Arab World: The road to Damascus

Syria is unlikely to be the next Arab state to witness anti-government unrest.

Assad 311 (B) (photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)
Assad 311 (B)
(photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)
A glance at a map of the region reveals the seismic changes the Arab world has undergone since the end of last year. News websites have taken to shading in those countries that have seen popular uprisings, leaving a broad swathe of color from Morocco to Oman. Israel aside, the only Middle Eastern countries to have been spared unrest are the small, oil-washed Persian Gulf welfare states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and one impoverished, isolated and backward country ruled by an autocratic clique in the worst Arab tradition: Syria.
That Syrians have sat still through the storm is puzzling. They are destitute, on par with resource-poor Yemenis despite having considerable oil and gas reserves. Their country’s political, economic and security establishments are in the hands of the ruling Alawite sect, and Damascus has for years been ostracized from the international community, its only powerful friend the ayatollahs’ Iran.
So will Syria be the next Arab country to rise up? The consensus among experts and expatriates seems to be no.
Syria is overwhelmingly poor, with independent estimates placing unemployment at 20 percent. But unlike Tunisia and Egypt – where economic stagnation combined with political dissent to unseat decades-old regimes – Syria hasn’t seen the kind of gaping discrepancies between a large elite and marginalized majority. In Syria – officially a socialist state – poverty has become a kind of norm, as virtually everyone is underprivileged.
Everyone, that is, except the Alawites – and they are untouchable.
The president’s father and predecessor Hafez Assad so deeply entrenched his ruling Alawite sect in the political and security leadership that the government and security services are essentially one and the same. “The military, ruling elite and ruthless secret police are so intertwined that it is now impossible to separate the Assad regime from the security establishment,” wrote Michael Broning, director of the east Jerusalem office of the German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, in Foreign Affairs this week. “In this respect, the situation in Syria is to a certain degree comparable to Saddam Hussein’s strong Sunni minority rule in Iraq.”
“Syrian society is divided among several communities. That makes things more delicate,” said Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert and senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center. Three-quarters of the Syrian population is Sunni; other major denominations are Alawi Shi’ites, Druse and Christians. And within the Sunni community are a number of ethnic minorities – principally Kurds, Turkmen and Circassians – careful not to rock the boat.
“These minority sects will think twice before destabilizing the system,” Zisser said. “Syria borders Iraq and Lebanon, and people see what’s happening around them – they don’t want Syria to turn into Iraq or Lebanon.”
AS IN Saddam’s Iraq, the dominant note in Syrian life is fear. Syrians of all stripes remember well the 1982 Hama massacre, when over three weeks Hafez Assad’s army bombarded the town to quell a Muslim Brotherhood revolt and killed anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 people. More recently, Assad the younger brutally put down 2004 riots in the Kurdish northeast, killing dozens.
Zisser noted that in Egypt, the Mubarak regime allowed space – limited though it was – for civil society to grow. “There were NGOs,” he said.
“You won’t find this in Syria because the regime is much more oppressive.
So its much more difficult for the opposition to organize.”
“Syria is stable,” Assad told The Wall Street Journal in a rare interview on January 31. “Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is will have this vacuum that creates disturbances.”
Assad may have had a point. Many Syrians share the president’s hostility to Israel and what they perceive as US designs on the region. Like Muammar Gaddafi, Assad’s hard line against the putatively imperialist West has won him considerable support at home.
Syrians have little to no exposure to the foreign press, and social media websites like Facebook are banned.
Like their counterparts elsewhere in the region, Syria’s media are at the service of the presidential palace.
When rumors surfaced in early February of Damascenes hitting the streets for their own “day of rage,” the government- allied daily Al-Watan reported that many Syrians were outraged by the calls for “destruction and civil war” circulating on Facebook, and had launched Facebook groups of their own in support of the regime.
The paper attributed calls for protest to “Israeli, Lebanese or expatriate Syrian elements.”
On February 16, the government daily Al-Ba’ath opined that while other Arab regimes “have placed their faith in foreign [powers] and have subjugated themselves to them, Syria’s masses have rushed to confirm the popular legitimacy [of the regime]. While [other] countries suffer from a lack of stability, Syria unites as one.”
A day later, a video was posted to YouTube showing 1,500 protesters rallying in the streets of the capital.
According to the blog Syria News Wire, however, the rally had little to do with the antigovernment unrest sweeping the region. Instead, it reportedly began spontaneously after a police officer insulted a man, then beat him with a stick. “They chant, ‘The Syrian people will not be humiliated,’ interspersed with, ‘Shame, shame’ and ‘With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you Bashar.’ That’s a very Syrian way of saying they were furious at the police, not the president.”
Ribal Assad, a London-based activist, is the Syrian president’s cousin. His father Rifaat went into exile in 1984 after an attempted coup against the first president Assad. In a March 2 article in Lebanon’s Daily Star, Ribal Assad wrote that the “resistance” mantle that Assad long used to justify his power may be wearing thin.
“Until now, Syria’s rulers have relied on their anti-Israel, anti-Western rhetoric to protect themselves. But cries about the Israel-Palestine conflict were rarely heard in the protests in Tunis and Cairo.”
“The regime claims that it is part of the ‘resistance’ with its senior partner Iran,” he wrote. “However, the WikiLeaks cables show that the Syrian leadership told the Iranian regime not to count on it in any war with Israel because it is too weak. So the regime is making a fatal error if it thinks that its old diversionary tactics will continue to provide it with immunity.”
Even the president’s dissident cousin, however, draws the line at demanding the regime’s ouster. “We don’t want a revolution in Syria,” he told reporters in Berlin last month. “We want the government to start changing, we want a peaceful change and transitional change.”
The Assad government is both brutal and backward, but its particular circumstances mean Syria is unlikely to face the kind of upheaval that toppled dictators elsewhere in the region. The road from Tunis and Cairo to Damascus may prove longer than anyone had thought.