A FTER decades of political repression, the Syrian pot has boiled over. There is no defining moment that marks the point of no return. Rather, the events in Syria over the past seven months have comprised a series of gradual yet chaotic shifts with no clear direction. With no defined leadership, Syria’s future appears equally uncertain, if not bloodier. What started as an eruption of fury, born from decades of tension, may drag into years of crippling civil war. One thing, however, is clear: a resolution will not come shortly, and it will not come cleanly. What is occurring in Syria is unique, and the eventual resolution will not be swift like in Tunisia, it will not be glamorous like in Egypt and there will be no international salvation like in Libya.
While tumult and uncertainty characterize most of the nations embroiled in the Arab Spring, an all-consuming cesspool of violence may describe the situation in Syria. The Syrian uprising carries such a stigma because the regime has been largely successful. The military has remained loyal, the regime has managed to keep protestors divided and unarmed, and the nation is shrouded in a near media blackout. Moreover, rising world superpowers like China, India, Brazil and Russia continue to sustain the regime economically despite harsh Western sanctions.
While scores are murdered daily by an oppressive regime, the international community treats the uprising like a pawn in a political chess match; Syria demonstrates a collision of regional geopolitical and international economic interests. As the international community continues their political game, millions of Syrians suffer from international inaction. The Syrian revolt illuminates the harsh reality that, in much of the world today, human rights are subservient to economic interests in practice, though perhaps not in name. Unfortunately, change for the opposition may only come at the barrel of a gun. Before one can envisage Syria’s future, one must first recognize the events that have led to the present situation.
The Turbulent Past
Understanding Syria’s chaotic past few months requires knowledge of its diverse population. Along religious lines, Syria is 74% Sunni Muslim, 15% Shia Muslim, 7% Christian and 4% Druze. A sub-division of the Shia, the Alawites, tend to dominate the highest echelons of the political and military spheres (President Assad, his regime, and top brass are Alawites.) Economically, there is a great divide between a growing upper-middle class and a super-rich class with rural pockets of immense poverty resulting from Assad’s economic liberalization. Demographically, Syria is especially bottom heavy; 49% of its population is 20 years or younger.
The persistent theme of political repression, in addition to national diversity, adds to the understanding of the recent uprising. For forty years, Syria has lived under an Assad regime. When Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, he ushered in an era of economic liberalization and quickly received the backing of business leaders. But freer markets did not translate into political freedom. The president maintained his father’s political repressiveness such that his changes to Syria were superficial at best – Syria remained a police state. “Assad had, with rhetoric alone, convinced so many people from outside Syria that he would carry out substantive reform, when the fact is that the structure of his regime internally makes reform quite difficult,” says Michael Reynolds, a professor of Near East Studies at Princeton.
Despite decades of political repression in Syria, Harvard graduate and Arabic teacher Richard Cozzens notes the complete absence of palpable tension during his stays in Syria from 2005-2009. Quite the opposite, he pointed to visible Syrian unity. “People were waving flags and putting up pro-government signs and propaganda on a constant basis.” The people loved Assad. He was perceived as a charismatic leader who ushered in a wave of growing consumerism that was altogether foreign during his father’s control. After the invasion of Iraq, Syrians were united by their hatred of President Bush. They rallied behind intense patriotism; Assad’s anti-Bush declarations fueled his popularity as national pride soared.
The Syria of the past decade hardly resembles the home of the anti-Assad sentiments that are openly visible today. Professor Reynolds provides another perspective of the Syrian ambience over the last decade, classifying it as “motionlessness.” He likens Syria to “the Socialist Eastern bloc before the fall of the Iron Curtain, in that there was orderliness but also a sense of being stuck in a very stagnant country.” Despite appearances to the contrary, all was not well in Syria, and the people understood that intense Syrian pride served only to mask more systemic problems.
When the Arab Spring took root in the Middle East and North Africa at the start of 2011, the typical Syrian gained a voice, realizing that Arab authoritarian control was not a fait accompli. Yet unlike other Arab Spring movements, the Syrian uprising began not as a quest for regime change but as an appeal for reform. Just like the Tunisian fruit vendor, Syrian Hasan Ali Akleh’s act of self-immolation in late January was a plea for the people’s voice to be heard.
The complex and wide-ranging list of Syrian grievances can be divided into economic, political and social categories. Dr. Andrew Arsan, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton, points to Assad’s neo-liberal economic policies as a key source of rural anger. Assad’s neo-liberal cronyism emphasized favoritism and consequently mismanagement in the private sector, leading to increasing inequalities and financial crises. As a result, the rural population felt marginalized after suffering from decades of harmful policies, says Dr. Arsan. “It is no coincidence that the first protests broke out in the agricultural province of Da’ra.”
Politically, Syrians pleaded for the legalization of political parties, the end of government corruption, and the repeal of the Emergency Law, which granted the government the power to arrest without charge. Socially, the pleas of the Syrian protestors resonated loudest. Syrians demonstrated against the regime’s use of humiliation, deprivation of freedom, and its willingness to attack basic human dignity to prove a political point. Here the multifaceted Syrian opposition found common ground, which would serve as the cornerstone of their demonstrations moving forward.
This antipathy towards the regime intensified in early March when the government attempted to forcibly suppress the protests. As demonstrations grew in response, the violence of the regime proved to be ruinously self-defeating. Syrians looked to the Arab Spring for inspiration and continued to speak out against their government. It was the regime’s policy of suppression that ultimately ignited today’s Syrian firestorm.
Previously ambivalent Syrians flooded the streets. They came from all backgrounds to form a religiously and ethnically diverse opposition. Still, demonstrators are predominately young Sunni Muslims with vastly different professional backgrounds. The demonstrations span the entirety of Syria. “The movements are localized not in the sense that they are limited but rather in that they comprise local populations and local activists,” notes Dr. Arsan.
The localized nature of the demonstrations evinces the breadth of the movement writ large, but it also indicates the absence of central leadership. Although the opposition can unite against the regime’s brutality, it has not organized consistently on a national level. This is in part due to the opposition’s internal divisions, but it is also the result of President Assad’s suppression methods. In addition to the regime’s forcible breakup of protests, the government has utilized more tactical interventions aimed at stifling the opposition. The regime has begun to pinpoint local leaders of the opposition, and according to Dr. Arsan, has initiated a “surgical removal” of the opposition’s leadership capabilities. The regime has also tried exacerbating sectarian divisions to keep the opposition divided, attempting to sow discord by inciting fears of a Muslim Brotherhood usurpation of the uprising.
The chaos is inescapable. Though the regime has successfully enforced a media blackout, leaks of blatant human rights violations manage to trickle out of Syria. What does reach the Western press, thanks mainly to the Syrian Diaspora, rarely receives the attention that it deserves. The United Nations Humans Rights Council has reported that as of October 6, the regime’s campaign of repression is responsible for over 2,900 deaths. In mid-August, the regime even used the Navy to suppress protests, killing 26 citizens in Latakia. With the civilian death toll rising and opposition numbers soaring, the two sides appear poised for a devastating future. Neither side is ready for a ceasefire. Accordingly, Syria’s future may rely on the actions of the international community.
An Uncertain Neighbor: Turkey
he international community will greatly influence the fate of the movement, depending heavily on regional geopolitics and international economic interests. The significance of the Syrian uprising is too great to be ignored. The international response to the Syrian revolts may well clarify a shifting international power balance. With geopolitical and economic interests at stake, the Syrian uprising will serve as a vignette of international politics conducted in an emerging world order.
Turkey’s role will be particularly critical to Syria’s future considering their long, contentious history. As Professor Reynolds notes, “Decades of hostility between Turkey and Syria have revolved around three pivotal issues: territorial disputes over the Hatay Province, water rights, and Syrian support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.” Such tension nearly escalated into war in 1998, when Turkey threatened to invade Syria for harboring the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.
However, according to Reynolds, “Relations changed 180 degrees after the AKP [the Justice and Development Party – a centre-right political party in Turkey] came to power in 2002.” With Assad’s visit to Turkey in 2004 and Turkey’s implementation of the “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy, cordial relations approached their strongest level ever. Unprecedented cooperation became a reality as Syria and Turkey initiated visa-free travel, cooperated on trade relations, and introduced the 2009 Strategic Cooperation Council. Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu even emphasized that the two nations shared a common culture, a common past and a common future. “From near war,” says Reynolds, “the two countries had come to emphasize a ‘common culture.’” Suddenly, a new power bloc appeared to be in the making with Turkish-Syrian relations as the centerpiece.
But declining relations were as precipitous as their improvement. At the start of the protests, the Turkish government began to withdraw support from Assad to maintain its populist image. Now Turkish leaders are only meeting with opposition representatives.
Still, Turkey is placed in a precarious position in that it must balance both internal stability and pan-Arab relations, which will constrain its support for the Syrian opposition. Of utmost importance for Turkey is preventing another PKK outpost. Yet taking swift action could threaten domestic stability by igniting a Sunni-Shia rift.
Turkey must also consider the Iranian reaction; the Iran-Turkey relationship has been historically fragile and experts have long speculated over the possibility of a falling out between Turkey and Iran over Syria. However, the evidence points against a Syrian rift causing a break in their relations. Turkey needs Iranian cooperation in their fight against the PKK, particularly PJAK (The Party of Free Life of Kurdistan), the Iranian arm. Syria also serves as the gateway to Lebanon for Iran, and more importantly, for Hezbollah. A further destabilized Syria could produce dire implications for Israel, as it would give Iran a direct supply line to Hezbollah. Nevertheless, even Ahmadinejad has condemned Assad’s repression in order to prevent spillover.
Though Reynolds presents numerous reasons for Turkish reluctance to actively address the Syrian revolts, he does not rule out interference altogether. “If things get really crazy [in Syria], and they look like they will, then I wouldn’t rule out any intervention,” he says. Fear of a PKK launching pad for attacks from Syria are real, and intervention may be seen as necessary to establish a buffer zone inside Syria to stem the refugee crisis. Turkey has taken the lead in supporting the opposition, permitting them to organize in Turkey. Still, any action taken by Turkey will be limited at best, insignificant with regards to the opposition’s plight, and driven by national and regional self-interest.
The West: Another Libya?
As Syria’s neighbor proves to be a relative non-factor, the opposition must turn to the larger international community to aid the cause for a swift and decisive change. Unfortunately, the Arab League cannot produce more than a disjointed condemnation of Assad. Furthermore, with Russia and China holding the international community hostage, little international support can be expected in Syria.
Economically, the West can no longer single-handedly bring about the fall of governments through the use of sanctions. While the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions and bans on imports of Syrian oil, Russia, China, India and Brazil have continuously thwarted efforts to impose sanctions through the UN and the Security Council. China and Russia have also continued to sustain the regime through energy and military deals.
The Director of Middle Eastern Studies at George Mason University, Professor Bassam Haddad, illuminates the deleterious possibilities of imposing sanctions, stating that economic pressure from the European Union and the United States could backfire. Pointing to Iraq, Professor Haddad affirms that, “Economic sanctions destroy the middle class which in turn makes the regime stronger. Sanctions may destroy the economy and weaken the society, but they can paradoxically make the government more able to pursue its own agenda.” With collapsing economic infrastructure, the regime could gain support by pointing to the West as a common enemy. The West is left in a difficult situation. They will maintain these sanctions, as they cannot fund Assad’s regime; however, such measures will prove largely ineffective in the short and medium term. Analysts project that Western sanctions may take as long as two years to significantly cripple the regime.
Militarily, the United States will not intervene alone, and it is far from likely that a NATO intervention will occur with such strong resistance from China, Russia and other non-Western powers. Additionally, both China and Russia’s veto power will assure that a no-fly zone will not pass through the Security Council as it did to Libya in March.
The fear of another Iraq has also incapacitated Western powers. Syria is fragile and on the verge of collapse. A Western tip of the scale would require years of rebuilding. This is not a price that Western powers are willing to pay. Shunned by both the pan-Arab community and the greater international community, the Syrian opposition is alone. If it is relying on support from abroad, then it is sorely mistaken.
In a country where the cries of millions have become deafening, they have fallen on deaf ears within the international community. The sad truth is that the legitimate protests of many against a cruel and repressive regime have fallen victim to another game of regional and global politics and economics. Abandoned by the international community, the Syrian opposition faces a steep uphill climb. Nevertheless, in this period of political uncertainty, a number of possibilities lay ahead. One such possibility is that the opposition reaches a critical mass. At such a point, the regime will no longer be able to repress the groundswell of opposition. Such a possibility may be dubbed “The Egypt Option.” The Egypt Option, however, is quite unlikely, as it hinges on military defections. With the bulk of the army comprised of the Alawi clan, it is difficult to imagine substantial defections. As Yale Professor of Political Science Ellen Lust states, “If the military stays cohesive, the opposition cannot prevail.”
Professor Reynolds posits a curious hypothetical when he discusses the possibility of a regime implosion as a result of “physical exhaustion.” Reynolds explains, “The regime’s support is not very large, and by doing all of this suppression, they are working overtime. Physically, how long can they keep this up?” With an incomparably superior military backing, the regime can afford going a few sleepless nights.
What about an implosion caused by internal dissent? As Assad falters to maintain the support of his international allies and instill peace at home, skeptics within the government question his leadership. The government’s real power rests with Bashar’s brother Maher and his circle of ultra-loyal generals. Maher is eyeing the presidency, as his brother attracts international ire. A complete military usurpation of the government led by Maher could prove catastrophic for the uprising. Such a future will not lead to a regime implosion; rather, this familial power shift would undeniably place the government authority in the hands of the military brass. With Maher and an entrenched military establishment calling the shots, the violence will surely escalate. Any attempt to maintain peace in the nation will be replaced with unbridled military suppression on a scale that has not yet been witnessed. While the opposition’s key to victory depends on fissures in government unity, such a power shift paves the way to a full-scale civil war.
Is violence inevitable? The future could entail peace talks between the regime and the opposition. But it seems clear that the unrest has reached a point of no return and negotiations would prove nothing more than a facade. The regime has proved that it is unwilling to relinquish power and its superficial concessions would be little more than an insult to the protestors.
Another possibility is that the regime will mirror its 1982 tactics when it brutally suppressed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in what is now known as the Hama Massacre. Between 10,000 and 80,000 townspeople were killed. Robin Wright, author of Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East called the Hama Massacre “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.” This scenario is most likely to occur in a Maher-controlled government; however, given Bashar al-Assad’s recent erratic behavior, such extreme violence cannot be ruled out.
While a single moment of suppression may seem improbable in 2011 due to the sheer breadth of the uprising, a regime victory is not out of the question. Dr. Arsan notes, “Demonstrations no longer comprise 1-1.2 million people. With the beginning of the school year, demonstrations have stagnated and decreased in size to 200,000 people.” Additionally, Arsan points to the regime’s “surgical removal” of opposition leadership aimed successfully at “decapitating the uprising.” The regime has kept the opposition relatively splintered in playing up sectarian divisions.
One last element to the regime’s advantage is the economic support found in China, Russia, India, and Brazil. If these nations continue to sustain the regime financially, Assad may be able to weather the opposition if protests are put to rest in the near future.
Unfortunately, the final possibility looks to be the most probable: a lengthy and debilitating civil war. Some analysts contend that Syria has already reached this point. The government has the backing of a faithful military and funding from equally faithful superpowers. Conversely, the opposition has numbers and the fury of decades of repression fanning the flame. However, without the backing of the military, the opposition must rely on more than rhetoric and demonstrations to deracinate the regime. Rhetoric will become vitriolic and peaceful demonstrations will surely become violent. A senior opposition leader commented to Al-Jazeera, “In the end we cannot be free without weapons… it is time to arm the revolution.” For months Syrians have been trickling into Lebanon to buy weapons on the black market, but still such purchases will not be able to compete with a fully equipped army.
Syria’s quarantine by the international community has turned it into a pressure cooker. Tension and hostility will escalate further to the point where the opposition will realize that their voices can no longer be heard without guns. While the opposition may have embarked on its uprising, dazzled by the glamour and youthfulness of Tunisia and Egypt, it will shortly realize that its future is not like its neighbors’. There will be violence, a growing refugee crisis and crippling poverty. Assad’s days are numbered, but the future of Syria is bleak. While general antipathy towards a repressive regime may be a unifying force in a revolution, it is certainly not a model for rebuilding a nation.
Justin Schuster is a freshman in Branford College.