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Assad and the Illusion of Normalcy

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

At the Washington Post’s “Worldviews” blog, Loveday Morris flags a statement by Bashar al-Assad praising the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. “His history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world,” Assad stated, “in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers.”

Morris notes that the praise was unsurprisingly “greeted with derision from opposition activists and commentators,” angered by the hypocrisy of Assad’s apparent admiration for the icon of nonviolent resistance. The National Interest’s Ashley Frohwein questions whether “Assad is just saying this stuff for fun, like some kind of sick joke.”

But there’s nothing particularly surprising about Assad’s praise for Mandela. The Assad regime’s potential path to victory in the Syrian civil war requires it to constantly show confidence that it will win. In addition to vowing that it will never surrender, by dismissing the country’s massive armed rebellion as simply “terrorists” and preserving an illusion of normalcy Assad reassures his domestic supporters and fence-sitters that he is winning, discouraging defection. To Syrians inclined to label the opposition terrorists, there really isn’t even any glaring cognitive dissonance in Assad’s praise for the South African leader.

Of course, this signal is not particularly convincing because it is not costly — that is, Assad can feign normalcy whether he is winning or not — but this non-costly nature means there’s no reason not to engage in this particular strategy either.

This is not the first instance of the Assad government pursuing incongruously-banal behavior. In October 2012 it passed a law regulating genetically modified agricultural products; I noted the law’s possible signaling role at the time. The Syrian government-owned SANA news agency’s homepage is filled with, in addition to references to “Wahhabi terrorism”, commonplace human interest stories seemingly out of place in a country wracked by civil war.

A normal government would mark Nelson Mandela’s death by praising the famed Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Assad wishes his regime to be perceived by both domestic and international audiences as a normal government, so he praises Mandela as well.

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