On Syria,

Because AMW asked, and because I need to be paying attention…

I didn’t expect there to be a whole lot of protest in Syria, but then I’ve been surprised by all the events in the Middle East all along the way. And it’s not as though conditions in Syria were fundamentally different than in Egypt: an oppressive dictatorship, high levels of unemployment among an increasingly educated population amid rising economic expectations that have yet to be fulfilled. Plus the ever-present religious divide between the leadership and the majority of the populace. It’s just that when I’ve been there people mostly seemed, not exactly content, but grudgingly accepting–wishing for change but neither demanding nor expecting it. Maybe I’m naive, but when people cheerily clog the outdoor cafe until 2 in the morning drinking tea, smoking hookahs, and watching soccer on the big screen tv set up in the alley, it just doesn’t seem to signal imminent revolution.

Clearly Syria is a lagging indicator in Middle Eastern democratization.

And for a while it seemed as though the protests were mostly in the south, with a handful in Damascus. That’s relatively easy to dismiss. But now the protests are occurring across the country, south, north, central and west, as you can see in the image below (protest sites marked with push pins–the big empty quadrant is the Syrian desert, it’s empty quarter).

The protests don’t seem to be well-coordinated. In some places it seems to be conservative Muslims protesting a secular state; in the north it includes Kurds who want–and have now received–Syrian citizenship, but also more political rights. The one common theme seems to be that everyone wants President Assad to lift the decades-old state of emergency and allow real political reform.

Assad has in fact been something of a reformist. He has shifted away from the Arabic socialism that historically characterized the Ba’ath Party, allowing more market-oriented reforms. This included allowing private banks and more private businesses, reducing import barriers, and several trade agreements (including the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA), and agreements with Iran, India and Turkey). But the transition has been difficult, as they generally are, and expectations have risen faster than incomes.

But he has from the beginning had the problem of being from a minority religious sect, the Alawi, in a majority Sunni country. Not all Sunnis consider the Alawi to actually be Muslim, although outside religious scholars do, and the Alawi appear to do so also (their beliefs are not well-understood, and they don’t make a habit of divulging them). And of course it was Assad’s father who killed up to 10,000 people in crushing the Sunni-based Muslim Brotherhood–something conservative Sunnis in Syria haven’t forgotten, I believe.

Although Assad has tried to engage in some gestures of liberalization, including releasing some political prisoners, “accepting” the resignation of his cabinet, and promising an end to the state of emergency (promises, promises) it hasn’t been enough to satisfy the protestors. From outside, it appears they’ve seen the power protests can have in other countries and have gained confidence that they can successfully demand more. Most surprising to me is the burning of Ba’ath Party headquarters in several cities. That’s a very serious attack on the state, far more than standing in a public square chanting slogans.

In retrospect, many Syrians may have been primed for an uprising, because there was widespread outrage over the conviction of 19 year Tal al-Mallohi on charges of spying as a result of poetry and social commentary she wrote on a blog. Without Tunisia and Egypt perhaps nothing would have developed from that, but without that perhaps the sentiment in Syria would not have been just right for this kind of uprising.

Right now I’d say a change of power in Syria is still unlikely, or at least not yet close. The protests do not yet rival the size of those in Egypt, and no real rebel movement has developed, as in Libya. But it seems doubtful that Assad has the will to be as ruthless as his father, especially since he’s not facing a single organized group on which all his force can be directed. And in contrast to Quaddafi, Assad has exit options.

The situation, as military types would say, is fluid. I don’t think anyone could sensibly make any predictions about what will happen.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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