Syria at a crossroads: Mideast expert

on April 01 2011 9:18 AM

Syria, one of the most repressive nations on earth, is undergoing an unprecedented wave of anti-government protests, which had led the authoritarian regime of Bashar Al-Assad to reluctantly promise some reforms, including lifting the emergency laws.

However, Syria has been under the grip of the Baath party for so long, that any real change in the country may be a long time coming. Indeed, Assad appears to be offering minor concessions while maintaining the regime’s brutality.

International Business Times spoke to Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., for his thoughts on Syria.

IBT: Even if the cabinet in Syria has resigned, does that really change how the state operates? Isn’t the real power in Syria in the hands of Assad and his security forces? ACHILOV: Unless the entire regime changes, including President Bashar Al-Assad, no substantively meaningful results (political change) can be expected. In authoritarian countries run by dictators, changing the cabinet as a reaction to a popular discourse merely means “reshuffling” the regime loyalist elites from one place to another. In this context, it will not change the foundations of Assad’s dictatorial regime. The real power rests in Assad’s hands and his close elite circle of security apparatus. Besides, 75 percent of the Syrian population adheres to Sunni Islam. Assad comes from the Alawite religious minority - a sect of Shi’a Islam. The senior members of his administration, including the military and security apparatus, also come from the Alawite background. Dictators need close loyalists to run their regimes as they consolidate and sustain power. Not surprisingly, the current demonstrations in Syria appear to bring the sectarian issues (Sunni majority vs. Alawite-dominated government) which has been a taboo in Syria for long time. This sectarian element should not be discounted.

IBT: Is Syria the most repressive nation in the Arab world? ACHILOV: In terms of political rights, Syria is one of the most politically repressive countries in the Middle East. In 2010, Syria was third the least democratic state within 22 Arab League nations (after Libya and Saudi Arabia). Strikingly, over the last 30 years, Syria’s repressive policies remained unchanged. Both father and son Assad used repression to consolidate their autocratic rule (via media control, oppression of the opposition, mass arrests of outspoken critics, high corruption, loyalist recruitment to key posts, etc) and systematically deprived the Syrian public from political voice. At a new extreme level, Assad even ordered security forces to start tracking all electronic posts done in country’s internet cafes (a large majority of Syrians use internet café to surf the internet). The relationship between Assad himself and his Alawite regime loyalists showcases a mutually reinforcing character in which each side needs and depends on one another in order to survive. In this vein of thought, we can conclude that Syria has indeed been one of the most politically repressive countries in the Arab world for the past 40 years.

IBT: Who supports Assad? We have seen pro-government rallies in Damascus to counter the anti-government demonstrations. ACHILOV: Bashar Al-Assad, and his father, managed to stay in power for over 40 years. During this time, the state of war with Israel was used as a pretext to constantly reinforce the idea of a strong, unified Syria against the West. This helped culminate support for the President’s regime. For instance, on many occasions, Bashar made statements that his government never abandoned fighting Israel compared to (he describes) other “coward” Arab leaders, such as Mubarak, who sold the Arab dignity to the West. This rhetoric yielded a significant public support to Assad in the Arab streets (beyond Syria). Next, Assad used economic incentives to buy support from wealthy Sunni merchant class – an important segment of Syrian society. They were instrumental in pro-government demonstrators mobilized by Assad this week. Furthermore, the Syrian people never had a chance to taste civil liberties in real terms. There is no democratic experience in Syria’s collective memory to compare against the incumbent regime’s policies. Therefore, people who support Assad often see him as a “guarantor” of security and stability of the state despite regime’s authoritative tendencies and failed economic reforms. This is especially true for older generation.

IBT: Surely, younger Syrians would not support Assad.

ACHILOV: The younger generation tends to think differently today. The age of speed, technology, international education and globalization are greatly contributing to the mindsets of emerging Arab youth (55 percent of Syrian population is under the age of 25). Also, there still is a considerable percentage of Syrians who would rather support a secular Ba’ath party rather than conservative Islamists (e.g., Syrian Muslim Brotherhood) in power. This vision largely stems from a fear of radicalism as pushed by Assad’s propaganda. However, now the momentum is shifting as pro-democratic opposition forces are gaining leverage in Syrian public opinion (inspired by sweeping changes unfolding in the region).

IBT: Who supports Assad in the Middle East? ACHILOV: Regionally, Iran is the biggest supporter of Assad. Iranian elites calculate that the strategic relationship between Iran and Syria, as a counterweight against Israel, could be compromised if Assad was ousted.

IBT: Does Assad have any allies in the West? ACHILOV: Hardly any Western country would qualify as an “ally” of Syria. France has probably closer ties with Syria compared to other Western states. However, they are far from being “allies.” With its adverse relations with the U.S. and Israel, Syria is at odds with the West. The U.S. State Department officially classifies Syria as a country that sponsors terrorism (along with Cuba, Iran and Sudan). Precisely because of strained relations with the West and bitter relations with other regional Arab states, Assad undertook a tour or Latin America in 2010 to increase Syria’s international presence. We can identify Iran, Russia and Hezbollah in Lebanon as Syria’s closest allies.

IBT: Economically, is Syria advanced relative to its Arab peers? Or does it suffer from high rates of poverty and unemployment? ACHILOV: When compared to its regional oil-rich Arab peers, Syria is relatively poor with a lackluster economic performance. With high unemployment, poverty and booming young population, the Syrian economy suffers from unsustainable growth. Syria had become a heavily indebted country in the Middle East by 2003, the bulk of which was forgiven on many occasions by international creditors (mainly Europe and Russia). Indeed, the low socio-economic status of many Syrians surely contributes to the current unrest in Syria.

IBT: Assad was educated in the West and seems to have a very western bearing. Or is this an illusion hiding that face that he is committed to maintaining a corrupt and repressive regime? ACHILOV: Educated in the West, Bashar Al-Assad experienced the western democratic institutions firsthand and does not need to be lectured about democratic governance. He is married to Asma Al-Assad who was born and raised in the UK. In theory, they would make a great couple capable of instituting democratic institutions.

IBT: So, why don’t they bring democracy to Syria? ACHILOV: Two main factors help explain this: (1) pre-existing comfortable status quo that could ensure his rule (e.g., emergency law) – on the premise that this system worked for 30 years almost flawlessly, (2) pressure from his father’s loyalists (e.g., military generals) who supported Assad’s succession. Assad had no choice but to deal with the Alawite-dominated guardians of the regime. Assad has given many interviews to various international media outlets. At first glance, one can be impressed at his intellectual capacity: he often gives intelligent, politically-correct, yet highly evasive answers.For instance, in his interview with ABC News in 2007, he argued that “democracy in the West evolved slowly over a long period of time. By the same token, you cannot expect to see abrupt changes to build democracy quickly in Syria. It is a matter of time. We need to change our customs and habits first.”

One can draw an objective conclusion that Assad did not undertake any meaningful reforms. Rather, he continued the legacy of his father by consolidating his autocratic rule.

IBT: The Syrian government had had emergency laws since 1963 under the pretext that is faces threats from Israel and terrorists groups. But what is the real reason behind the emergency? ACHILOV: Syria is still officially in the state of war with Israel. But this has been used as a pretext to maintain Assad’s autocratic regime. Dictators need to have a common enemy in order to justify their policies and unite the public around the dictator to fight this common enemy. In Syria’s case, Hafez and Bashar Al-Assed used two major common enemies: (1) Israel and its western conspirators, and (2) the threat of rising Islamic radicalism (targeted to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood). As a pretext, the emergency law came in handy to maintain the dictatorial regime.

IBT: The protesters in Syria have not called for Assad’s resignation (yet). Why? ACHILOV: We are witnessing the unrest that is unfolding as we speak. As the opposition forces gain momentum, I think it is a matter of time before we start hearing direct calls for Assad’s resignation or holding fair Presidential elections. Looking forward, numerous protests are being planned for forthcoming Friday prayers by the opposition forces. But the road will be rocky and difficult. As the time goes by, people will realize that for any meaningful democratic reforms to occur, the regime change is necessary.

IBT: Do Islamists or Kurds pose any danger to the ruling Ba’ath Party? ACHILOV: The largest opposition group is the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. It is banned, thus operates abroad. Islamist political structures (e.g., MB) pose the real danger to Arab socialist and secular parties. The Kurdish minority ( less than 10 percent of the population) is not an immediate threat to regime. At least not directly. Nonetheless, having experienced widespread discrimination by the Baathist regime, the Kurds will likely support the mounting opposition in the republic. However, the situation for Kurds is complicated: they denounce both the Baathist regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. They want a federal government with regional autonomy. Given the current political trajectory, the Kurds may be more inclined to enter a dialogue with the MB to discuss the future.

IBT: Assuming Assad lifts the emergency laws and provides some more civil liberties, will that be enough to appease the protesters? ACHILOV: In the long run, it will not be enough. When dealing with autocratic regimes, it becomes even harder to forecast the odds of regime change (due to high volatility of dictators’ calculations, actions and the levels of growing grievances of the public). Yet, we can identify some patterns based on the current political trajectory. Assad is to set up a judicial committee which will review the current emergency laws and offer an alternative solution by April 25. Provided that Assad lifts the emergency law s and starts promoting civil liberties in real terms, this may win him time. But in the long run, it will not be sufficient. In my opinion, Assad has two options: (1) launching massive – genuine- reforms to promote civil liberties and political rights, or (2) defying protests by employing his iron-fist to maintain his grip on power (maintain the status quo). Both options may ultimately oust him from power.

IBT: How can we know when meaningful reforms and civil liberties are implemented in Syria? ACHILOV: I think one critical measure is the “toleration of the opposition” in parliament. As long as opposition parties are banned, no democratic reform will be meaningful or successful. As the opposition forces gain momentum, it is more likely that Syrians will demand wider access to free, fair and frequent elections in near future.

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