Syria at the Crossroads
CAS’ Norton sees tragic ending ahead
On Monday, in the face of deepening internal strife and mounting international pressure, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria took to the television airwaves and spoke to his restive nation for the first time in two months, pledging change. But critics say the speech lacked specifics, at best offering vague deadlines for reforms.
Assad, who has been in charge for the past 11 years, alluded to loosening the grip of the ruling Baath party, which, through his family, has monopolized power for more than four decades. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, but have been ruled by the minority Alawite sect to which Assad and his kin belong.
In March, protests broke out in the southern part of the country when several young teenagers, inspired by the so-called Arab Spring, scrawled antigovernment graffiti. They were arrested and beaten, unleashing a collective pent-up outrage. Assad has since made some concessions, most notably lifting the state-of-emergency law that was put into place in 1963.
But with ongoing arrests, protesters consider the move an empty gesture. Human rights groups say at least 1,400 civilians have been killed in antiregime demonstrations since March, along with more than 300 soldiers and police. Some 10,000 Syrian refugees have fled across the Turkish border, and Turkish officials say another 10,000 have taken shelter on the Syrian side. Turkey, the United States, and the European Union continue to impose and expand sanctions against Syria.
“I really think the regime has outlived its legitimacy by a significant margin,” says Middle East expert Augustus Richard Norton, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and anthropology and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Norton’s books include Hezbollah: A Short History, the two-volume collection Civil Society in the Middle East, and Amal and the Shi’a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon. His recent articles have appeared in Current History, Foreign Policy, International Spectator, Journal of Palestine Studies, Middle East Journal, The Nation, and in leading newspapers. BU Today spoke with Norton, who has been blogging regularly about the Arab Spring since it began blooming several months ago.
BU Today: What was your reaction to Assad’s speech on Monday?
Norton: It seems to me that there’s nothing new. There were several elements to the speech. One was a refusal to acknowledge that there’s any sort of legitimate reform demands, that the people carrying out the demonstrations are renegades, vandals, and so on. Number two, there are vague promises of reform. For example, Assad talks about the possibility of constitutional reform, but there’s no idea how that really is going to proceed. He’s also reiterated the promise that people who return to the villages won’t be attacked, but those have proved to be hollow promises so far. There’s an allusion to broadening the amnesty for political purposes, but again that’s vague. So you have these up-in-the-clouds promises, but nothing really substantive to give any of the demonstrators confidence that there’s something real here in terms of the prospects for reform.
What about his lifting of the longtime state-of-emergency law?
That was done weeks ago and it had no effect. People are still being arrested without warrants. There are thousands of young people arrested with no charges, no legal procedures that seem recognizable by any sort of standard that we would understand. So in fact, the emergency laws are still very much in place. And the absence of legal protection is still very much a fact.
The unrest in Syria began several months ago. Why is it now on the front pages?
What’s happened is that the demonstrations have really spread across the country. Initially, they began in a region of southern Syria known as the Hauran region and particularly in the town of Daraa. What kicked it off is that a number of boys, 13- and 14-year-old kids, were arrested by the authorities for posting antiregime graffiti that made allusions to the demonstrations going on elsewhere in the Arab world. These kids were arrested and mistreated. Their parents demanded that they be released, and eventually they were. But their initial demands were met with really arrogant responses by the regime. It was reported, for example, that one of the intelligence officers said to the parents, “Just go make more kids. And if you can’t make more, we’ll make them for you.”
What do the protesters want?
I think the first is economic demands. Syria is a relatively poor country. It’s not as though people are starving to death, but people are really struggling. And there’s a lot of corruption, which you would expect in any system where there’s very little ability to challenge the authorities. In addition, there are demands that the dignity of the citizens be respected, and this involves how the police—and particularly the intelligence services and secret police—interact with the population. And there is a deep-seated sense in Syria that it is basically inequitable that a small minority should dominate privilege and access to power.
How is the military handling the crisis?
The regime is facing an interesting situation, because one of the things that happened in the north is the defections from the army. There were a number of soldiers killed, and this was blamed on renegades and hoodlums, but the reports seem to verify that you basically had a mutiny of rank-and-file soldiers who said they weren’t going to fire on their own countrymen. What this shows is that while the Syrian military is relatively large, there are only some selected units that are 100 percent dependable, particularly the presidential guard, which is commanded by Assad’s brother.
What are the implications of the ongoing unrest in Syria?
The reverberations of the continuing unrest in Syria, and particularly the reverberations if the Assad regime falls, which is certainly possible, are profound. The effect on Lebanon would be very important. Syria has had a lot of influence on Lebanon, particularly in the late 1980s up until the exit of Syrian forces in 2005. They still maintain very strong ties with many politicians in Syria.
Syria is on the border with Iraq, and the possibility that Syrian Kurds might gain more autonomy will enliven the response in Iraq, as well. And if there’s a period of extended instability in which there’s no effective government in Damascus, you can imagine the fragmentation of the state. You can imagine the failed state syndrome in which various terrorist groups could find refuge in Syria.
What does all this mean for the United States?
The argument the Assad regime has made is that it is capable of negotiating a deal in the Arab-Israeli conflict, whereas public sentiment in Syria would be against that. I don’t really buy that. I think with a new regime in Syria, which would need external support and assistance, you might actually have a beneficial position. But the United States has very little influence on the situation. We have very little direct trade with Syria. Syria’s most important economic relationships are in the region and in Europe, not the United States. I think U.S. policy makers are surprised every time they look at the question and come to the realization that we really don’t have much influence.
If you were to advise Assad, what would you say?
His calculation is that making important concessions is a sign of weakness. That certainly appears to be the counsel he’s getting from his brother, who commands the presidential guard, and his brother-in-law, who is the intel guy. But I think that has proved not to be a very successful path to follow. I don’t think the regime has any choice but to embark on a serious path of reform. And that has to be premised on a real lifting of emergency laws. It has to be premised on a respect for the rights of citizens.
I think this has a very tragic ending, to be honest. I don’t hear any voices that have influence in Syria counseling what I would argue is a wiser path. When these authoritarian regimes attempt to reform, it’s usually the most dangerous times of the regime. They often unleash forces that they can’t control, and the process moves a lot more quickly than they can imagine. We saw that in the case of the earlier generation of authoritarian changes in Latin America, for example.
How has social media shaped the situation?
What’s happened in Tunisia and in Egypt, and to an extent in Libya and elsewhere, has been a demonstration to people in Syria that they can really change the regime. People have been very hungry for a model for change and now they have it. Thanks to media access, even though it’s much restricted under the Assad regime, people have real-time knowledge about what’s going on elsewhere. And that’s positively potent. If you go back to 1982, when the regime savagely suppressed the uprising in Hama and killed, by some estimates, over 10,000 people, there was very little knowledge of what actually went on. People knew horrible things had happened, but there was very little specific information. There were precious few pictures. So the evidence of regime atrocities has been very powerful as an incentive for people not to go back to their homes but to continue protesting. It sure changes the dynamic of the protest.
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at email@example.com Comments