Even as protests spread across the Middle East in early 2011, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria appeared immune from the upheaval. Assad had ruled comfortably for over a decade, having replaced his father, Hafez, who himself had held power for the previous three decades. Many pundits argued that Syria’s sturdy police state, which exercised tight control over the country’s people and economy, would survive the Arab Spring undisturbed. Compared with its neighbor Lebanon, Syria looked positively stable. Civil war had torn through Lebanon throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 had plunged the country into yet more chaos.
But appearances were deceiving: today, Syria is in a shambles, with the regime fighting for its very survival, whereas Lebanon has withstood the influx of Syrian refugees and the other considerable pressures of the civil war next door. Surprising as it may seem, the per capita death rate from violence in Lebanon in 2013 was lower than that in Washington, D.C. That same year, the body count of the Syrian conflict surpassed 100,000.
Why has seemingly stable Syria turned out to be the fragile regime, whereas always-in-turmoil Lebanon has so far proved robust? The answer is that prior to its civil war, Syria was exhibiting only pseudo-stability, its calm façade concealing deep structural vulnerabilities. Lebanon’s chaos, paradoxically, signaled strength. Fifteen years of civil war had served to decentralize the state and bring about a more balanced sectarian power-sharing structure. Along with Lebanon’s small size as an administrative unit, these factors added to its durability. So did the country’s free-market economy. In Syria, the ruling Baath Party sought to control economic variability, replacing the lively chaos of the ancestral souk with the top-down, Soviet-style structure of the office building. This rigidity made Syria (and the other Baathist state, Iraq) much more vulnerable to disruption than Lebanon.
But Syria’s biggest vulnerability was that it had no recent record