What Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad should have remembered about Machiavelli’s The Prince

It’s safe to say that Syria’s besieged President, Bashar al-Assad, made it far enough into The Prince to absorb the lesson that, for the ruler, it is better to be feared than loved. Fear is no longer part of the political lexicon of many rulers, though it remains an important tool for some.

While Assad hangs on to power and his fate remains uncertain, it’s clear that he only learned half of Machiavelli’s lesson.

The road to repression: Bashar al-Assad and Syria in brief

When Bashar al-Assad took office in 2000, he stood at a crossroads. The Assad dynasty had already  ruled Syria for three decades after his father Hafez al-Assad took office in 1971. And, like his father before him, Bashar al-Assad governed the country under emergency rule, with a powerful security apparatus centered in the hands of family members and loyalists. He has long advocated (publicly, at least) that Syria should be a secular country with “freedom of religions;” the Assads themselves belong to the religious minority of the Alawites.

Many thought it would be a period of more enlightened rule, democratic reforms, and modernization. Instead, after a brief flirtation with liberalization, Assad cracked down on the intellectuals and dissidents, imprisoned them, and opted for rule through fear.

Bashar al-Assad in Russia (Image credit: www.kremlin.ru)

Bashar al-Assad in Russia (Image credit: www.kremlin.ru)

That decision caught up with him when he was overtaken by wider developments in the region, like the Arab Spring and a drought that strained the people’s patience.

While it would be an oversimplification to say that the widespread protests against Assad’s rule that began to gather pace from 2011 and led to the current civil war were motivated only by his repression, the means by which the state instilled fear were certainly high on the protesters’ list of grievances.

Machiavelli’s The Prince in three minutes

Though written around 1513, more than 500 years ago, Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince is still both widely read and very influential. Readers turn to it for its direct advice on the question of how to attain—and retain—power.

The half of Machiavelli’s lesson that Bashar al-Assad forgot

Most people remember Machiavelli’s advice to choose rule by fear over rule by love. But they forget the equally important qualifier: that a prince must avoid his subjects’ contempt and hatred.

Machiavelli used examples from history to demonstrate that while the world’s most respected leaders might use power to commit crimes, they are remembered for greatness. Given the changeable nature of politics, he wrote, a strong ruler needs to maintain an “image” of goodness to increase their power.

Society expects princes to be ethical, Machiavelli says, so a prince who is perceived as moral has greater authority. In other words, claiming to be a moral ruler is a necessary hypocrisy. With enough skill—along with luck and favorable circumstances—the prince will retain his power.

 

However, Machiavelli argues, if a prince goes too far in his rule by fear and pushes enough of his people into hatred, the hatred will supersede the fear and make him vulnerable to conspiracies and uprisings.

Assad has long since transitioned from mere fear to hatred, and, as Syria has broken apart in a civil war, most Syrians now have much more to fear than just Assad.

What The Prince can teach us all about effective leadership

Great books like The Prince are classics because they convey a central idea of timeless or epochal significance. But an overemphasis on this central idea often causes readers to miss the crucial nuance.

The Prince is so much more than a set of amoral directions to dictators. It is a political manual rich in history, military strategy and political tactics that can’t be reduced to slogans like “it’s better to be feared than loved.” This is just one of 26 subjects that the book covers, and others help to qualify and contextualize it.

Machiavelli was above all pragmatist. He had a firm conviction that, in the world of politics, it is better to serve higher moral interests with brutal efficiency than to let them down by failing to do what needs to be done.

Modern events like the ongoing tragedy in Syria drive home the deadly seriousness and consequences of high politics, and make books like Machiavelli’s Prince required reading, even 500 years later.

Get a deeper understanding of Machiavelli’s ideas