Of Tyranny and Violence

The people disappeared in Syria’s military prisons do not have graves, but they do have names. They may not have been accorded funeral rites, but they have faces and stories and their families have memories of their presence. The war which has destroyed much of Syria can be localised: to a family, to a single person, to a face. And within the wider war lurk stories of cruelty and barbarism which affect individuals but whose effects spiral outwards. These specific instances of savagery become institutionalised.

A recent Amnesty report took a single prison system for its focus. There have been wider analyses of the Syrian state’s various crimes, but this brought a new specificity. In one location alone, the notorious Sednaya Prison in Damascus, Amnesty estimated that up to 13,000 people were summarily executed, hanged without a trial, without prior notice, without justification of any kind.

But this lack of justification did not imply the carelessness of haste. This was not unplanned. Such things are official policy. The Syrian state may be in disarray, but its bureaucracy still functions. Many of these executions were documented punctiliously. So too were the mass killings in other prisons, in other cities. Many of those who had been murdered, thousands of them, were photographed post mortem. Their emaciated bodies were subject to much in life; they were subject to this indignity in death for the crude purposes of documentation.

Many of those photographs have since been smuggled out of the country. One regime defector, given the codename ‘Caesar’, has done much to bring them to wider attention. There are exhibitions of these photographs. Westerners can stare into those faces, the faces of people they never knew, whose lives were abruptly ended by a regime their own governments have so far failed meaningfully to confront.


Not all dictatorships end in civil wars. But Syria’s has. Civil wars are, almost by their definition, deeply destructive conflicts. They prompt particular violence, violence saturated with sectarian atrocities, and spur internecine fighting of all kinds. The civil war in Syria has been noted for its brutality. Thus the millions of internally displaced, the millions of refugees, the hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Thus the chaos, the maelstrom created by this conflict, traceable to the initial decision of Bashar al-Assad, hereditary dictator, to fire upon peaceful protestors.

The nature of the Assad regime meant that there could never have been compromise. This was not known at the beginning of the war but has since become clear. As distasteful as it would have felt, some suggested, if Assad himself could have been persuaded to go, assured that he would be immune from prosecution, promised a comfortable retirement, a decent life, things could have ended early, and peacefully.

This was always an unlikely prospect. The Assad family has ruled Syria for generations. Its power is fragile and fragmented but palpable. And Assad himself could always be told, could always make himself believe, that he could hang on; more than that – told that he could win the country back, could return the nation to the status of his fief once more.

A dictator would not be a dictator, and would not have remained one, if he did not like those odds. Absolute power is the only desire of the dictator and violence is his only recourse to acquiring and safeguarding and reclaiming that power. Hence the mass killing which turned a peaceful protest movement into an armed insurgency.

One must now begin to assess the trajectory which this conflict took, the violent path it forged. It seems that, from the first instance of violence, escalation was inevitable, not only from a small-scale attempt to crush political protest, but also into the large scale brutality which has been witnessed in Syria for over half a decade. All this is traceable to that first instant of violence; that was almost inevitable, too. Violence, for dictatorial states, is instinctive. But it is more than instinctive; it is also pursued more deliberate, as an essential policy, a path deliberately chosen.

When that had happened, when the first shots were fired, the conflict could only have become more violent. Few people in the world take being shot and being killed passively, and few want to take it. They arm themselves, learn how to fight, and fight back. This was an active decision of the regime to escalate things, to create a civil conflict where one was not in existence or even a possibility.

Once that conflict began, the regime took the lead in its escalation. Its use of chemical weapons is perhaps the most infamous example of this trend. Hundreds died, unable to breathe, after sarin, a banned nerve agent, was used in east Ghouta in 2013. The regime alone could have used sarin. Only it had the capacity to do so and the willingness.

The same fate has befallen far too many people across the country in the course of other attacks, too numerous to elaborate individually and too numerous in general. The most recent of these was the gas attack – very likely to be sarin – which the regime perpetrated in Idlib this month. It appears to have pushed the Americans over the edge.

This appears to have spurred them into action. Donald Trump authorised the use of 59 Tomahawk missiles to attack the air base from which the regime’s chemical attack was launched. Unless more action follows, the regime may well persist in the perpetuation of its chemical war crimes, a deliberate and specific taunt to the United States, a challenge to back this new tack up with force – a derisory attack by the Assad regime on world order and an act of cocky defiance.

The violence this represents serves also to demonstrate the necessity of violence in the minds of those who administer the regime. Its strategy is saturated in violence. Some of this is of long standing; much else was made up as the war progressed, but it is that original aspect, the nature of the regime itself before the revolution broke out, which animated so much of its response and direct so much of the course the war has taken.

Regime tactics borrow from pre-war practices. This has definite and traceable sources. The Mukhabarat, Arabic for ‘intelligence’ but connoting something more akin to secret police, is particularly feared, in Syria as in other Arab dictatorships. Under the Assad family, Syria has been and remains a Mukhabarat state. The secret policy mentality remains, and its modus operandi.

Thus the torture, the disappearances, the dragging away at night of so many; thus the executions, the punctilious bureaucratic documentation, noting the sum total of lives extinguished in the ways only police states can be bureaucratic; thus the regularity of organised, state-sponsored horror.

The Assad regime is also fiercely sectarian in propaganda and practice. It has been for a long time. Its secular credentials are largely deployed in a bid to win over Westerners who care little for murdered innocents but greatly fear the imagined Muslim horde, the idea of barbarians at the gates. This is of course fallacious and cruel but it has worked a treat. The essential aspects of this sectarian violence are essential to the regime and occur in many other dictatorships.

All of this violence is presents a combination of reaction to events and the violence which is intrinsic, both to the Assad regime and to dictatorships in more general terms. But that which is intrinsic set the tone for what was to come. It is essential to understand what came after those first shots were fired.

A balance sheet, then, of the crimes of the regime. Massacres and mass graves (Houla); the destruction of entire populations and the forced deportation of yet more (Homs, Aleppo) – all of these war crimes. It does not stretch the definition to term what has happened to Syrians at the hands of the regime, particularly what happened to Arab Sunnis, genocide.

Much in the same vein occurred off the battlefield. The Shabiha, ‘shadows’ in Arabic, a particularly brutal militia group fighting alongside regime forces, committed terrible atrocities. Shabiha have aided the regime in massacres. They have engaged in looting, and in torture; they are particularly, much like the paramilitary apparatus of many dictatorships, feared for their form in committing acts of sexual violence.

The story of acts of institutionalised violence like this is the story of the war. And this both justifies the population fighting back and prompts more of it. Thus the violence can only escalate.

In Syria the regime has pursued a course of deliberate, cultivated brutality, both increasing and justifying the general brutalisation of the conflict. And this violence is unlikely to be lessened, whether the regime thinks it is winning or not. These things cannot be walked back.

But more than that, this savagery is almost innate, integral to the nature of Ba’athist rule in Syria and to the way tyrannies operate. They traffic in violence, rule by violence, and see violence as the only solution when threatened.


Dictators are violent. This is well understood. They are volatile in their power, their intentions unknowable and their actions difficult to predict. There is no such thing as a stable dictator – politically, mentally. Either the prospect of opposition perturbs them, disturbs their sleep, or the lack of one provides the freedom to become corrupt and capricious and violent.

Why, then, is it suggested – and with such frequency – that dictators can represent a stabilising force? Barack Obama, originator of a certain sort of liberal realism, joked about wanting ‘a few smart autocrats’ to run the Middle East and make his life easier. This was, of course, neither liberal nor realistic. To understand why, it is useful to examine some examples of modern dictatorship.

Saddam Hussein was at one time thought a bulwark against worse things. That is one of the reasons he was left to rule Iraq. He committed genocide against the Kurdish minority within the country and launched numerous aggressive wars. His country is largely in ruins because of the first rate job he did destroying it. The main adversaries of the modern Iraq, aided by his ideological fellow travellers, emerged from the deserts when the forces of international stability left the country, their job undone. The instability of dictatorships persists; it is present even in countries freed from the immediate effects of tyranny. It is almost contagious.

Muammar Gaddafi of Libya destroyed all hope his country had of a good future. That is his lasting legacy. A cartoonish international persona masked something darker, a violent, sociopathic core. Like many dictators he pursued his own enrichment. He favoured his allies and created an inherently corrupt political system. When Libyans rose up against him he tried to have them killed, and succeeded in enough cases to leave many widows and orphans, but not in enough to save his regime or his skin.

Both of these men left behind them countries barely worthy of the name. Their apologists blame those who came later, who attempted and attempt to pick up the pieces, to construct functioning states from the ruins of dysfunctional states. Thus the myth of dictatorial stability persists.

When dictatorial regimes destruct, however, as they inevitably do, not only is the promise of stability shown to be illusory; dictatorships are also shown to be terribly violent. Tyrannies do not just create violence but actively seek to escalate it. The internal logic by which dictatorships are run makes violence seem necessary and a situation in which a threatened dictator cannot lose.

There are two reasons why tyrannies degenerate into terrible violence when threatened: the threat of losing control of the state, and, perhaps paradoxically, the prospect of victory.

The threat of losing power is enough to justify immense brutality. Power is all dictators seek; it is at the root of their ambitions and is the only thing which can ensure their continued safety. In a bid to keep a hold on that power, autocrats will do almost anything.

They will license violence, make alliances with anyone, and accept extensive help, the sort which would be condemned if any other party to the conflict received it, from other countries. The support Assad has received from Russia and Iran, and Iran’s proxies and allies, is notable.

Much like in Ukraine, where the increasingly autocratic president Viktor Yanukovych received extensive support from Russia, the Syrian regime’s violence is underwritten by the intervention of another anti-democratic state.

Regimes like Assad’s resort easily and almost automatically to the killing of protesters, and then graduate from that to effective warfare against the civilian population. In the case of Syria this has included the use of chemical weapons and the institutionalisation of sexual violence and ethnic cleansing.

This is prompted largely by fear: fear of losing control of the state and fear of personal danger. In this the use of violence is instinctive. Dictatorships resort to it swiftly and without thought.

But this violence is formalised and institutionalised by repeated action, repeated war crimes, repeated massacres, repeated usage of internationally banned weaponry and internationally condemned tactics. After this, moral taboos and international political customs are broken. There are no political or systemic brakes on the escalation of violence.

At the same time, excuses for this violence are generated and articulated habitually: protesters portrayed as terrorists, called foreign hirelings, denigrated as wreckers and saboteurs. These talking points are worn smooth by use. It becomes easier for a regime to do and also to justify as time goes on. Assad calls his opponents terrorists; Gaddafi labelled his ‘rats’; in the Soviet Union as in revolutionary France – both states which committed extensive acts of internal and external violence – they were ‘enemies of the people’.


This use of violence is prompted by more than fear. Tyrannies are increasingly violent in positions of relative strength. Even when despotisms feel reasonably secure, escalation seems tactically sound. In Syria, the Assad regime felt less threatened by the revolution than at any time in the last three years. With Russian and Iranian support it has bloodily recaptured Aleppo; and even former geopolitical adversaries such as the United States and Turkey appeared to have agreed that Assad could stay on. The new American president, Donald Trump, seemed especially keen on Assad until very recently. That is why the regime gassed civilians in Idlib. That is why it thought it could get away with such things.

In this circumstance, one might ask, why would someone like Assad make things difficult for himself? Why would he commit war crimes? These questions sound reasonable but they are built upon a series of misapprehensions. Things are not that simple. After all, Assad has just used chemical weapons – of the same sort as the chemical weapons whose use Obama suggested would merit action against the regime – to kill civilians in Idlib province. This was done in full view of the international media. Children were publicly gassed and the pictures of their last moments now adorn the world’s front pages.

There was little strategic imperative to commit such an act. Many regime supporters have suggested, wrongly and perversely, that this therefore means Assad would not have gassed these civilians, despite his long history of doing so throughout Syria’s civil war. They attempt to intimate that Syria’s rebels somehow did so, or that al-Qaeda, who such people assume to be everywhere, did it, or that the civilians gassed somehow did it to themselves. This insults the intelligence and stretches the truth.

It is precisely when regimes feel less threatened that they tend to become yet more brutal and violent. When Gaddafi thought he could retake the city of Benghazi, capital of the rebellion, he promised as much. He said his forces were ‘coming tonight’ and that there would be ‘no mercy’.

Assad is going nowhere, he reckoned. His allies remain committed to his survival. His former adversaries, at least internationally, lack backbone. They will do nothing to stop him. He has already outlasted one American president.

In such a situation, there are no checks on a regime’s behaviour. Assad is not constrained by international norms. A moral pariah but still standing, Assad is freed from any meaningful censure. And he insists he can still win, can still conquer the whole country.

This is unrealistic, as the regime and its allies lack the manpower to do so and would be resisted at every turn by many thousands of not millions of Syrians. But that is effectively immaterial.

He could, he may think, destroy his enemies and take possession of the country. And escalating violence is the way to do it. This can be accomplished by a simple scaling up of the conventional conflict, with increasingly ferocious fighting in urban areas such as Aleppo, the brutality of the pro-regime coalition finding new employment in these settings.

And the same moral calculations apply to using internationally banned weaponry. By the internal logic of such regimes, deploying weapons of mass destruction is not very different from destroying cities with bombs or orchestrating massacres or torturing millions to death in prisons and hospitals. It makes little enough difference to the dead.

Assad also takes cues from his allies. After all, the Russian state under Vladimir Putin, itself an example of an externally and internally violent autocracy, got away with causing mass civilian casualties in Aleppo and committing war crimes in Idlib. It bombed entire neighbourhoods into the ground and killed thousands of civilians. All without serious sanction. Why not the regime?

The possibility of victory, even if that prospect is delusional, serves to galvanise a dictator. Even in positions of relative strength, as the Assad regime now appears to enjoy, governments of this sort are incapable of moderation.

Dictatorships cannot downplay the grandiose lies they have told supporters – namely in this case that the regime can and will recapture all of Syria.

Part of it is an unwillingness to dial down the sense of threat associated with opposition forces. To downgrade the danger prompted by those called ‘terrorists’, ‘rats’, ‘enemies of the people’ would prove this rhetoric hollow. Perhaps also, after more than half a decade of war and excuse-making, Assad has begun to believe his own propaganda.

Victory is impossible; the fabled recapture of Syria’s cities and governates is still unachievable. But the regime either believes its own propaganda or has to go about as if it does. And this means prosecuting the war even more brutally, even more savagely, until either it wins something is done to put a stop to things. And, in Syria, necessary and sustained intervention by an external force willing to restrain these atrocities still seems far off.


Where Assad has Sednaya, the Soviet Union had the Lubyanka building, the KGB headquarters under which extensive torture took place. When the façade of the eastern bloc looked to be collapsing, the USSR sent in the tanks – in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan to name but a few. Like most autocratic states, the USSR exported violence. And internally its power was secured and anchored by the mass incarceration of political opponents in remote labour camps and the mass torture and mass killing of so very many.

While Assad used chemical weapons repeatedly on civilian targets, Saddam Hussein did the same to a hated ethnic minority. He too exported violence on a notable scale, invading and annexing neighbours, engaging in monumentally destructive conflicts, and destroying the fabric of Iraqi society in the process. When the regime in Iraq was removed, its fellow Ba’athist state compounded the chaos by providing easy access for jihadists, of the sort who later became the Islamic State, to cross the porous border and to begin the work of killing civilians and denying Iraq any kind of peace.

In tyrannical states, presidential palaces either come equipped with torture chambers or are metaphorically built upon them. Dictators either destroy political dissenters or, in the shape of religious extremists in particular, attempt to export them, to make them someone else’s problem.

Tyranny is a fundamentally unstable form of government. But this influence is not confined to within its own borders. Like a contagion, the chaos of autocracy – its breeding ground and its tool – spreads far and wide.

Alongside this chaos comes violence. This violence is an essential tool for a tyrannical state. It can never be dispensed with and will never be abandoned as a means of policy. Capricious and violent even in times of relative safety, dictatorships are never secure once threatened, and that they will never willingly renounce violence and war crimes as a means of policy.

The idea of a benevolent dictator is therefore a mirage, and a deeply damaging one. Any political system dependent on one individual or one source of power is vulnerable to decay and disorder. And any attempt to reform these states without significant external intervention will be met with violence, violence which will increase inexorably, pursued deliberately, cultivated assiduously, until either the state itself is destroyed, or the dictator reclines once more unchallenged, no matter how many bodies that requires.