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Roundtable on Syria Today (Part 2): On Portrayal

[Image from Getty Images] [Image from Getty Images]

This is Part 2 of our 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 and Part 3 here.]


Roundtable Question #2
2. What do you consider to be missing or exaggerated in the discussion/writings/policy on the Syrian uprisings? 
Heydemann (Q #2). Several elements of the current debate seem to reflect misperceptions or distortions, in my view. Within some policy circles in Washington, protests in Syria have revived the long-held dream of “flipping” Syria through regime change, and re-defining the regional balance of power in ways that would work decisively to America’s advantage. Seen from this perspective, support for the opposition is desirable because of the strategic opportunity it represents for America, rather than the possibilities it offers for Syrians to secure their own freedom. 
What this analysis tends to overlook, however, are the gaps that would need to be bridged to get there from here—that is, to move Syria through a difficult, dangerous, and complex transition to a stable post-authoritarian political order—and the very low probability that a Syrian democracy would have the political complexion that advocates of “flipping” seem to take for granted. Misperceptions or distortions of how a process of regime change would play out, or what its likely trajectories might be, have the potential to lead the US down a dangerous and counterproductive path. Far more effective, in my view, would be put in place a long-term strategy to develop the capacity of the Syrian opposition, and exploit the current opening to create a sustained, incremental approach to democratization in Syria, recognizing that we need to be in this game for the long haul.
What has been missing entirely from recent coverage of Syria are references to Syria’s history of republican government and its experience of republican forms of democracy in the 1940s and 1950s. Syria enjoyed universal suffrage before Switzerland. It is the only country in the Arab world in which a Communist Party leader, Khalid Bakdash, was freely and fairly elected to parliament. While deeply if not fatally flawed, these historical moments nonetheless reflect elements of liberal democracy that should not be overlooked. The historical memory of democratic moments in Syria is a potential resource for the opposition. It has contemporary relevance. Yet it has not been touched on at all in the current media coverage of Syria’s uprising.
Lawson (Q #2). At first glance, it seems easy to explain why the initial outbreak of popular disorder occurred in the environs of Dir'a: the history of restiveness and resistance to outside authority that permeates this corner of Syria; long-standing friction between Sunnis based in the towns—particularly in the comparatively new administrative center of Dir'a itself--and Druze in the countryside; covert and perhaps illicit activities carried on by unlicensed traders along the Jordanian border; and so on. But what were the primary dynamics that set off the explosion? An article published in al-Watan newspaper shortly before the demonstrations noted that government officials posted to rural districts of Dir'a province are no longer going to be given automobiles and drivers, even though functionaries in the city will get to keep theirs. Might local grievances like this have provided the impetus for the protests?
Similarly around Latakia. Reports that shadowy groups of armed Sunnis helped to provoke the violence lead one to wonder what exactly precipitated the fighting along the western coast. Are poorer 'Alawis rallying to the defense of the regime in the face of Sunni incursions from northern Lebanon? Or has dissatisfaction over changes in policy and spending priorities that accompanied the presidential succession alienated disadvantaged 'Alawis in the provinces from their well-connected co-religionists in the capital?
And more important, what industrial, commercial and agricultural circumstances are present in these two parts of the country, which might have aggravated popular disaffection? Has the drought that is decimating the villages of Syria's northeastern plains inflicted similar damage on the hard-scrabble grazing lands of the south? Are employment prospects around Latakia markedly dimmer than they are in Aleppo and Damascus?
Lesch (Q #2). There seems to be, as expected in this sound byte world, exclusive coverage of the extremes, either those who are against the Syrian government or those who support it. Each viewpoint has been manipulated by its own sets of supporters to fit political agendas. Ultimately, it will be this silent majority, including the business, religious, and tribal/clan elite who will determine whether or not Asad has done enough.
Seale (Q #2). I think what’s been missing from most of the writing about the crisis has been recognition of the way President Bashar’s mind-set has been shaped by the many crises he has had to deal with in his decade in power – and which he has managed to survive, clearly a source of pride for him. These crises include George W. Bush’s war on terror after 9/11; the Iraq war of 2003, and the knowledge that had America been successful in Iraq, Syria would have been next, as the neocons had planned; the 2005 crisis in Lebanon triggered by the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, and the “plot” (by the US and France) to unseat him at that time; the Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 2006 and of Gaza in 2008-2009.
What’s been missing in much of the comment is Syria’s sense of vulnerability to attack. Its allies, Iran and Hizballah, have faced Israeli attempts to demonize and destroy them. Repeated efforts have been made to disrupt the Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah axis, seen by many as the main challenge to Israeli and American hegemony.
In his rambling speech, Bashar’s argument was that he now faced a new “conspiracy” similar to that of 2005. This time the aim of the “plotters” was to ignite sectarian strife so as to fragment Syria’s national unity, weaken it and bring it down. In raising this question, he was putting his finger on an enduring concern of the Alawi minority, and indeed of their Christian allies, faced by a resurgence of Sunni Islam.
Regarding much-needed forms, Bashar said something to the effect that he had intended to introduce reforms from the moment he took office in 2000, but that confronting the various crises and dealing with the ravages of the four-year drought had somehow got in the way. It was a sort of apology. His priorities, he affirmed, were stability and seeing to the needs of the citizens.
Those who know President Bashar say that he has a stubborn streak in his character, no doubt inherited from his father. He doesn’t like to be pushed around or be seen to yield to pressure, whether internal or external. That may be why he has left to others the task of elaborating on the planned reforms.
[See Part 3 here.]

1 comment for "Roundtable on Syria Today (Part 2): On Portrayal"


Thanks to all 3 contributors for this interesting debate. The approach suggested by Fred Lawson -taking note of the local factors that may have triggered or facilitated the uprising especially in Dar'a-- strikes me as very relevant. It would be great to see all contributors to this debate reflect on how local dimensions fit into the larger pieces of the wider Syrian puzzle. It indeed has been reported that Dar'a witnessed violent clashes in the recent past at least twice -- in November 2000 (involving Bedouins sending their cattle in Druze-owned farms) and in December 2007 (anti-Druze violence ostensibly triggered by Junblatt's anti-Syrian stand at the time). Yet another and perhaps even more important potential source of grievance (or expression thereof) may relate to alleged Shiite, Iran-supported proselytizing; beliefs or rumours that, even when never substantiated, appear to have hit nerves especially in Dar'a with its Shiite minority. In this context I found it remarkable to see protestors scant anti-Iranian and anti-Hizbullah slogans in u-tube footage said to be from Dar'a. Does this provide a window through which to analyse another dimension linking local and bigger issues? And is there any relevance to Dar'a having received substantial numbers of draught-related IDPs? What is the date / link of the al-Watan article mentioned by Lawson? Many thanks.

Reinoud Leenders wrote on April 05, 2011 at 04:34 AM

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