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“Voluntary Purging” and Ethnic Regimes

By Taylor Marvin

At Political Violence @ a Glance [full disclosure: I edit contributions for the site] Erica Chenoweth flags an interesting quote by Bashar al-Assad included in Hassan Hassan’s recent piece in Foreign Policy“Practically, this process is positive,” Assad remarked, commenting on recent defections.

Chenoweth argues that the Assad regime sees the rebellion as less of an existential threat and more of a useful way of sorting out who’s loyal and who isn’t:

“Apparently, Assad would prefer a small, committed core of officials committed to crushing the revolt than a broader regime infiltrated by traitors,’ as Hassan puts it. Although many conflict scholars view defections as a sign of regime weakness, Assad may see it as a process of voluntary purging, thus strengthening the regime.”

In Hassan and Chenoweth’s telling, the civil war is a loyalty test that functions as a voluntary purge — because remaining with the regime is costly, especially for military officers and diplomats stationed abroad, those who elect to stay are the most committed. This “self cleaning” is useful for autocrats whose power rests on a small, empowered portion of the population, often in the economic elite or security forces. For these to be an effective bulwark of regime authority, however, they must not be compromised by dissent. Purging is a way to ensure this. Of course, it is often difficult to tell who is loyal, and who isn’t; because dissidents within the regime power structure hold positions of privilege and can expect harsh punishments for disloyalty, they have an incentive to fake compliance, weakening the regime’s security.

If authoritarians cannot easily assess loyalty, they either over- or under-purge. Over-purging, most famously by Stalin and Mao, weakens the regime by mistakenly removing capable supporters. Stalin’s purges during the 1930s paved the way for early Nazi victories after the German invasion and, as Stephen F. Cohen notes in “The Stalin Question” many of those who survived purges later rose to prominent military and economic positions; presumably, these high-quality Soviet citizens would have contributed more to the strength of the state had not languished in the gulag. Smaller scale purges are also costly to the regime if it overreaches, especially when focused on purging a technocratic or military support base. Under-purging risk missing dissidents, who can safely continue to slack or assist other dissenters external to the regime support base.

Ethnic-based regimes avoid this problem by using an extremely costly signal of loyalty, ethnicity. Conflating ethnicity with the regime makes it difficult for co-ethnics to defect by tying their personal security to the regime’s in a very visible way. Unfortunately for ethnicity-minded authoritarians, the loyalty benefits of ethnic-based regime types only work in narrow circumstances. If the regime’s ethnic group is large, ethnicity is no longer a costly tie to the regime and does not reliably signal loyalty; after all, not everyone can be part of the elite. If the ethnic group is too few, it would be difficult to entirely staff the upper echelons of the military and policy with loyal co-ethnics. This is the case in Syria, where Alawites, the religious minority the Assad family belongs too, make up less than ten percent of the population. While Alawites fill most elite Baath Party and security force positions, there aren’t enough of them in Syria to staff the entire government.An interesting question would be if ‘voluntary purges’ like Assad’s are more common in countries where the ruling elite comes from a ethnic minority large enough to motivate an ethnic-based regime but not large enough to rely on entirely.

Of course, there’s another potential explanation to Assad’s statement: he’s bluffing. Assad’s remarks quoted by Hassan were given to the pro-regime channel Addounia TV, and Assad knew they would be heard both by regime loyalists and the wider international community. Assad has an incentive to project a credible postion of strength, both to bolster regime forces and discourage foreign intervention — admitting that the defections hurt doesn’t accomplish this. Framing defections as positive “self-cleaning” is a credible way to lie.

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