Egypt Protests: Is Syria next?

The incredible scenes in Egypt today have led several commentators to speak of a possible ‘domino effect’ in other Arab authoritarian regimes. I have long written about this phenomenon and am not surprised that events in Tunisia have spread to Egypt and beyond. Arab identity remains important in the region, recently buoyed by the internet and satellite television like Al-Jazeera, and the impact of Arabs in one country successfully overthrowing a dictator can inspire other Arabs still suffering under authoritarian rule elsewhere. Whilst it is still far from certain that ‘regime change’ will occur in Egypt, many are already suggesting Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria are the next candidates for similar transformations. Lets examine Syria in particular and consider the likelihood of it following Tunisia and (possibly) Egypt.

The case for the Syrian domino falling

Syria shares many characteristics with Egypt that might suggest Bashar al-Assad could suffer the same (possible) fate as Mubarak. It too is effectively a one party state, ruled by the Ba’ath party since 1963. Like the NDP in Egypt, the Ba’ath has lost any of its original ideological motivations and primarily acts as a defender of the status quo and the regime. Like the NDP ordinary Syrians resent (and privately mock) the party, which is seen as nepotistic, preferential and one of the few routes to personal advancement. Syria too suffers from terrible corruption that, as in Egypt, many resent. Syria recently finished near-bottom of the World Bank’s report on business-friendly countries. Figures related to the president or from his dominant Allawi sect, such as his cousin Rami Maklouf, own large companies many of which are granted government monopolies. On top of this, Syria like Egypt has its economic problems, with increasing numbers of people suffering from recent economic reforms that have cut previous subsidies on basics such as bread and oil and have left the poorest elements of society poorer. Unemployment is high too, though nowhere near the levels of Egypt.

The other major disadvantage for Syria is that its population, perhaps more than any others in the region, have been encouraged to feel a sense of Arab identity by the regime for decades. If the ‘democratic domino effect’ has an impact, it may well be felt extra strongly in Syria simply because there it will be harder for the regime to argue the Egyptians and Tunisians are somehow different to the Syrians, given they have been encouraging the reverse for generations. The sight of Egypt, ‘Umm Dunya (the mother of the world), becoming democratic could well encourage Syrians to demand the same.

The case against Syria being next

There are also key differences between Egypt/Tunisia and Syria that may cause events to unfold differently. One key difference is that President Bashar al-Assad is relatively popular. He is still seen as quite a new leader (having been in power 11 years as opposed to Mubarak’s 30 and Ben Ali’s 23) and is regarded as a moderate, approachable reformer. Assad successfully transcends resentment against ‘the government’ and ‘the party’ by most Syrians you speak to and retains a popular image of someone who is trying to reform Syria and move it forward but is held back by the ‘old Guard’ of his father’s regime. If any protests do occur in Syria it is quite possible that people will call on Bashar to reform the regime himself rather than step down.

In relation to this, Syria has another advantage that its foreign policy is relatively popular on the streets. The continued war with Israel is widely supported and the regime successfully exploits this to justify the lack of rights and democracy. Indeed, when there was last movement for greater openness, The Damascus Spring of 2000-01, ‘national security’ and the conflict with Israel were the primary reasons given by the regime to justify repression. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia had this escape clause.

Another keys difference is that the economic situation is nowhere near as bad as elsewhere. Whilst Syria is not a wealthy country and has a lower GDP per capita than its neighbours, wealth is more evenly spread and far fewer people live below the poverty line (11%) than in Egypt (20%), Jordan (14%) or Yemen (45%). Moreover, Syria has only just begun a process of economic reforms that many (though not the very poorest) are still hopeful about. Though Egyptians saw 30 years of capitalism and external investment not bringing them rewards, Syrians are relatively new to infitah and still see it as a progressive force rather than something to resent.

The army is also more closely tied to the ruling elite than in Egypt. Members of the ruling Allawi sect hold high positions in government, the party, the army, security forces and business. Whilst in Tunisia and Egypt the army are institutions that are to some extent apart from the ruling party, in Syria they are completely tied together. It seems highly unlikely that their loyalty to the regime will ever waver as was seen in Tunisia and seems to be happening in Egypt. Moreover, many of these Allawis fear their fate at the hands of the majority Sunni population if they lose power. Both Egypt and Tunisia lack these ethnic divisions that give the ruling elite even more reason to hold onto power.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Syria has far less civil society than either Egypt or Tunisia (or Jordan, Yemen and Algeria for that matter) and consequently it is harder to imagine how opposition would get organized. Recognizing just this kind of threat, Facebook was banned very early on in its existence, and the internet was allegedly shut down immediately on Friday’s day of anger in Egypt, even before there was even a whiff of copycat demonstrations in Damascus.  Similarly, unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, all trade unions (which played a significant role in Tunisia) are controlled by the regime, and most content in mosques is loyalist and controlled. Whilst the Syrian security services, like the Egyptians, could well prove itself unable to repulse mass demonstration that go on for days, it is hard to see how Syrians would be able to mobilize in the same way as their Egyptian and Tunisians cousins.

Conclusion: Bashar takes the lead?

All this suggests that Syria is unlikely to be the next domino to fall, even if Mubarak does end up losing power. Damascus will certainly be nervous, and would probably prefer Hosni to stay on his throne, but the threat of an immediate overspill seems limited. However, two things may change this scenario. Firstly, if all the other dominos fall. If Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria follow Tunisia, pressure will certainly increase and Syrians, even with their like of the President and their history of relative passivity, may start to feel inspired to challenge the government if not Assad directly himself. Moreover, if those regime changes lead to stable, successful, largely democratic governments over the next few months, the pressure will be even greater. This will especially be so if they provide locations for free press where Syrian opposition can publish and have a voice closer to home than their current exile in London and Washington.

A second scenario, as optimistically suggested by Brian Whitaker today, is that Bashar will use his relative popularity and reformist credentials to bring change himself before he is pushed. This seems unlikely but if the ‘old guard’ and anti-democrats in his regime can be persuaded that the alternative is to be hounded out to Saudi Arabia like Ben Ali’s cronies, a period of limited reform – perhaps ending the state of emergency and allowing for more open parliamentary elections – is not totally inconceivable.

All of this is still up in the air, and until things settle in Egypt and Tunisia, who knows where things will lead. Today’s events have certainly changed things. How much is still to be seen.

The Tunisian Revolution (?)

Some great pieces have been written about events in Tunis this past week. Some, such as Robert Fisk are extremely skeptical of the outcome, whilst others have been more optimistic about a knock-on effect in the rest of the Arab world. The pick of the bunch is Mark LeVine’s piece on al-Jazeera suggesting what the US could and should do to ensure this is no flash in the pan and leads to a genuine democratic revolution:

While the United States and the international community should not directly intervene unless the military begins killing or arresting large numbers of people, there are a number of steps Obama could take immediately to ensure that this nascent democratic moment takes root and spreads across the region.

First, the President should not merely urge free and fair elections. He must publicly declare that the United States will not recognise, nor continue security or economic relations, with any government that is not democratically elected through international monitored elections. At the same time, he must freeze any assets of Tunisia’s now ex-leadership and hold them until they can be reclaimed by the Tunisian people.

Second, he should declare that the young people of Tunisia have shown the example for the rest of the Arab world, and offer his support for a “Jasmin Spring” across the Arab world. Obama should demand that every country in the region free all political prisoners, end all forms of censorship and political repression, and fully follow international law in the way they treat their citizens or the people’s under their jurisdictions.

Furthermore, the President should call on every country in the region to move towards free, fair, and internationally monitored elections within a specified time or risk facing a similar cut-off of ties, aid and cooperation. Such demands must be made together with America’s reluctant European allies.

Other articles worth a look so far are:

March Lynch on the impact of new media.

Christopher Alexander on why Ben Ali fell.

Mona Eltahawy on the revolutionary potential of the events.

Hesitant They Stand – Syria and the US

My latest article in the Majalla. Published 17th January 2011:

Hesitant They Stand: The Obama Administration’s ambivalent relationship with Syria

By Christopher Phillips

Established when Syria was still part of the Ottoman Empire, relations between the US and the Levant country have been as influential for the Middle East’s stability as they have been problematical. After a historic low-point, which led the Bush administration to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus, hopes to reset the past and start over arose with the Obama administration. Yet, nearly two years on skepticism has returned to Syria, amidst increasing tension in the region.

Like so many others, Syria welcomed Barack Obama’s accession to the presidency in January 2009 as a chance to reset its relationship with the United States. The previous Bush administration had seen bilateral ties between the two states plunge to new depths, with Washington imposing sanctions, withdrawing its ambassador and American forces even raiding Syrian territory from Iraq. Obama’s more positive approach was therefore greeted optimistically by President Bashar Al-Assad. Within a month of his inauguration, the 44 President appointed a new ambassador for Damascus and by June Middle East special envoy George Mitchell visited the Syrian capital, the highest-ranking US official for a decade. Against the backdrop of Obama’s address in Cairo in the Summer of 2009, and his renewed drive for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, hopes were high for a genuine thaw between Washington and Damascus.

Yet nearly two years on skepticism has returned to Syria. The promised new era of US engagement increasingly looks like a false dawn. Regionally, a failure to make any real progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has already lost the administration much credibility. Whilst Damascus welcomed Washington’s tough stance on Israeli settlements, Obama’s subsequent climb-down on the issue under pressure from pro-Israeli elements in Congress has raised questions over his ability to be an impartial mediator. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent refusal of a substantial arms package in exchange for a mere 90 day settlement freeze in an attempt to revive the peace talks has only served to humiliate the American President in Arab eyes.

In Syria Obama’s declining credibility has been further undermined by his ambivalent relationship with Damascus. On the one hand, high level diplomats such as Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffery Feltman and Senator John Kerry have made regular visits to the Syrian capital, a significant departure from the diplomatic boycott initiated by George W. Bush. On the other hand, key figures in the administration including Feltman and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been vocal at times in their criticism of Syria, most notably in accusing Damascus of arming Hezbollah.

Obama’s domestic political concerns have complicated matters further. Pro-Israel politicians on Capitol Hill successfully pressured the President to renew economic sanctions on the Ba’ath regime in May 2010. The same group also delayed the confirmation of Obama’s new ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, following Tel Aviv’s unsubstantiated claims that Syria had supplied Hezbollah with SCUD missiles. This deadlock was only broken in the Christmas 2010 recess, when the White House used a legal loophole to appoint Ford in a temporary position, a decision that could be overturned by the incoming Republican Congress within the year.

Yet as Washington’s ambivalence to Syria has faltered along, Damascus has strengthened its bilateral ties elsewhere. Partly as a product of the near decade of Bush-led isolation, and partly due to President Assad finally finding his diplomatic touch, Syria is now in a strong international position despite American indecision. Assad has patched up his relations with the major Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia, after they had fallen out over Lebanon in 2005. He has similarly forged an alliance with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which has led to significant economic, political and military cooperation. The EU has ignored Washington’s caution and, led by France, offered Syria a long-awaited European Neighborhood Policy Association Agreement. On top of this, after a decade of stagnation, the economic reforms of Assad’s deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari are finally taking effect and the Syrian economy has shown consistent growth of over 4 percent in the last 3 years. Syria has thus maneuvered itself into a position where poor relations with America no longer have the crippling effect they once did. Sanctions and diplomatic scorn continue to be a nuisance they would prefer to avoid, but Washington’s leverage has been considerably undermined by its regional impotence on Israel-Palestine and Damascus’ diplomatic and economic success elsewhere.

2011 thus begins with US-Syrian relations a little better than they had been under Bush, but certainly nowhere near the full reset that Damascus and some in the Obama administration had hoped for. Moreover, there is little to suggest that relations will improve markedly in the coming year. Tensions over Lebanon look likely to increase with the results of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)—investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri—pending. Whilst Syria is now expected to avoid being implicated, most anticipate the indictment of its close ally Hezbollah, prompting a political crisis in Beirut. With much of Damascus’ recent rehabilitation within the international community resting on its perceived influence in stabilizing Lebanon, were its western neighbor to erupt into sectarian violence it is unlikely that Syria would standby. This could once again provoke the wrath of Washington which has long protested Syria’s meddling in Lebanon.

Similarly, the future of Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s reaction to it could prove an area of potential US-Syria difference. Should Israel lose patience with international mediation efforts and attack Iran’s nuclear facilities itself, another war between Tel Aviv and Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, is a real possibility. Alternatively, the IDF may strike South Lebanon preemptively. Whilst a recent WikiLeaks document suggested that Damascus is reluctant to join any war with Iran against Israel, an Israeli strike on Hezbollah may draw in Syria against its will. Indeed, other cables released by WikiLeaks suggested that the IDF already had plans to bomb a Syrian arms depot in the event of war with Hezbollah, as a warning against future arms supplied by Damascus to the Shia militia.

Syrian-US relations in the coming year may therefore be determined by Washington’s ability to influence its allies in Tel Aviv. Pro-Israel elements on Capitol Hill seem reluctant to allow Obama any Syria policy that is not tied to Israel and with the new Republican Congress determined to spoil White House policy, this trend looks set to continue. Much will thus rest on Obama’s determination to reign in any Israeli designs on a renewed conflict with Hezbollah, or to make a new drive for peace on the Palestinian or even Syrian track. Whilst Syria has maneuvered itself into a position where it can cope without strong relations with the US, that won’t prevent it from being reluctantly embroiled in a new conflict with Israel should one erupt. Once again, the emphasis is on President Obama to move things forward before they slide back into the abyss.