April 26th, 2011
11:45 AM ET

Why Syria is descending into civil war

Editor’s Note: The following is an edited portion of an interview with Joshua Landis, author of the blog Syria Comment and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Assad moves from promising reform to unleashing violence

In his speech to parliament on April 16, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad drew a line in the sand. He said ‘I’ve given you all these concessions’ and he enumerated them - a new government, lifting emergency rules and the end of the security courts – ‘so there should now be no more demonstrations.’ But the movement didn't stop.  In fact, it transcended the demand for reform and became a call for regime change.

So Assad redefined the protestors.  He and the Baath Party began to call the protests a ‘rebellion’ and the protestors ‘terrorists’.

In the subsequent days, Bashar al-Assad sought to ‘shock and awe’ the protestors through violence. He took a page right out of any standard military handbook, which is that if you go fast and strong you have better luck at stopping protests before bloodshed gets out of hand.

But Assad cannot win over the long-term

But even if Bashar al-Assad wins in the short-term and the opposition can't mount the sort of operation necessary to overturn him and take on the military, the opposition is not going to give up. It’s going to continue to demonstrate. And we’re probably going to see the arming of the opposition groups.

All of this is going to undermine the economic footing of the regime.  Syria’s economy is already extraordinarily weak.  We’re seeing massive unemployment. 32% of Syrians live on $2.00 a day or less. The young people are the ones who are turning out in big numbers for these demonstrations.

The country is midway on its move away from socialism toward an open market system. Syria has instituted a stock market, a bond market, a private banking system and insurance companies - the whole gamut of free-market reforms.

These were supposed to stimulate the economy and place Syria on a new footing that would create jobs and begin to mop up some of its large unemployment problem created by the youth bulge and by an economy that’s been anemic for decades.

Attracting foreign investment and growing tourism and transit trade were key to that economic growth plan. But none of those things are going to materialize now. That means that the regime is going to be able to provide less and less of the things that it needs to provide to stay in power. There is going to be a grinding disintegration of the state’s ability to provide services for its people.

The middle class will abandon Assad as the economy weakens

Currently, the broad middle class in Syria is still sticking with the regime. But the broad middle class, particularly the urban middle class in places like Damascus, has stayed home. They have not come out and joined the movement. There has been no Tahrir Square moment in this uprising. That’s because the middle class fears a civil war and because some of them have vested interests in the state.

Over time, that middle class will begin to abandon the government once it begins failing economically. If there’s no foreign investment and there’s no tourism and nobody’s bills are being paid, the whole economy will begin to freeze up.

That’s what all my businessmen friends are saying: they’re not getting any checks in the door because everybody is holding their cash and because they don’t know what’s going to happen. You can't run a country like that.

American sanctions will hurt Assad

The U.S. is going to be driven by ideology on this - to support the Arab Spring and freedom and democracy. That means placing sanctions, withdrawing embassy staff and trying to isolate Syria and undermine the regime diplomatically.

But this doesn’t mean democracy in Syria. It means a collapse of the state and probably a civil war.

America is not going to be willing to send in any military. So this puts America in a rather bad position of kicking out the supports of the present state without being willing to build up any alternative.

A sectarian civil war could start

Over time the opposition groups will begin to go to arms.  There are arms in Syria.  There are also arms in Iraq and Lebanon, along with smuggling rings that have been operating in Syria for decades.

We saw how porous the Iraqi border with Syria was during America’s invasion of Iraq. Al Qaeda and others were streaming across that border. Arms will go the other direction, undoubtedly, as well. All this will fuel a civil war that will be largely sect against sect - majority Sunnis against ruling minority Alawites.

Drawing on the diffused opposition

The great strength of the opposition today is it has no leadership, which means that the regime cannot arrest its leaders and stop it. The real leadership of the opposition are lots of young activists who are in their 20s and early 30s who are working the computers and also organizing on the ground, getting out these demonstrations. But there is no unified leadership that has common goals.

So far they’ve been able to stick with the notion of democracy and freedom as the major demands, which everybody can subscribe to whether they’re from the Muslim Brotherhood or they’re secular, Europeanized university graduates.

But if the state cracks down, as it’s doing now, it’s going to make it very hard to carry out demonstrations and the opposition is going to have to figure out what their next move is. Some will choose to go for a military option because that’s what they’re being met with.

The government is now trying to arrest leadership and it will go after networks and so forth but it will be hard because a lot of new networks have been established. This young generation has become organized.

The Syrian intelligence knows very little about this young generation. It never had to contend with the young generation, which was completely depoliticized a month ago.

Syrian intelligence dealt with the older generations - the old Communists and others - who they kept on throwing in the clink and then letting out every few years.  They played rope-a-dope with those guys. They knew where they lived and they were listening to their phones and they you knew they could roll them up easily.

This is a whole new world.  The opposition just blew up. Facebook, Twitter and the video effect have been monstrous. It’s mobilized this generation.  In three months that this Arab Spring has been going on, the Syrian younger generation has turned from being a rather apathetic crowd that were materialistic, uninterested in politics and atomized, to being deeply mobilized and galvanized around this movement.

Great consequences for the region

Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East. It has borders with most of America’s major allies in the region: Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and it might as well have one with Saudi Arabia because the Jordanian border is small in between those two. And it will be Saudis that undoubtedly fund much of the opposition as they did in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia will be sucked into this and it’ll be very torn because the monarchy does not want revolution in Syria by any means. It wants stability. But there will be many Saudis who see this as an opportunity to get rid of the Shiite regime that’s pro-Iranian and anti-Sunni.  They see the current regime as deeply heterodox and non-Muslim. So all the Wahabi instincts will be to bring down this regime.  The monarchical instincts will be to support it.

There aren't good outcomes for Assad because even if Assad manages to terrify the opposition to stop in the short-term, over the long-term it’s going to kill the economy, which was key to Assad’s plans because his mantra was that he was going to be like China and follow China’s model. He was going to keep one-party rule and he was going to liberalize the economy. But he was too little, too late.  He didn't create jobs. He didn't get growth up beyond five-percent.  That’s what he needed to do.

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Topics: Middle East • Security • Strategy • Syria • United States

soundoff (130 Responses)
  1. CharlieSeattle

    The Dictatorship is on the UN Human Rights Council, why don't their people respect and love them for it?

    Ungatefull I guess.

    May 16, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  2. Parichag

    Isn't it possible that the Syrian people are fed up with empty promises from Assad. Maybe they've simply waited and watched their parents say it will get better, and it never does. They can only blame the West and Israel so long. The truth is these young people have seen broken promises and have now seen the truth of the these broken promises, it is the regime that is at fault not the West, not Israel, not the Saudis. These young people need our support to try and open up discussions with the regime, not violence or conspiriitorial rantings.

    May 17, 2011 at 8:35 am |
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