As NATO takes control of the western intervention efforts in Libya and the Saleh regime in Yemen seems certain to fall any day, an increasing number of eyes have been turning to Syria where the largest protests since the 1982 Hama massacre have been stunning the country and the government. Tensions have escalated in the last few days due to a largely schizophrenic response by the Assad regime – promising revolutionary reforms while violently cracking down on protesters. A few days ago, I commented that the Libya intervention would ironically limit the capacity of the United States and the west to react to another case of violent repression by a Middle Eastern government. As the violence grows, the United States will have very little ability to control or influence the situation in Syria.
Only a few days ago, the unrest in Syria looked as though it might be contained to the southern town of Dera’a. Initial outbursts were met with the use of force, but were followed by a supposed vow by Assad not to use any (more) bullets on protesters and the promise of revolutionary reforms to meet the demands of the protesters. Last week, the death toll was relatively low and while some were concerned that the reactions of the government would inevitably be compared to the 1982 massacre, others were certain that the regime had a way out by avoiding the use of force (others were less convinced). Yesterday, though, saw increased protests around the country and yet another display of deadly force by the regime. Confrontations took place in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, another 24 people were killed in Dera’a (or 20) and upwards of 20 people were killed in Sanamein (or 10). There were also reported deaths in Lattakia and Homs. While the total number of dead has varied – Landis counts 45, Amnesty International has 55 and the official government figure is at 37 – the round of violence on Friday brought the world’s attention to the complex Syrian situation.
And the issues in Syria are certainly complex. Like other Middle Eastern countries, the causes of the protests are both economic and political. The country has been under an emergency law that has been artificially linked to the conflict with Israel since 1963 (the law was originally enacted to respond to unrest and was later linked to Israel) and there are scores of political prisoners in jail. The BBC argues that the protests are inspired more by the economic problems of the country than the political ones: “for the impoverished majority, however, the picture is grim. One-third of the population lives on $2 a day or less. Unemployment is rampant, and four years of drought have reduced Syria’s eastern countryside to a wasteland of dusty and destitute towns and cities like Dara’a.” The mass economic issues arose during the transition from a socialist economy to a more capitalist system that Assad has watched over for the past 10 years. Like the economic transitions in Eastern Europe, the last ten years have seen a rise a wealthy minority (mostly Sunni) while the majority of population watched the growing gap in salaries and social statuses from the bottom. Consequently, large swaths of Syrian society (including some of the protesters) still have fond feelings for Assad.
Moreover, like neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, Syria is a genuine demographic mix of Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, Kurds and Alawite (an offshoot of the Shi’a sect of Islam). The Assad family is Alawite, as is much of the military leadership, meaning that the army will more than likely remain loyal to the President – unlike in Egypt where it stayed more or less neutral and Yemen or Libya where the army saw mass defections. Likewise, the Christian population of Syria supports the secularism of the ruling Ba’ath party. The Kurdish population – historically at odds with the regime and state – has thus far stayed on the sidelines, though there are rumors that the Kurds, who live in the north, might join protests soon. Consequently, Syrian protests are a mix of those calling for the end of the government, of those calling for economic reform and those who are supporting the regime.
Thus, if Assad were to actually implement the revolutionary reforms that he suggested – including a pledge to fight corruption and high wages – the government might be able to take a lot of momentum away from the economically deprived protesters. However, the president must be careful not to upset his supporters in the Sunni elite that negate many of the economic advantages that they have enjoyed. Taken out of context of the Arab uprisings and the violence in Syria over the last week, this means that the Syrian government could find a way out of these protests by enacting carefully planned reforms while refraining from the use of violence. However it is unclear if the Assad regime is ready to make those steps. While the regime recently released 260 prisoners, as promised, Syrian troops stormed a peaceful sit-in on Saturday, arresting 200.
Unfortunately for Assad, the violence of the past week has attracted the attention of an international community high on the success (depending on how one defines it) of the no fly zone over Libya, leading many to wonder at what point foreign intervention would be warranted. The UN Secretary-General phoned Assad on Saturday, encouraging the government to show restraint while The Washington Post published an editorial demanding more-than-verbal action against the Assad regime and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for the military to “empower a revolution” by stepping to the side. The White House, meanwhile, has made its obligatory condemnation of violence (see: Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen…), only to be criticized by Republicans of not doing enough and demanding that the United States actively reach out to the Syrian opposition. Yet the complexity of the Syrian situation means that the United States may not have any united opposition to speak with – highlighting the lack of influence the United States has in the country.
Yet with the military stuck in Afghanistan, still in Iraq and active in Libya it is highly unlikely that the United States even approaches the discussion of military intervention in a country that is both stronger and better allied (see: Iran, Hezbollah) than Libya. With little diplomatic clout – the US ambassador to Syria returned to Damascus only in January after nearly a six-year hiatus – it is likely that the US will be unable to do anymore than condemn Syrian violence. Despite this incapacity to act, Syria is a strategically important country, unlike, say, Libya.
Although the Assad regime has firmly sided with Iran and has consistently funded and armed the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, leading to years of US sanctions, the entire US policy for Syria is predicated on legitimizing the current president. Assad has used the opening of the Syrian economy as well as the possibility of breaking with Iran and making peace with Israel as means to encourage an unwilling and hesitant acceptance of the Syrian government from the US:
The Obama administration has based its Syria policy on facilitating peace talks between Syria and Israel. A major cog in that premise was that a large part of Asad’s legitimacy rested on his piecemeal effort to “reform” Syria.
The protests as well as the violent government response has turned Obama’s policy on its head as they have amplified the questions concerning the legitimacy of the Assad government. Barring any massive display of government violence, it is likely that the delicate balance of religion, politics and economics in Syria will be maintained, if perhaps challenged. Thus, the United States is left with two options: pursue a policy pushing for the overthrow of the Assad family or remain loyal to current policy while increasing its pressure on human rights issues. Considering its inability to act militarily as well as the stability and popularity of the regime (compared to Libya, for example), it is unlikely that the Obama administration will do more than intermittently offer critiques and condemnations of the Assad regime while perhaps leaning on its regional allies (i.e. Turkey) to increase the pressure for reform (see: the latter option).
Of course, if there is another display of violence like yesterday, Obama may be more inclined to follow the advice of his Republican critics and opt to pursue the former option.
Photo from Ennahar