June 21st, 2011
12:51 PM ET

Why the odds are against the protesters in Syria

The Arab Spring has now turned into summer and the avalanche of images and analysis out of Egypt has turned into a slow trickle out of Syria. That's because Syria, vitally important, is all but closed off to outsiders.

My guest this past Sunday was Fawaz Gerges.  He managed to get deep inside that nation in revolt. Fawaz Gerges is the Director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. He joined me from Beirut to offer a sobering analysis of why Bashar al-Assad is likely to hold on to power in Syria.

Here's a transcript of our conversation:

ZAKARIA: Fawaz, what is the – what was your first reaction being in Syria, what is your sense of the mood?

GERGES: Well, Fareed, the situation is very fluid. It's a very, very confusing situation.

I have spoken to schools of Syrians in Syria and in Lebanon over the last one week or so, and the country seems to be deeply divided. It's divided along class line. There is decadent wealth and abject poverty. It's divided along sectarian lines.

But the big point here to highlight, Fareed, is that the protests in Syria are not as thick and large as some of the protests that we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. The reality is, is that the Assad regime retains a solid social base of support. If you ask me to put a number on this social base of support, I would say the regime has about 40 percent of supporters. And in the last two weeks or so, the regime has mobilized its followers and basically it's flagging national sentiments about the flag and the army as the guardian of the nation.

ZAKARIA: Fawaz, it sounds like what you're describing is a regime that will be able to crush these protests, if it has a base of support that is not insignificant, whether it's 40 percent or even if 30 percent, it has the army. It has the will to use very lethal force. Do you see it being able to ride out this protest movement?

GERGES: I would say the odds are against the protesters. The regime not only has a solid social base of support, but also has the support of the security forces and the army. Despite some reports of minor mutinies, individual officers, there are no credible reports about larger scale mutiny in the army and the security forces.

And also, as you said, the regime itself has the will and in order to really survive and basically fight it out. The fear is that given the polarization in Syria, given the socioeconomic and the sectarian and ideological divide, I would argue that Syria faces very difficult days ahead. We're talking about low-intensity conflict as opposed to regime change along the lines of Tunisia and Egypt. The regime will be able to weather this powerful storm.

My take on it is that it will emerge weaker. And it also will be much more dependent on Iran. One of the major I think results of what has happened in the last few weeks in Syria is that Syria has lost Turkey. The relationship between Turkey and Syria has been and was strategic. President Assad nourish a very close relationship with the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. Erdogan, as you all know, has been very critical of Syria. He in fact reprimanded the Syrian regime for the divide, the gap between its rhetoric (ph) and actions publicly.

And this particular loss of Turkey, which has really been the foundation of Assad's geo strategic relationship will make Syria much more dependent on Iran in the next few months and next few years ahead.

ZAKARIA: And what does this – this mean for the United States? The United States government has been careful on Syria while it clearly doesn't like the Assad regime and clearly seems to sympathize with the protest movements, it has not publicly called for the resignation of Assad for a transition to democracy, partly I gather because it feels as though it might not succeed and it will be inciting people to – to revolt and then be crushed.

Is the American strategy in your opinion the right one?

GERGES: I think so. I think the United States, the Obama administration finds itself between a rock and a harder place. I think the administration would like the Syrian regime to open up the closed, authoritarian political space and basically put an end to the one-party rule in Syria.

But the reality is the United States knows very well that Syria is a very complex society, that Syria is a very divided society, that the Assad regime is deeply entrenched and the security forces support the Assad regime. And I think the United States, as I understand, is also very concerned about the sectarian divide in Syria and the potential repercussions into Lebanon in particular.

I can tell you, I live – my family lives, Fareed, about 15 minutes from the Syrian borders. And Lebanon now, if you really want to understand what's happening in Syria, Lebanon is as deeply divided about the Syrian situation. Many Lebanese are deeply concerned that basically Syria plunging into conflict will likely plunge Lebanon into all-out sectarian conflict as well.

ZAKARIA: Fawaz, did you ever feel in danger when you were there?

GERGES: I did not really. I traveled as a local as you know, you know, by the crossing in Northern Lebanon as a local, and, no, I did not because I – I did not travel as a journalist. I have crossed into Syria many times. I don't need a visa.

And what's really amazing, Fareed, if you drive and you don't see any military presence even though I understand you have tens of thousands of security personnel, civilians basically all over the place. The reality is, Fareed, there is trouble in Syria. Syria is divided.

There are protests in Syria, but the protests are not as thick and large as the protests that we have seen in many parts of the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt. They're isolated. You're talking about thousands of protesters as opposed to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. And we can explain why. You have multiple factors, many factors that explain the lack of the huge crowds that we have not seen in Syria today.

ZAKARIA: A fascinating account, Fawaz, of a Syria that perhaps will endure, the regime will endure, but weaken with lower-intensity conflict and, of course, the loss of a very crucial ally in Turkey. Thank you for all of that.

Post by:
Topics: Syria

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Imad

    This is very close to reality.I am a Syrian living in the UK.I visited the country a month ago and noticed that a big portion of the society is against the protests. Some because they ginuenly support the regime but the majority they do not like the protests because they are concerned about the end results. The majority of Syrians feel that the protests are driven from outside powers rather than a real desire by the people. This is a marked difference from what happened in Egypt and Tunisia.

    June 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Mahmood

      The role of the military is the only difference between revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia versus Yemen Libya and now Syria. In Yemen and Libya, Ghaddafi and Saleh have their sons in charge of the strongest brigades responsible for oppressing the uprise. In Syria, it is Maher, Bashar's brother, in charge of this torture. Vast majority of Syrians aspire for a democraticly elected government chosen by the people to serve the people. Unfortunately, like Fawwaz said, a low intensity conflict is the likely outcome, before an armed revolution plunges the country into civil war. We had a bloody civil war in this country before we earned our freedom.....the syrians have to earn their freedom – noone is going to hand it to them

      June 21, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      "This is very close to reality.I am a Syrian living in the UK.I visited the country a month ago and noticed that a big portion of the society is against the protests. Some because they ginuenly support the regime but the majority they do not like the protests because they are concerned about the end results".
      Imad, if it's true that many Syrians are against the protests, which is their right and I understand their anger and concern Yet these ongoing protests had also disclosed the true face of Assad's regime, which is a police-state, short of a totalitarian one.

      June 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Wael

      This is not true. The majority of Syrians do NOT like the regime and they sympathize with the freedom protestors. We all know the fear the brutal regime inspires. People still can't say what's in their minds for fear of reprisals. Whatever the outcome is, it's better than this barbaric sectarian regime that treats its citizens like animals. The only sections of the population that sympathize with the regime are minorities (who collectively make up may be 20%) who are afraid to lose their preferential treatment at the expense of the Sunni majority.

      June 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
      • ghassan

        It is like this. People are with the protesr, but they are afraid of the brutality of the syrian security forces. The government id doing a sneaky activities to make people afraid of the changes........smugling through the border is government business everyday.

        June 26, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  2. John

    Syrian Protests; A Lost Cause or the Growing Pains of Democracy?... http://t.co/MC8zN8Z

    June 21, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  3. Palchy

    Here's an idea – why dont we just go into Syria like Libya & try to topple the government? After all – apparently we dont need congressional approval – just go in unilaterally like GWB. Oh That's right – GWB got overwhelming support from congress to use force. I forgot.

    June 21, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  4. Joseph

    Syria's regime is a sectarian apartheid state where Alawis make up the bulk of the security apparatus and the well financed/armed divisions in the military, in addition to gaining the best positions in government institutions, universities, scholarships, loans, commerce, etc. The Sunni majority became second class citizens. Syria has been undergoing systematic and forced transfer of wealth from Sunnis to Alawis in the past 4 decades to the extent that the majority of Syria's poor are Sunni. This regime cannot last. It will fall, regardless of what Gerges, a regime sympathizer for sectarian reasons, predicts.

    June 21, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  5. Alan Bernstein

    Assad may hang on for a while, but he will never sit surely in the saddle as in the past. How much does it cost to keep the lid on an unhappy populace? Eventually, the cost of oppression will leave the country bankrupt. How can you keep control when you can't pay your minions?

    June 21, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  6. FennecFox

    Gerges, an intellectual close to the Assad regime, repeats the regime's own defenses. While he is right on the possible evolvement of the protests into a low-intensity conflict, he errs on his assessment of the survivability of the regime. For those who need to know why Assad's rule is finished should read Peter Harlings's analysis in Le Monde (in French) on the seismic change that has taken place in Syria over the past four decades since the Assads came to power. As professor Hanna Batatu thoroughly explained in his sociopolitical masterpiece on Syria (Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics (Princeton University Press, 1999)), the Baath party, and through it the Assads, came to power on a strong rural peasant base that disempowered the urban elites who dominated Syria's politics in the first half of the 20th century. But the Assad family and its leadership that moved to Damascus were slowly coopted and domesticated by the urban merchant classes. Together they formed a new urban ruling elite that enjoys the advantages garnered from populating the state bureaucracy, controlling the army and monopolizing the economy - to the loss of the rural multitudes who were left to simmer in abject poverty and to be further antagonized by the clueless but brutal security services. To counter their dwindling base, the Assads increasingly turned to sectarianism, drawing on the sympathies and fears of their Alawite community, while trying to sow fear and division in Syria’s other sects, especially the Sunnis who form almost 80% of Syria’s population (when you include the Kurds who are Sunnis).

    But any careful reading of Syria’s history will tell you that whoever loses the countryside loses Syria. It is actually remarkable that the uprising in the countryside is still largely peaceful. This is probably because much of the revolt is still directed by young urbanites who are trying hard to follow the Egyptian example. But sooner or later, the peasants would reach the point where they decide to resort to arms in the face of the unrelenting violence from the regime and it will be open-ended civil war. If that happens, the regime cannot last long and here is why. The loyal security services are already stretched across Syria, and Assad cannot rely on the army too much because most if its rank and file are Sunnis (mostly from the Sunni board in the north east which is tribally affiliated with the Sunni triangle in Iraq), and it probably will disintegrate under real confrontation with the population. Assad cannot rely on the 10% Christians or the 3% Druze to defend him when push comes to shove; most likely they will stay out of any real struggle to safeguard their future. The merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo are fickle and docile and would never make much in a real confrontation (They have already moved their money outside the country in preparation for flight). Moreover, while the Assads enjoyed their easy life in Damascus over the past four decades, rural Syria, beset by droughts and lack of jobs, came to settle around the cities, hence the active ring of revolt surrounding Damascus and Aleppo: sprawling shanty towns housing about three millions of disgruntled Syrians around each of the two cities. Over the last three months of revolt, a sectarian realignment has taken place in those areas and the Alawites, who for the most part still belong to the poor peasants but are afraid of retribution by the Sunni majority, have begun to withdraw to safer areas in the west of Damascus or further afield to their mountain villages in Syria’s heartland. The regime’s future is grim: more brute force will further infuriate the peasants, alienate the army, and allow the revolutionaries more inroads into its own Alawite base; less force will only embolden the opposition into larger and larger crippling demonstrations. Assad is doomed. The best scenario is for the Assads to arrange their own exit from power in an orderly fashion to save family and friends and avoid a blood bath that could see the Alawites decimated in Syria.

    June 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • Wasabiwahabi

      Evolvement? Do you mean 'evolution?" Survivability? Do you mean 'viability?'
      "The regime’s future is grim: more brute force will further..." Hey, wind-bag, you need a semicolon, not a colon, to join two independent clauses. Get to the point, next time. Can the verbosity. "Laconic." Look it up.

      June 25, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
  7. Aboud

    It seems that Mr Gerges never saw anything of the protests in Hama, which for the past three weeks has turned out protests numbering in the tens of thousands. Where the overstretched security forces are absent, protestors come out in massive numbers, as happened in Dar'a and Telkelakh before the army was sent in.

    Three months ago, outsiders like Mr Gerges were predicting that Bashar would escape the winds of change blowing in the region, and that protests in Syria were out of the question. One month into the protests, and the same experts were predicting that the regime would crush the protests within two weeks.

    We are now in day 102 of the Syrian revolution, despite a brutal and murderous crackdown by the regime. It says alot about the bravery and courage of the Syrian people, that the revolution has gained momentum despite everything the regime has thrown at it.

    June 26, 2011 at 4:05 am |
    • Wasabiwahabi

      "protests in Hama, which for the past three weeks has turned out" Plural subject (protests) with singular verb (has.) It's called subject-verb agreement. Let's watch our grammar, please.

      June 26, 2011 at 8:17 am |
      • Eponine Enjolras

        Monsieur Wasabiwahabi,
        As much as I enjoy your interest and zeal on grammar and punctuation inaccuracies, is not the true debate here intended to be focused on the dissidents of Syria? These people have a great and noble cause; a chance to free their country from an oppressing rule that I believe the peoples of Syria should be passionate in eradicating themselves of! I am poignant to hear that not all of the Syrian public is participating in this quest for freedom; though to expect everyone to feel the same way on such a serious and personal matter, I concur would be illogical, however just the cause may or may not be. And as a final word to you, Wasabiwahabi, I am interested to know what your political opinion is on the matter, for all you have deigned to inscribe up to this point is elementary mistakes in participating poster’s efforts to contribute.

        July 25, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
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