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Roundtable on Syria Today (Part 3): Is Syria Different?

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This is the last installment (Part 3) 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, and Part 2 here.] 

Per the original announcement in Part 1, we are still awaiting responses from a number of writers from inside Syria who have understandably hesitated to write so far. Observers of Syria, inside and outside the country, are welcome to take a stab at the questions posed here in. Please send your responses to


Roundtable Question #3
3.     Is Syria different from its Arab counterparts in terms of the uprisings and the response? If yes, how so? 
Steven Heydemann (Q #3). As someone who has long argued for authoritarian learning as a meaningful way to understand processes of regime adaptation to changing circumstances, the responses of the Syrian regime thus far have been deeply disappointing. I see very little evidence of learning in the behavior of the Syrian regime.
Aside from the non-trivial differences between the Syrian case and other Arab cases – some of which I referenced in responses to the first two questions, the regime seems determined to imitate strategies that have been proven in other settings to fail. The combination of limited and largely cosmetic concessions on one hand, and repression on the other, has been tried and failed in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen. The presidential speeches blaming outsiders and alluding to plots against the nation have been tried elsewhere, with no more effect. Repression has a mixed track record. It has worked in Algeria. It has worked in Bahrain, but only when a neighboring state’s army moved in to support the regime. In every other case, however, from Tunisia, to Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, and Jordan, repression has failed to bring protests to an end. It has often been catalytic in mobilizing support for the opposition. So while we can imagine conditions under which repression will be more effective in Syria than in other cases, the general observation is that nothing the Syrian regime has done in response to protests distinguishes it from the approaches taken by its counterparts elsewhere in the region. 
On a different level, however, one key argument of the regime has been that its nationalist credentials and association with the “resistance” bloc in the Middle East give it a basis of legitimacy that pro-Western Arab regimes do not enjoy. For all that the current protests underscore how hollow such claims are, they cannot be dismissed entirely. Peace treaties with Israel and close ties to the West, whatever their strategic and economic benefits for countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Jordan, remain deeply unpopular with citizens across the region. It may well be the case that on this issue, and in terms of its overall anti-Westernism, the Syria regime has an element of popular legitimacy that its pro-Western counterparts might lack. Yet it would be an enormous mistake to place too much weight on this notion. On one hand, it is not hard for regimes like the Syrian to manufacture legitimacy through staged performances of “spontaneous” mass support. On the other, we have ample evidence over the past two weeks that the regime’s nationalist credentials, such as they are, do not insulate it from the deep anger and resentment that ordinary Syrians feel about issues ranging from corruption and inequality, to the humiliations associated with everyday life under an authoritarian regime that pervades almost every aspect of their existence. Even in this respect therefore, what might appear to be exceptional about Syria begins to look more typical if we dig a little bit beneath the surface of the regime’s claims.
Fred Lawson (Q #3). I would be very surprised if Armenians and other Christians in Syria had changed their general posture toward the Ba'thi regime since the early 1990s. At that time, long after the horrors that drove their parents and grandparents out of Anatolia, shopkeepers and professionals would confide that whatever its shortcomings and injustices, the status quo was better than any situation that might open up the possibility of an Islamist-dominated order. Egypt's Copts may well share these sentiments, but well-to-do younger members of that religious community nevertheless linked arms with their Muslim counterparts when the moment for collective action arrived. It seems harder to imagine even university-educated Armenian Orthodox marching alongside, say, their Maronite classmates through the streets of al-'Aziziyyah, one of Aleppo's more affluent neighborhoods.
On the other hand, Syria is not as deeply riven by sectarianism as Bahrain. No matter how loudly and consistently liberal reformers who hail from Bahrain's downtrodden Shi'i population proclaim their cause to be nonsectarian, the country's Sunni citizens will still worry that a fully elected parliament will end up advancing the interests of the local Shi'ah. So perhaps having a relatively large number of distinct religious communities in the general population will preclude the emergence of two mutually antagonistic blocs, neither one of which is willing to make conciliatory overtures to the other.
David Lesch (Q #3). Syria is different from other uprisings in several respects, most of which make Asad’s removal from power less likely. First, Syria is more ethnically and religiously diverse than countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. It has been fraught with political instability in the post-independence period until Hafiz al-Asad came to power in 1970. After that, Syrians seemed to accept—and Asad demanded—the Faustian bargain of less freedom and liberty in return for more political stability. With chaos and disorder readily apparent on its borders in Lebanon and Iraq, most Syrians are reticent to engage in actions that might lead to instability…and the regime has done everything it can to promote this characterization for its own benefit. Secondly, despite what many in the opposition are saying, it is my impression that Bashar al-Asad is relatively well-liked in Syria—or at least not generally reviled. He lives a relatively humble existence, i.e. there will be no Wikileaks reports detailing an extravagant lifestyle b/c he doesn’t have one. In addition, he has not given into the American and Israeli projects in the region, which has won him points in the Arab street, as opposed to someone like Egypt’s Husni Mubarak, who was seen as selling out the Palestinians and a lackey of US and Israeli imperialism. Finally, although I am not as convinced as I was a couple of weeks ago of this, generally speaking, the military and security services are more tied to the fate of the regime than their counterparts in some other Arab states; therefore, they are more likely to stay with Bashar. On the other hand, if Bashar makes the concessions I believe he needs to make, there could be interesting ripples in various pockets of the military and especially the mukhabarat that might cause him problems. This could also be why he took so long to go public. He was making sure the ducks were lined up in a row before doing so. This could also be why his speech came up well short of expectations in terms of outlining reforms with any specificity.
Patrick Seale (Q #3). Syria’s nationalist stance—its support for Hizballah and Hamas, its opposition to Israel and the US—is essentially what makes it different from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen or Bahrain. This is a source of pride for many Syrians and has given the country some immunity from popular protest. But, as we have seen, it is wearing thin.
Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, which are more homogeneous societies, Syria is a mosaic of sects, similar to Lebanon if not quite so diverse. This makes for divisions in society, for different social habits, cultural norms and also different loyalties. Hence a permanent sense that the delicate balance could be overturned.
[See Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.] 

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