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Keeping Up Appearances in Damascus

NASA photo, via the Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA photo, via the Marshall Space Flight Center.

By Taylor Marvin

The Syrian government today announced plans to create a national space agency, supposedly aimed at scientific research. The announcement was met with disbelief among many commentators. Why would the Assad government, which is locked a deadly war that threatens the regime’s survival, devote resources to a space program? Perhaps more importantly, how could a government busily engaged in slaughtering its own citizens have any concern for space research at all?

It’s possible that the vague Syrian “space program” is a cover for rocket and missile research, as the inherent dual-use nature of civil rocket development programs make them useful for concealing military research. However, given the severe resource constraints facing the embattled Assad regime, I’d guess that this program will never return much actual research, military or otherwise. Instead, it appears to be another entry in the series of bizarrely banal announcements by the regime, following Bashar al-Assad’s praise for South African leader Nelson Mandela last December and the regime’s 2012 pledge to restrict genetically-modified foods to protect public health.

Like these previous announcements, grand proposals for a Syrian national space agency are unsurprising. To win the war the Assad regime needs to project strength, whether this strength is illusionary or otherwise. For the Assad regime to defeat the rebel insurgency it must convince both rebels and fence-sitting Syrians that the government’s eventual victory is assured, and there’s no point in resisting if the regime is going to win anyway — the “minds” side of the famous phrase. High-profile shows of strength also serve to discourage foreign donors from costly support for the rebels, whether in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, or the West. Just as a farcical commitment to diplomacy means benefiting from the implicit international acknowledgement of the Assad government’s sovereign role, high-profile shows of normalcy and stability are a valuable strategy.

The problem is that relevant shows of strength — like defeating rebel forces or capturing cities — are militarily difficult to achieve. So the Assad regime strives to project an illusion of normalcy that signals to both Syrians and the outside world that it is secure and confident. Countries that are locked in stalemated civil wars do not announce space programs. The Assad regime wants to show the outside world that it is confident of its prosperous future — a future that requires winning the war — so it does the opposite. As long as a space program doesn’t consume resources that could be better, from the regime’s perspective, devoted to the military, press announcements and disbelief among outside commentators is a small price to pay for keeping up appearances.

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