Ceaucescu, and when Ceaucescu was humiliated and murdered by an enraged mob, much the way Mussolini met his fate, Hafez al-Assad briefly considered democratizing Syria, and only after cautiously assessing his position decided against it.

Compared to his father, Bashar al-Assad is a minor figure.  He was not his father’s first choice. He was, in fact, all that was left in a desperate effort to hold onto the kind  of pseudo monarchy masquerading as a republic that the Middle East seemed to favor in the latter half of the 20th century.   Bashar clearly does not see the nuances that Hafez al-Assad was highly sensitive to and which enabled him to skirt personal disaster on numerous occasions.   Intimates who know Bashar now see him as being out-of-touch and living in a virtual cocoon of his own wishful thinking, detached from reality, and engaged in a murderous rampage to hold on to power by mimicking the brutality he observed in his father, but with none of his father’s cunning.   The Syrian officer corps, which is 80% Alawite, knows that its survival depends on keeping the homicidal charade going and that is likely to prolong the agony, but not for very long.

This is is where the idea of the standing ovation comes in.  Every Syrian needs to ask himself or herself who will be the ultimate winner in the current struggle. More to the point, will he or she survive  long enough to find out personally.

On a more geopolitical scale, Russia, China and Iran need to ask themselves the same question.  The stakes in this game are high.  Do they want to up the ante, or cash in their cards now and try to pretend that their involvement never happened?

The second trigger for Syria’s Standing Ovation may well have been the recent high-level defections by the Republican Guard’s Brigadier General, Manaf Tlass, and Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares.   Nawaf al-Fares upped the geopolitical stakes by announcing that Syria has been backing al-Qaeda and that government had been setting bombs in Syria in order to justify the government’s crackdown against the independence movement.  Whether these allegations are true or not doesn’t really matter. The fact is that they will be believed by a significant portion of the Syrian public as well as foreign countries and they are likely to change the parameters of the game.

As far as the ongoing fighting in Damascus goes, it does not really matter whether the Syrian rebels are effective or not. The damage done by having Syrian tanks drop artillery on civilian houses will amplify the chaos beyond Assad’s expectations and that alone may be enough to convince Syria's Sunni majority, if it ever had any doubts,  that it is now finally time to change the Alawite regime in power.  At some point in the near future the Syrian generals who have been using Assad as a front in their own struggle to cling to power will have to make a critical decision: make an alliance with the insurgents, or find a safe haven outside Syria, and more likely outside the Middle East.

The geopolitical hangers-on, Russia, China and Iran face a similar strategic cross roads.  China is far less sophisticated in world affairs than its allies in this losing battle, but Beijing has already begun to edge away from public view and quietly tried to drop off the radar screen. In contrast to China,  Iran is very experienced in the region, having bought and controlled the Hezbollah for decades.   But Iran is not really in any position to be much more than an irritant and behind the scenes funder to a hated dictatorial regime that is now floundering.   That leaves Russia, and more to the point, Putin, who put himself in front when he agreed to meet with Koffi Anan.  A  Russian debacle in the Middle East will not look good on Putin’s resume, nor will it gain a positive place in the history books. Still Moscow is far away, and like Assad, Putin is probably not receiving an objective account of Moscow’s chances of coming out on top.  Syria may emerge as a minor Afghan-defeat style blip on Russia’s currently not-very-impressive record of diplomatic snafus.  Still Russia has a small chance of recovering some dignity in the current awful mess.  If it were smart, it would use its mini-flotilla now in the vicinity of Syria to evacuate its own nationals before its too late.

That is the thing about this stage in the Standing Ovation. We all watch everyone around us, and then decide which way to jump.  Russia will present its “enhanced” plan at the Security Council in New York later today, which should give some indication of whether it plans to stay in the game or cash in its chips.  In the long haul, though it may not make much difference.  Syrians now face a choice between a bleak future at the hands of a homicidal dictator incresingly detached from their reality or a brutal struggle to free themselvds and join the modern world. In the end it is their choice and no one else's.

Earlier stories in the Essential Edge:

Syria: Past the Point of No Return