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(Non)Costly Signaling

By Taylor Marvin

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has issued a law restricting genetically modified foods in the interest of public health, the AFP reports. Most observers seem to be greeting the news with puzzlement, or at least irony: why does Assad care about GM food when killing tens of thousands of his own people?

The law is less puzzling than it appears, and can’t be separated from the Syrian Civil War. Assad’s path to victory rests on his ability to retain support among unaligned members of the populace and erode support for the rebels. His best way to do this is by projecting an illusion of strength; few opponents will lend tangible support to the rebels if they see a government victory as inevitable. If government forces can’t win major victories or reliably punish even minor transgressions, the best way for them to project strength is through an illusion of normalcy. Passing mundane laws is a way to convince fence-sitters that the civil war is not an existential threat, the government retains the ability to protect those that support it, and that supporting anti-government forces is misguided and suicidal. Of course, if Assad really is relying on passing inconsequential legislation — which the rebels have no means or interest in disrupting anyway — as a signal of the government’s resiliency, stronger ways of convincingly exhibiting the regime’s strength and commitment are likely not available.

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