Photo: AP via Sana News Agency
As Syria’s “Arab Spring” drags into a fourth month, there is no end in sight to the bloody uprising that has left more than 1,500 Syrians dead and stranded thousands more in refugee camps along the border. The chaos has now spread to Damascus, the previously quiet capital city, where protesters loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad stormed the U.S. Embassy today. The attacks, which were apparently encouraged by Syrian state television, drew sharp rebuke from Washington, but it remains unclear what else the U.S. can do to help the Syrian opposition.
Business Insider Politix spoke with leading Syria expert Joshua Landis, the director of the centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, to find out more about what is happening on the ground in Syria. Landis, who writes the popular Syria Comment blog, tells us who makes up the Syrian opposition movement, who is still loyal to Assad, and how it all might end.
1. Mobs of protesters loyal to Assad broke into the U.S. Embassy today after days of demonstrations in front of the U.S. and French embassies. Can you explain who is behind the demonstrations? How will the U.S. respond?
Landis: There are a lot of people in Syria who are angry at the U.S. — a lot of Assad supporters think that the U.S. is behind the uprising. The protests started because the U.S. Ambassador [Robert Ford] went to Hama [a besieged opposition stronghold] on Thursday to demonstrate that the U.S. is on the side of the people there. This is the first time that the U.S. Embassy has actually overtly sided with the opposition.
The [loyalist] demonstrations were largely spontaneous — demonstrators started two days ago in the Christian quarter [of Damascus] and then they jumped in cabs and went up to the [U.S.] Embassy.
But nothing like this would happen unless the Syrian government — and the military — allowed it to happen. They have the military capacity to stop this kind of thing.
The U.S. has a few options. They could withdraw embassy staff, which I don’t think the Obama administration wants to do. They want to have an ambassador — and an embassy staff — that can travel around Syria and talk to Syrians so they can know what’s going on there; their best source of intelligence comes from the embassy staff.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people in Washington — mostly the Republicans — who have been pushing for the U.S. to withdraw our ambassador, and this will certainly play into their hands. In fact, the ambassador’s trip to Hama was perhaps sparked by this recent criticism from neoconservatives about Ford’s presence in Syria. He was accused by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post of being a stooge for the Assad regime. So his trip might have, in part, been motivated by the [U.S.] State Department’s concern that they didn’t want to be seen as supporting the regime.
The U.S. could also call in Syria’s Ambassador [Imad] Moustapha. He has already been called in because of [reports] that accuse him of monitoring the Syrian opposition in the U.S., using video and photo surveillance of people participating in protests in the U.S. So there is clearly an effort by the administration to apply pressure to the Syrian regime.
2. Who are Assad’s loyalists? Are there any signs that the regime, or support for the regime, is cracking?
Landis: There is a broad spectrum of people who support the regime, mostly delineated along religious and class lines.
Syria’s minorities, writ large, are Assad supporters. That includes about 12% of the population who are Alawites [a heterodox sect of Shi’a Islam that dominates the Assad power base], the 10% who are Christians and about 5% who are other minorities.
That makes about 25% of the country who fear the rise of Islamic parties to power, and perhaps fear ethic cleansing of some kind, along the lines of of what happened in Iraq. Every time there is a revolution, somebody pays.
Then there are the middle class and others who are fearful of civil war. These are the people who have something substantial to lose — they are afraid of losing their businesses, their shops, of not being able to send their kids to school. They want reform, but they want it in some incremental way.
They are scared of the ‘Iraq Syndrome;’ Iraq lost its middle class [after the insurgency]. [In Iraq], the Sunnis went from being the top sectarian group to being at the bottom and they paid a very high price for this. Obviously the Alawites are worried about following a similar trajectory.
There is also the Ba’ath Party, which has about 2 to 2 ½ million members who would presumably be purged in the Assad regime were to fall, like they were in Iraq.
There are no signs that the government is cracking. The government has not been able to quell the dissent and that has been frustrating — they are going to pay a higher price for it, economically and in international politics. But there have been no signs of fissures. There have been no major defections from the regime, and more importantly, from the military.
3. Who is the Syrian opposition? Is there any leadership? To what extent is it an organised opposition movement and to what extent is it just a leaderless popular uprising?
Landis: This was largely a spontaneous uprising that attached itself to the Arab Spring. In many ways the opposition in Syria wasn’t ready for this; they made a decision to get on the wagon because there was an opportunity with the Arab Spring.
Many of these people [opposition leaders] didn’t know each other existed. They are just now meeting and getting to know one another but their communication is still mostly anonymous. It’s a dangerous game and the opposition leadership has been a moving target.
The problem is that regime opposition in Syria has always been fragmented — that is why Assad has been able to stay in power for so long. There has been no political participation in Syria — parties have been banned since the Assads came to power [in 1963]. There is one party that has endured and that is the Muslim Brotherhood and it is a capital offence to belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The opposition today is driven by young activists in their early 20s and 30s who are largely anonymous. They have tried to preserve their anonymity, which is a great strength because it allows them to avoid the regime, but also a great weakness because there is not a central leadership.
The result of this is that there are a lot of smaller opposition groups — there are Islamic groups, there are secular groups, there groups inside the country and groups outside the country, there are internal opposition leaders who have been engaged in a dialogue with the government, and internal groups who reject any dialogue. So there is a gamut but there is not a central opposition under which they are all unified. There was an attempt to bring the opposition groups together last month in Antalya, Turkey, but it is very loose and many of the internal opposition groups rejected it.
But the uprising has moved forward with admirable unity in its message. That message is: dignity, freedom, anti-corruption, and the end of the regime. There has been very little religious sloganeering and when there has been, the opposition has been very effective at stamping it down.
That shows that there is some central planning and that there is some agreement between the opposition groups. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has been playing by the rules — they’ve been willing to tone down their religious rhetoric to concentrate on pluralism. This is an important difference between today and the [Syrian uprisings in the] 1980s.
4. Is there any way for Assad to remain in power or step down peacefully? What happens if he cannot? In short, how does this end?
Landis: We don’t know how this is going to end. Analysts are divided on what will happen.
It is not a civil war yet — the lines have not fallen apart along sectarian divisions. Many analysts — myself included — believed that the race to the bottom would be a lot faster. The regime and the opposition have not broken down along religious lines; but this doesn’t take away from the fact that most of the opposition on the street are Sunni Muslims, they are poor, they are young, and they feel alienated from the regime.
It has divided along class lines. The upper-class Sunnis have not come out to demonstrate; the upper classes have remained on the side of the regime.
The opposition has promised that they are going to be able to turn up the heat, bring more Syrians to the opposition, and bring major defections. So far, it is not clear if they can do this, but they have showed themselves to be remarkably resilient. On the other hand, the regime has remained together, the military is one, and they can bring a lot of force.
The Economist Intelligence Unit recently came out with an analysis that says the Assad regime cannot hold on to power — they don’t give a timeline though. They believe that economic hardships will cause the wheels to fall off. But we have seen countries in the region go under severe economic pressures — it’s not clear that economic despair will lead to the collapse of the regime. Poverty does not necessarily lead to regime collapse. Historically, sanctions are not successful in overthrowing regimes. They are very popular in the West because they they are politically expedient — they satisfy domestic pressure groups.
Syria is both similar and dissimilar to the other Arab Spring uprisings. Egypt and Tunisia are one religion, one economic group. In both countries, the state has been able to create a national community. In the Levant, that has not happened — there is great diversity and a weak sense of national communities. But all of the protesters are saying the same thing. This is an Arab Spring — anyone who says Arab nationalism is dead needs to reevaluate; there is a common culture, a common movement, and Syria is a part of it.
In some ways, we are seeing a great sorting out in the Arab world. Where a national community has emerged, those countries have been more successful in creating a pluralistic government. It will be a lot harder in Syria and other places in the northern Arab world, where we see a lot more civil strife.
5. Has the U.S. response to the uprising been appropriate? What are some of the regional interests at play and how are they dictating the U.S. response?
Landis: Syria is centrally localed — it borders all of the hotspots where America has important interests; most importantly Israel, and Iraq, where the U.S. still has 50,000 troops, but also Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. America does not want the turmoil to spread. The U.S. already blew apart Iraq and caused great distress, including 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. So if Syria were to crumble, it would cause huge distress in a region that is already greatly distressed.
I think the U.S. has toed a careful line here. There are a lot of people who would like to get the U.S. more deeply involved in Syria but it is unclear what the U.S. could accomplish by getting more involved. This is a Syrian drama and a conflict that Syrians need to resolve. The opposition has shown strength and resolve — there are no signs of collapse. And opposition groups both inside and outside of Syria have said that they don’t want foreign intervention.
We have placed sanctions, we have designated Syria a terrorist country, we have sanctioned the top officials in the regime. But Syria is not a country that the U.S. wants to get involved in. The U.S. is looking for ways to limit its military engagements in the Middle East, not expand them.
So the administration is toeing the line between giving rhetorical support to the opposition to show the world where it stands, and promising outcomes. As we saw in Libya, promising outcomes is a dangerous game because it puts the U.S. in a position of having to take action when things don’t go their way.
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