Salah Ben Hammou
New Lines Magazine recently published a rich first-person narrative by Dr. Faysal Abbas Mohammed, a retired Syrian-Canadian professor, on the experience of Alawite dissidents against the Assad regime in Syria. While narratives of Syrian politics emphasize the Alawite sect’s support for the Assad family, Mohammed provides a more nuanced perspective. Specifically, he draws on his experience in Syria as an Alawite dissident during the reign of President Hafez al-Assad to recount different forms of Alawite opposition against the regime. This includes the author’s own efforts to organize anti-Assad protests and demonstrations after the dictator’s rise in 1970. The author also mentions one striking detail in his narrative - in 1972, Alawite officers attempted to oust Assad in a coup d'etat. These officers were supporters of Assad’s deposed rival, Salah Jadid, but the putsch was crushed and purges of the armed forces followed.
Out of several available datasets documenting coups d’etat around the world, not one collection includes the failed 1972 coup.
Though one might argue that the event’s exclusion is due to its incompatibility with coding criteria, its absence from “candidate lists” suggests that scholars have simply not encountered the event before. This possibility would be unsurprising given that coup researchers near-exclusively rely on Western and popular international media sources during the data collection process. As a result, researchers are neglecting to systematically consult a list of regional and local sources, possibly omitting several coup events. Below, I emphasize this issue by honing in on the treatment of Syria in coup data. I then speak broadly about the perils of overlooking specialized sources for data collection. Put simply, I urge scholars to take more adequate steps towards “decolonizing” coup data through the integration of local sources and regional scholarship.
SYRIA IN COUP DATA
Once known as “the world’s most unstable country”, Syria is well-known to have boasted one of the highest rates of coups d’etat in the world during its post-colonial era. One US ambassador called the country’s experience in the 1960’s “the stability of instability.” The country experienced its first coup in March 1949, led by Colonel Husni al-Zaim, who was later deposed and executed a mere 137 days later by his former comrade Colonel Sami al-Hinnawi. Hinnawi himself was later ejected from power in December 1949 by Colonel Adib al-Shishakli, who would consolidate power again in 1951 and rule Syria until a coup by Baathist-affiliated Druze officers unseated him in 1954. This instability accelerated in the aftermath of Syria’s failed merger with Gammal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which ended by a secessionist coup in 1961 and saw several subsequent coup events throughout the decade.
To their credit, large-N coup datasets such as Powell & Thyne’s Global Instances of Coups (P&T hereafter) and the recently released Colpus data project largely showcase much of Syria’s early political turmoil, particularly concerning successful and failed coup attempts. For instance, the datasets do a good job of capturing the onslaught of successful and failed coups throughout the 1960’s. Projects including coup plots and rumors such as the Cline Center (which uses machine learning to data scrape potential events off the web) and the Center for Systemic Peace also appear to capture the general atmosphere of instability.
However, to scholars familiar with the country’s history of civil-military relations and political development, there are glaring omissions in Syria’s data coverage beyond the failed 1972 coup. The most obvious omission once again comes during the regime of Hafez al-Assad - when his brother, Rifaat, attempted to seize power in March 1984. The coup attempt occurred amid Hafez’s failing health and represented perhaps the most serious threat to the autocrat’s rule. Despite the event’s importance, only one dataset released in August 2021 - the Colpus dataset by John Chin, David Carter, and Joseph Wright - includes it. Their codebook indicates that the authors encountered the event while consulting secondary literature to write case narratives about pre-identified cases. Similarly, until recently (by Powell & Thyne), no dataset includes the failed August 1968 coup by officers loyal to Major General Ahmed Suadani. Following P&T’s inclusion of the event, the Colpus project dismissed the event as highly ambiguous given that reports on the event allegedly originated from the right-wing Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar a week later. However, al-Hayat, another Lebanese newspaper, reported the event prior to al-Nahar as did the French newspaper Le Monde. Further, reports emphasized clashes between army units in Aleppo. The Syrian government, represented by Colonel Abdal Karim al-Jundi, would go on to further implicate Suadani in an interview with the Egyptian Press, subsequently jailing the officer for a quarter-century. Further, scholars of Syrian politics such as Hinnebusch (2015), Moubayed (2006), and Khatib (2010) reference the event.
These omissions would be less likely if scholars more seriously engaged with localized sources. It should be noted that a wealth of local resources are available for data collection purposes. Hicham Bou Nassif’s 2020 paper on pre-Ba’ath Syrian coups is an excellent example. Bou Nassif consults several memoirs penned by Syrian civilians and military officers in the 20th century and provides several novel cases unavailable in any large-N project. This includes a thwarted coup plot in 1950 & 1954, another failed attempt in 1955, two plots in 1956, and two failures in 1957. While these events may not meet the conceptual criteria of all datasets - such as the coup plots - these events should still certainly show up in candidate lists. Coup datasets generally present the 1950’s as a decade of fewer coups in Syria but Bou Nassif’s consultation of local sources suggests otherwise.
THE PERILS OF “COLONIZED” COUP DATA
Scholarship focused on other forms of contentious politics - such as protests, riots, and terrorism- continues to recognize reporting bias in their data. The same cannot be said of coup research. That this has failed to garner any serious attention is striking given that nearly every mainstream coup dataset mostly relies on a) Western and international media sources and b) previous coup datasets similarly neglecting local sources and scholarship, as shown in the table below. More specifically, scholars appear to rely on newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, sources found in LexisNexis and ProQuest as well as encyclopedias such as Keesing’s Records of World Events and Encyclopedia Britannica. In addition, candidate lists also appear to be compiled using other pre-existing large-N datasets such as Singh (2014) and the P&T project. In short, coup datasets have become somewhat of an echo chamber as a result.
Why should we care about reporting bias in coup data, exactly?
First, a reliance on Western sources compromises scholars’ accuracy in data collection and subsequent empirical tests. Coup reporting by media outlets is not a random phenomenon and can likely be skewed towards specific types of events. In particular, there may be a bias to capture successful coups or particularly violent and bloody failed coups given the high-profile nature of the events. More mundane failed coups and coup plots are less likely to receive coverage as a result. In an ongoing project with Jonathan Powell and Bailey Sellers, we utilized regional and local sources combined with academic scholarship on Syria to produce a collection of coup data (successful, failed, and plots) between 1949-1968. Our research yielded 29 different events compared to the efforts of CSP (14) and CCD (17). For more on this work, check out on our ongoing coup narratives on Syria - drawn from a collection of country-specific scholarship and local sources - here.
Although including Syria’s omitted events does not dramatically change its overall “coup-proneness”, the timing of the omissions can have broader implications. As mentioned, the 1950’s - a period which is thought of as the country’s “democratic” era - appears less promising when including several of the omitted plots and failures found by Bou Nassif. Similar misperceptions could be made of Hafez al-Assad’s 30-year reign, which is depicted as generally coup-free both at his regime’s initiation and throughout his tenure. This would suggest that a) Assad did not face instability from Jadid supporters after the seizure of power and b) faced few challenges during his tenure. However, the 1972 coup signals that Assad faced a backlash to his rule early on just as the 1984 coup by his brother Rifaat shows that Hafez faced challenges from within his inner circle later in his tenure. For scholars interested in questions of coups and autocratic stability, using data which omits these events could bias any meaningful statistical test.
Second, and on a normative level, disproportionately relying on Western sources for data collection de-centers the experiences and histories of the countries in question. This perpetuates exclusionary practices in scholarship and places primacy on the objectives, concerns, and biases of non-local, Western actors. This is particularly problematic considering that local voices have historically been excluded and marginalized in the academy. Seriously reckoning with inclusion in the academy extends into the best practices we promote during data collection. Failing to do so results in “colonized” data. It should go without saying that local oral histories and narratives, memoirs, archives, and scholarship should be seriously integrated into any meaningful data collection project.
Ultimately, one might argue that accessibility and limited resources shape the decision to rely on non-local sources. This is a valid counterargument. However, scholars can take steps both in the immediate and long-term future to alleviate concerns of Western source bias and practical limitations. In the immediate short-term, scholars should integrate academic research reliant on local sources as valuable repositories for data and information. The Colpus project, for instance, mentions that they identified 74 new coup events in secondary literature (pg. 5). This is laudable but also suggests that these sources should be front and center to data collection rather than supplementary to general media sources. As a more long-term goal, scholars should seek to make coup data collection more collaborative, promoting interdisciplinary research by working with historians, sociologists, and anthropologists for data collection. These efforts should heavily emphasize trans-regional cooperation for research by prioritizing collaboration with scholars and researchers based in universities abroad. This helps to promote inclusion with historically-marginalized voices in Western academia as well as bolster the academic rigor of coup research.
Welcome to the Arrested Dictatorship blog. Posts on recent events are periodically updated as more information becomes available. It is currently edited by Jonathan Powell and Salah Ben Hammou at the University of Central Florida.
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