Syrian Lessons for Authoritarian Survival

Analyzing authoritarian learning from the Syrian civil war and the changing nature of global competition.

Authoritarian regimes worldwide are learning to undermine the international order from within the system by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously undercutting its principles. In an increasingly multipolar world, regimes under threat are learning to survive through opportunistic collaboration and direct cooperation. The tactics used by the Syrian regime and authoritarian great power competitors during the war illustrate the way Russia and China, along with lesser and middle powers, aim to gain power and influence. Other regimes and non-state actors are learning and using these same tactics to tighten their grip on power and to build alliances with U.S. competitors. From Ethiopia and Sudan to Myanmar, regimes are absorbing these lessons and looking to U.S. adversaries to protect their inviolable sovereignty even as such tactics lead to greater international instability.

How the emerging global competition will take shape in the Global South is less understood. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that no good commander should embark on a war without comprehending its nature. For this reason, CSIS will analyze the Syrian regime’s survival tactics, where they came from, and how they have been mimicked since. The project will assess what the United States and its partners can do to curb this rise in authoritarian learning and collaboration at the expense of international peace and security. The findings will be published in the summer of 2025.