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Roundtable on Syria Today (Part 1)

[ ["No to Violence, Yes to Freedom." Image from Static.guim.co.uk]

This is Part 1 of the first Jadaliyya Roundtable on Syria, moderated by Bassam Haddad and Joshua Landis, of Syria Comment. It features Steven Heydemann, Fred Lawson, David Lesch, and Patrick Seale. This post will be published on both Jadaliyya and Syria Comment. [See Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here].

 
After two weeks of protests in Syria, many still wonder where matters are headed. The Syrian regime is firm in its stance, and so are the protesters. A plurality of Syrians (some say a majority) are not yet certain where to throw their weight. Yesterday’s speech by President Bashar al-Asad was presumed to include wide-ranging reforms that would “reassure everyone,” as Vice President Farouq al-Shar` affirmed to journalists recently. However, the speech did not include any concrete announcements in the direction of fundamental reforms (example?). It was disappointing to reformers and somewhat reassuring to those who feared the country would descend into sectarian or civil war, however accurate or misplaced that fear might be.
 
The pattern followed in other Arab states prior to all-out confrontations has been replicated only partially in Syria. It is not just the structural differences across these states (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain) that account for the patterns we see unfolding in the region. Perhaps equally relevant is the degree of political learning on part of both regime and would-be protesters now that the game has been repeated a few times. A relatively weak showing by Zein al-Din Ben Ali and Husni Mubarak in response to escalating protests in which concessions were made seemed to have cost them dearly, or at least this is what observers can readily perceive from the turn of events directly after such speeches. Bashar, known for his tenacity and resolve, coupled with the hard(er)-liners around him, namely his brother Maher and to a lesser extent his brother-in-law `Asef Shawkat, broke the trend and opted for an over-confident speech in which he asserted that the initiative lies with the political leadership and not the protesters. Will this speech serve its intended purpose and dampen the protests or will it reaffirm the protesters’ resolve? We are one day away from that temporal landmark that has come to be associated with the post-Friday prayers protests.
 
Away from fortune telling, however, we have asked a number of seasoned Syria observers from the United States and the United Kingdom to comment on a number of themes associated with the larger picture and how it relates to developments on the ground and to the portrayals of such developments. [We are trying to get view points from Syria for another roundtable altogether. Understandably, it is taking a bit of time].
 
We put forth the following three questions. The answers will be published one at a time. This post will include the answers for the first question only. The next post will include the answers to the second question, and so on.
 
1. What factors do you consider to be pivotal in determining the course of events in Syria? Do you believe that the opposition movement in Syria will be successful? 
2. What do you consider to be missing or exaggerated in the discussion/writings/policy on the Syrian uprisings? 
3. Is Syria different from its Arab counterparts in terms of the uprisings and the response? If yes, how so? 
 
 
 
Roundtable Question #1
 
1. What factors do you consider to be pivotal in determining the course of events in Syria? Do you believe that the opposition movement in Syria will be successful? 
 
Steven Heydemann (Q #1). The Syrian opposition confronts formidable obstacles. Despite the courage and commitment of protestors, the wall of fear in Syria remains largely intact. It is reinforced not only by the scale of regime repression, but by deep-seated fears among Syrians about the risks of instability. To be sure, fear of instability is in some measure a product of regime efforts to reinforce the sense of Syria as vulnerable to threats, whether of sectarianism or the foreign plots that Bashar al-Asad referred to in his speech of March 30, and to convey the message that the regime alone can protect the people from the chaos and destruction that would, inevitably, follow its demise. Yet we cannot dismiss the fears of Syrians as entirely the product of regime manipulation. Lebanese and Iraqi experiences are vivid reminders that sectarianism is real, and dangerous. Whatever its sources, however, fear continues to hamper the ability of protest movements to mobilize large numbers of supporters on a national scale, and to sustain collective action at a meaningful level.
In addition, protests in Syria have not yet congealed into a coherent opposition. Actions remain fragmented.  No coherent leadership has emerged within the country. Outside of social media, protests have not yet gone viral.  Protests have not yet achieved the critical mass needed to pose a fundamental threat to the regime.
The weakness of the opposition—the product of the Syrian regime’s effectiveness over the past fifty years—will no doubt loom large in determining the opposition's prospects. It is entirely possible that this weakness could be overcome, given enough time. Whether sufficient time will be available, however, is not clear.  
None of this leads to the conclusion that the Syrian opposition will not succeed in achieving some measure of political change, or that it will fail to achieve its more ambitious goal of democratization. It does suggest that the obstacles to success will be very difficult for the opposition to overcome.
 
Fred Lawson (Q #1). It goes without saying that events in Syria will largely be determined by the actions of the armed forces and security services. Senior military officers in Egypt could not bring themselves to rally behind Gamal Mubarak, and so stepped aside as the struggle between the Tahrir protesters and the increasingly unsavory leadership of the National Democratic Party played itself out. Just before Bashshar al-Asad assumed the Syrian presidency, several key military and security commanders found themselves abruptly put out to pasture, and most observers quickly concluded that the individuals who replaced them were actual or prospective allies of the incoming leader. We will now get to see whether or not this is true, and if the current high command is willing to exercise force to protect the president and the system he heads.
           
In the Egyptian case it made good sense to distinguish between the regular army and the security forces, since substantial differences in corporate interests and behavioral predispositions between the two entities appear to have had a strong impact on events in Cairo. Such divergences seem much less pronounced and salient in Syria, although no one has explored these matters in detail. Quite remarkable is Buthaina Sha'ban's claim that whoever opened fire on the demonstrators in Dir'a did so without receiving orders to shoot. Does this indicate that senior commanders do not exercise total control over the military-security apparatus?
           
Just as crucial as the choices made by the armed forces and security services will be the actions of the party-affiliated popular front organizations. Egypt's NDP boasts nothing like the teachers', students' and farm laborers' federations that have taken root under the auspices of the Ba'th. Furthermore, whereas Egypt's industrial workers have spent the last few years orchestrating street protests and setting up wildcat labor unions, the rank-and-file of Syria's trade union federation has exhibited no discernable autonomous activism. If I hear that workers at the big tractor factory outside Aleppo have walked off the job or started to march toward the citadel in sympathy with liberal activists to demand an end to the state of emergency, I will start to think that the regime is in deep trouble.
           
Somewhere in the wings hovers the Muslim Brothers. The organization's recently-elected General Supervisor is said to be more open to the possibility of engaging in overt struggle against the authorities than his predecessor. Which does not mean that a resumption of the 1976-82 civil war looms just below the horizon, but does make the Brothers' expressed commitment to liberal-democratic principles somewhat less credible.
 
 
David Lesch (Q #1). For me, the most important single element in determining the course of current events in Syria is President Bashar al-Asad.  Before his speech on Wednesday the question was: Where has he been?  He has to LEAD. He was conspicuously absent, which is probably a function of the regime being pushed back on its heels and confused as well as the likelihood of profound differences within the ruling circle on how to respond.  I will just add my voice to the chorus and say that I was equally disappointed in his speech.  The expectations were high, maybe too high, so he was likely to fall short of what was wanted.  But I was very disappointed and concerned that he led off by blaming “conspirators” and “enemies” of the regime.  This is a traditional Syrian refrain to avoid responsibility for the problems and not appear weak. But this was tried by Mubarak, Qadhdhafi, Ben Ali and Saleh, and all of them are either out or on their way out.  Why repeat the same mistakes? This denies the real socio-economic, political, and personal frustrations of many Syrians who are at the heart of the protests.  In any mass protest movement, there are always going to be “conspirators” of some sort that attempt to exacerbate things for their own personal agenda, whether they be Islamic militants, democracy activists egged on by Syrian exiles, or thuggish gangs, but they are but a minority; unfortunately, this, in addition to the fact that there has, indeed, been foreign intrigue in Syria in the past combined with Syrians penchant for conspiracy theory, has primed the listening audience to Bashar’s exhortations. Rather Bashar needs to create a critical mass of support behind meaningful reforms rather than wait until a critical mass of opposition makes anything short of his removal impossible.  But it doesn’t look as if he will take this more difficult road.  If opposition success is measured by real reforms along the lines of lifting the emergency law, the creation of real political parties with free and open elections, the release of political prisoners, etc., then it has a chance of being successful if the pressure continues and ultimately forces Asad’s hand.  If measured solely against the elimination of Asad and his associates, then it will not be successful . . . and the result may even be worse. As of now, however, it seems the Syrian government is going to attempt to do what it usually does, i.e. muddle through this.
 
 
Patrick Seale (Q #1). The pivotal factor in determining the future will be the cohesion of the regime versus the cohesion of the opposition: two rival groups, each made up of different strands, are engaged in a struggle for power. For the moment at least, the regime looks stronger than the opposition for the following reasons:
 
(a) it has the backing of the army and the security forces (both largely Alawi-led);
(b) many Syrians are aware that, for all their many shortcomings, the two Asad regimes have at least given the country some security and stability over the past 40 years, compared, say, to the fate suffered by their neighbors Lebanon and Iraq;
(c) the regime is well aware of the need to introduce and implement reforms and is now, at long last, doing so.
 
President Bashar’s speech on 30 March was followed the next day by news of movement on three fronts:
 
1. A legal committee is to look into scrapping the emergency law and replacing it by anti-terrorist legislation. It must report by 21 April;
2. Those responsible for shooting protesters are to be held accountable; and
3. The 1962 census, to be reviewed by 15 April, is a decision of great importance for the Kurdish community, some 150,000 of whom are stateless and therefore prevented from owning land, educating their children, etc. These moves could take some of the steam out of the protest movement. 
 
A lot more needs to be done – the population wants greater freedom to speak, publish, and form political parties; it wants a curb on police brutality; and it wants the President to rein in the rich and corrupt businessmen close to the top, including members of his family.
 
A still more difficult problem is that of youth unemployment and the urgent need to create jobs – a problem confronting almost every Arab country. To be successful, this would require a radical restructuring of the economy, of which there is no real sign. The so-called “social market economy” which the regime has attempted to put in place has not benefited ordinary people, nor relieved pressures on the “new poor” among the hard-pressed middle classes. Resentment has been fuelled by the arrogant display of wealth by a few thousand members of the “new bourgeoisie” in Damascus, Aleppo and other major centers.
 
[See Part 2 here]

1 comment for "Roundtable on Syria Today (Part 1)"

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Thanks for these astute series of comments. In buing time, Thursday's announceements seem to me to be as important as Wednesday's, a classic stick first, followed by hints of a carrot that have distinguished Bashar's position and predicament from that of Ben Ali and/or Mubarak who had basically exhausted any formist credentials they might have had. Starting from a much lower position, it seems Bashar has some room to play with in using his political capital, however transient it may prove to be....

Paul wrote on April 01, 2011 at 06:23 AM

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