Middle East

Syria's Arab Spring and Its Regional Impact

Syrian protesters shout slogans against President Bashar al-Assad in the Turkish coastal city of Antalya on June 2.

The wave of protests sweeping through the Arab world reached Syria. Snowballing demonstrations in major cities like Damascus, Dara'a, Bania and Homs, calling for greater freedoms, improvement in living standards and respect for human rights, triggered a disproportionate reaction from the Syrian security apparatus against protestors.

The Syrian regime's initial assessment that protests will not come at its doorstep were dashed, and therefore opted to project an image of strength and tight control as a means to hold on to power. The Syrian regime's early assuredness was based on two major policy pillars expected to deter protests in the country. The first was the precedent of Hama, and the second was a foreign policy close to the grassroots of the nation.

Specifically, Hama, the country's fourth-largest city, is well known for its uprising against the Syrian Baath State that climaxed in 1982 with the killing of 70 Baathist officials and caused the regime's strong response with a death toll ranging between 10,000 and 25,000, according to Amnesty International. The Syrian regime's violent crackdown in the city is known as the case of Hama. In fact, the case of Hama represents a precedence that the Syrian regime perceived it had seared into the collective consciousness of the Syrian public, therefore preventing regional protests.

Additionally, the Syrian regime assessed that its foreign policy would be more than enough to avert protests. Major components of Syrian foreign policy include (a) the Damascus constructive role in the post-Saddam Iraq in the security and humanitarian fields with the absorbance of more than 1.3 million Iraqi refugees, not an easy task for a country of 22 million; (b) the influential standing of Syria in any Arab-Israeli peace process that emanates from its significant leverage with organizations like Hamas; (c) the strategic partnership of Syria with Iran, which produced the organization of Hezbollah, founded through a mutual agreement to fight Israel; (d) the re-emergence of Syrian influence in Lebanon through its armed relationship with Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is a complex, multi-layered phenomenon. It is not the Shi'a form of al Qaeda. On one level, it is the manifestation of grassroots empowerment in Lebanon, which explains widespread Shi'ite support for the organization. Hezbollah can also be viewed as a military and ideological arm of Iran and the Iranian revolution in Lebanon. For this reason, Hezbollah is a problem for the Sunni Arab countries because it is a Shi'a power in the heart of the Arab world.

Additionally, Syria’s foreign policy includes (e) the conduct of indirect negotiations with Israel, even during the July 2006 Lebanon war. It is true that the confrontational relationship with Israel was not an obstacle for periodic secret Israeli-Syrian contacts. A case in point was the secret track of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad with the mediation of American millionaire Ron Lauder. As disclosed, Lauder presented Syria a document titled "Lauder in the name of the Prime Minister of Israel" on September 1998 that contained a proposal to discuss borders that would be based on the June 4, 1967 lines. And lastly, (f) Syria emerged from isolation due to Turkey's policy of "zero problems with neighbors" with regards not only to the Syrian-Israeli peace process and the resolution of intra-Arab affairs, but also to the development of extensive economic and political ties between the two countries.

That said, the bitter irony and the ultimate paradox for the Syrian regime is that the pursued foreign policy, while appreciated by the public, was not enough to deter protests from evolving. Today it has become evident that, politically, younger generations need oxygen, and thus cosmetic changes and minor reforms seem no longer sufficient. Syria is in dire need of major political, social and economic transformation.

Therefore, the Syrian president's speech at the parliament on March 30 fell short of expectations as it became obvious that it is highly unlikely to institute sweeping changes. The official position of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad supports that the Syrian society, like the majority of societies in the region, are experiencing a shift in political alignment to "conservatism.” Upon this basis, the process of political reforms according to Assad's perception is becoming difficult, as evidenced by the cases of countries like Lebanon and Algeria.

Specifically, according to the president’s perception, countries like Lebanon and Algeria that had strived for rapid reforms had set the stage only for conflict and social unrest. In the case of Algeria during the 1980s, Islamist groups sought to exploit the political opening of the government to gain power, and this undermined the internal stability and sparked conflict lasting decades. In Lebanon, the process of political reforms and the elections of May 29, 2005, had been the cause of the subsequent sectarian violence. Upon this perception, the Syrian president repeatedly supports that the country needs time to improve education and build institutions prior to democratizing its political system.

Upon this logic, only minor reforms, cosmetic changes and some kind of opening to the Sunni community were undertaken by the Syrian regime in the last decade. In 2005, President Assad, without any political discussion, decided to move towards what was viewed as economic liberalization. Such a step should have been linked to political reforms, but nothing of that happened.

Alleged systemic corruption in the regime led to an economic justification for the birth of powerful elites in the immediate entourage of the Syrian regime. Concurrently, the Syrian regime developed a push-pull dynamic during the last decade, with encouraging "moderate" Islamists on the one hand, while repressing what it perceived to be a threatening Islamist minority on the other. The regime took the strategic decision to play with the issue of Islam as it assessed that it was under threat and was willing to take serious risks to prevent former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam and Muslim Brotherhood leader Sadreddine Bayanouni from developing any traction in the Sunni community.

Regime outreach to the Islamic community in early 2006 included a presidential approval of a sharia law faculty at Aleppo University, the licensing of three Islamic banks, and allowing for the first time a prominent Islamic figure to lecture at the Higher Military Academy in Damascus. Specifically, the regime allowed moderate Islamic figure and member of Parliament Mohammed Habash to address the officers at the Higher Military Academy in Damascus, with the attendance of the minister of defense and the Grand Mufti as well as other religious figures.

In his speech, Habash called for a new political parties law that would permit the formation of Islamic parties. On a parallel track, the Syrian regime efforts pointed toward stepped-up measures to counter rising Islamist influence. Identically, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments (Awqaaf) issued a list of 10 restrictions on activities at mosques, limiting the hours of operation to times of prayer, preventing any unauthorized speakers or activities, including the collection of donations, and requiring the lowering of the volume of loudspeakers used in the calls to prayer.

Nowadays the domestic situation is extremely problematic, as evidenced by the increasingly violent crackdown on protests, which made the international community break its silence and impose sanctions on the Syrian regime. Specifically, E.U. sanctions on Syrian government officials mainly focus on barring the sale, supply, transfer or export, directly or indirectly, of equipment that might be used for internal repression. At the same pace, the U.S. Treasury Department renewed its sanctions freezing any assets of Syrian officials that are in the United States or otherwise fall within U.S. jurisdiction, and barring American individuals and companies from dealing with them.

Political elites in the region and beyond, however, characterize the designation of Syrian officials as a purely symbolic gesture with no tangible economic repercussions, and as a feckless attack on the Assad inner family and regime circle, not only from a U.S. administration with little political leverage over Syria, but also from a divided European Union. Senior Syrian officials whose assets have been frozen under new U.S. sanctions have none in the United States, and the E.U. arms embargo is meaningless since there are no E.U. weapons sales to Syria. Thus, it is estimated that sanctions alone cannot deter the Syrian regime from resorting to violent means for as long as it perceives that its survival is at stake.

In a sense, the symbolic approach of U.S. and E.U. sanctions against Syria reflects that foreign powers have a vested interest in possibly maintaining the status quo in Syria in the name of realpolitik since there are fears that regime change in Syria would look a lot more like Iraq in 2003 than Egypt in 2011.

The end of the Assad regime, whose Alawite sect rules both the government and the military, may set the stage for the state to collapse and a civil war to erupt, turning into a proxy battle between regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran. This prospect makes Syria's neighbors upset, with indicative concerns coming from Iran, Israel and Turkey. Iran fears losing its only Arab ally, which gives Tehran direct access to Hezbollah and Lebanon. Israel for its part worries that a new regime in Syria could break the de facto ceasefire that has maintained a stable border for almost 40 years, and cause a war over the Golan Heights. In turn, Turkey is concerned that political instability in Syria, combined with the weak neighbouring Iraq, may reinforce the political aspirations of Syria's ethnic Kurdish population, which is concentrated near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, leading to renewed calls for a Kurdish state.

To sum up, the revolutionary wave of protests makes clear that cosmetic changes are no longer sufficient, and that Syria is in need of those necessary legitimate reforms that will take into account not only the calls of recent times but also the country's complexities and ground realities for the benefit not only of itself, but of the entire region.

Antonia Dimou is head of the Middle East and Persian Gulf Unit at the Institute for Security and Defense Analyses based in Athens, Greece, and an associate at the Centre for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Antonia Dimou.