A Superpower, Like It or Not
Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role
As revolutions rocked authoritarian regimes from Tunis to Manama, pundits were quick to identify Syria’s leadership as the next to fall. Like other countries in the region, Syria is deeply impoverished. And on the face of it, the similarities between Damascus’ authoritarian system and those of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are striking. Just as in Tunisia and Egypt, a single-party regime has ruled Syria with an iron fist for years. For the past five decades, it has kept the country under permanent emergency law, which, like in its North African counterparts, has been used to suppress calls for greater political participation. Yet despite various parallels, a closer look at Syria reveals that the Assad regime -- led for the past decade by Bashar al-Assad -- is unlikely to fall. Paradoxically, Syria’s grave economic situation and its Alawi minority rule, which has been safeguarded by repressive mechanisms, will prevent oppositional forces from gaining critical mass in the near future.
Syria has recently experienced annual economic growth rates of around four percent, but the country is still plagued by staggering unemployment, increasing costs of living, stagnating wages, and widespread poverty. Although official data from Damascus (which is notorious for its overly optimistic calculations) lists unemployment in the first quarter of 2010 at eight percent, independent estimates hover around 20 percent, with even higher rates among the younger generation. Because underemployed and disillusioned youth comprised one of the driving forces of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, observers have enthusiastically noted Syria’s youth unemployment rate as a signal of potential revolt.
Syrian youth certainly share the economic grievances of young people in Tunisia and Egypt, but widespread poverty and unemployment are unlikely to catalyze sudden regime change now. Despite the policy of cautious economic liberalization that Assad initiated after taking office in 2000, Syrian society continues to be defined by its high degree of egalitarianism. True, Western luxury goods are increasingly available to elites, and some members of Assad’s extended family have been accused of nepotism and profiteering. However, the accumulation of excessive wealth in the hands of an oligarchic political elite has been more an exception than a rule. Political isolation and domestic authoritarianism have severely restricted the development of a politically conscious and economically empowered middle class. As such, the situation in Damascus differs significantly from pre-revolutionary Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In all three countries, public fury was fueled by a highly visible and ever-increasing status gap between a large elite class and a marginalized majority. Unlike Syrians, protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya perceived their poverty to be relative rather than absolute -- and thus as an injustice caused by the regime.
During its decades of rule, moreover, the Assad family developed a strong political safety net by firmly integrating the military into the regime. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, seized power after rising through the ranks of the Syrian armed forces, during which time he established a network of loyal Alawites by installing them in key posts. In fact, the military, ruling elite, and ruthless secret police are so intertwined that it is now impossible to separate the Assad regime from the security establishment. Bashar al-Assad’s threat to use force against protesters would be more plausible than Tunisia’s or Egypt’s were. So, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where a professionally trained military tended to play an independent role, the regime and its loyal forces have been able to deter all but the most resolute and fearless oppositional activists. In this respect, the situation in Syria is to a certain degree comparable to Saddam Hussein’s strong Sunni minority rule in Iraq. At the same time, it is significantly different from Libya, where the military, although brutal and loyal to the regime, is a more disorganized group of militant thugs than a trained and disciplined army.
Indeed, the regime’s use of force against opponents has not been merely hypothetical. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad infamously suppressed an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths. More recently, in 2004, Bashar al-Assad’s security forces violently quelled Kurdish protests, leaving dozens dead. The likelihood of the regime resorting to such violence again is increased by Syria’s isolation. Unlike in Egypt, where a strong history of friendly bilateral relations and a U.S.-led diplomatic effort shaped the military’s response to growing protests, or Tunisia, where the military received intensive U.S.-training, the West has very little leverage over Syria. The consequences of such political isolation can be seen on the Libyan streets: with no one able to stop him, the equally ostracized leader Muammar al-Qaddafi has opted to use sheer force to maintain his hold on power. For many Syrians, the Libyan regime’s violent response is a stark reminder of the suffering a determined tyrant can inflict on his people.
Another Syrian particularity is Assad’s affiliation with a religious minority: the Alawi sect. Political observers have established a near-unanimous consensus that his minority status has severely jeopardized long-term stability. This assessment is plausible but fails to account for Syria’s specific circumstances.
It is true that Assad has even fewer enthusiastic supporters beyond his small group of co-opted elites than did former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but the regime’s opposition has even less popular support. Unlike other dictators in the region, Assad is seen by many as a counterweight to sectarian disintegration rather than as a champion of sectarian interests. Moreover, Syrians have had frequent and direct exposure to the devastating outcomes of sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon. In 2005 and 2006, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and Iraqi refugees flowed into Damascus, reminding Syrians of the dire consequences of religiously fueled carnage. And seeing how sectarianism has stunted Lebanon and Iraq, Syria’s equally pluralist society has good reason to acquiesce to Assad’s leadership.
Moreover, Assad’s comparable youth (he is 45, Ben Ali is 74, Mubarak is 82, and Qaddafi is 68) and his record of staunch anti-Westernism give him a layer of protection that the other leaders did not enjoy. Many Syrians perceive his opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and his anti-Israel policies as desirable and in the national interest. In fact, Assad’s reputation in the West as an unyielding pariah has translated into popularity in his own country. In a somewhat twisted way, his willingness to stand up to the United States comports with the theme of Arab dignity that has rallied protesters throughout the region. While a similar anti-Western stance was taken by Qaddafi, Syria’s geographical proximity to the Arab-Israeli conflict (and its direct involvement) has lent Assad’s rhetoric of resistance much greater credibility than Qaddafi’s, especially after Qaddafi improved relations with the United States in the 2000s.
This is not to say that the Syrian regime has demonstrated complete indifference to regional developments. Indicating at least some uneasiness at the toppling of his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, Assad recently promised reforms “to open up society” and “start dialogue.” So far, his reforms have been limited to ad hoc increases in certain wages and the (surprising) unlocking of social media networks. Still, Syrians will likely prefer to pin their hopes on a slow but stable process of reform rather than an uncertain and violent revolution. Calls on Facebook for a “day of rage” have until now remained unanswered.
Certainly, an early test of whether Assad’s promise of reforms was sufficient will be seen in municipal and parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year. However these elections turn out, it seems that the current wave of anti-authoritarianism will continue to largely pass Syria by. Ironically, the one Arab regime Western leaders would probably most like to see ousted from power may very well end up relatively strengthened compared to the fledgling regimes in the rest of the region. This is especially worrisome, given the possibility that an unshaken regime in Damascus might seriously consider a rapprochement with a newly elected Egyptian leadership. The question of how the West should engage Assad, now bolstered by the demise of Western-backed leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, will thus soon reemerge with even greater acuteness.
For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.