NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY
Syrian President Bashar Assad is facing an unprecedented uprising.
Anti-government demonstrations have rocked Syria for the past four months.
The Arab Spring Arrives in Syria: An Analysis of the Uprising and Its Implications
There is one country in the Middle East that many thought the Arab Spring would not reach – Syria. Middle East observers claimed that the anti-government protests engulfing the region would spare Syria because of its unique circumstances.
Syria is immune to unrest, so the argument went, due to its weak and fractured opposition, supposedly loyal army, ruthless security services, and—perhaps most importantly—its anti-Western and anti-Israel stance. By virtue of its connections with Iran, Hizballah and Hamas, Damascus was thought to have a degree of radical legitimacy that pro-Western regimes in the region were lacking. Syrian President Bashar Assad also promoted this line of thinking, stating in a January interview that his citizens were not revolting because "it is not only about the needs and not only about the reform. It is about the ideology, the beliefs and the cause that you have."
Syria Surprised by Anti-Government ProtestsThe pundits, politicians and Bashar Assad himself have all been proven wrong. Over the past four months, Syria has been rocked by anti-government demonstrations extending from the suburbs of Damascus to the desert bordering Iraq. The regime's response to these demonstrations has been a brutal crackdown using helicopter gunships, tanks and snipers. At least 1,500 protesters are believed to have been killed, although the numbers are hard to confirm since foreign media has been banned from the country.
Syria's violent response to the protests has prompted worldwide condemnation and has led to U.S. and E.U. sanctions against Syria and its top officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated that "the Syrian government is running out of time" and even Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan, once a steadfast ally of Assad, has described the crackdown as "savagery" and accused Assad of taking the situation "too lightly."
President Assad's attempts to quell the uprising by promising vague political reforms and a "national dialogue" have failed to satisfy the Syrian public and the international community. Demonstrations have continued unabated, while foreign leaders have persisted in calling for Assad to implement real changes or step down.
From Halting Beginnings to Full-Fledged RebellionThe anti-government protest movement in Syria got off to a somewhat shaky start. Attempting to emulate the Egyptian revolution, in early February Syrian opposition groups abroad used Facebook to call for mass protests in Syrian cities. The protests did not materialize, though the Facebook groups formed at this time would later become decisive in the uprising.
Roughly one month later, several children were arrested in the town of Daraa for spray-painting anti-government slogans, apparently inspired by Facebook activity. People took to the streets of Daraa to protest the arrests, and security forces responded by opening fire on the protesters, killing a number of them. The deaths in Daraa turned out to be the spark that ignited the Arab Spring in Syria.
Marches calling for political freedom, an end to corruption and improved living conditions soon sprang up around the country. Assad's security forces reacted to these demonstrations with ever-increasing violence. Heavy artillery has been used to shell residential areas and Syrian troops have laid siege to entire towns believed to be harboring protestors. The Syrian regime has attempted to cut off its people's access to the world, barring foreign journalists and turning off electricity and telephone service in neighborhoods with the most unrest.
To date, Syria has been unable to contain the protests, despite its heavy-handed approach and the fact that Iranian security officials have travelled to Damascus to assist with the government crackdown. In speeches, Assad has repeatedly blamed foreign elements and plotters for the unrest, while simultaneously trying to placate the protestors by offering concessions. He has also allowed protestors to cross into Israel and incite violence, in a cynical and ultimately unsuccessful ploy to divert attention from the regime's brutality.
With the death toll rising by the day, even a government-approved gathering of the opposition in Damascus did not appease the protestors. Regime change is now their explicit goal, and a growing number of analysts predict that this will eventually be the outcome.
The steadily mounting pressure on the Syrian regime from the international community has come mostly in the form of economic penalties. U.S. and E.U. sanctions have targeted the Syrian elite and its security forces for human rights abuses, including Assad himself and his billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, widely reviled as a symbol of corruption in Syria. They are banned from entering the U.S. and E.U. countries and any assets they have that are subject to U.S. or E.U. jurisdiction have been frozen.
The ongoing instability has hurt Syria's economy in various ways. Income from tourism and foreign investments has taken a big hit, while the regime's expenditures on security have risen sharply and it has been forced to spend more money on subsidies and state salaries in order to mollify the populace. Due to these circumstances, Assad himself recently warned of the threat of "economic collapse."
Looking to the FutureSyria's current bloody cycle of protests and violent response by the government has critical implications for the Middle East. No Egypt in terms of its size or population, Syria is nonetheless a key player in the region due to its pivotal location and close relations with Iran, Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Damascus serves as a supplier of weaponry to Hizballah and is host to a dozen designated terrorist organizations including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
However the current situation resolves itself, Syria will undoubtedly emerge from the protests a very different country than it was before the spring of 2011. The situation is likely to remain volatile for some time, with the protestors growing increasingly defiant toward Syrian autocracy. There is no question that Syria's internal dynamics and its relations with the outside world are currently being reshaped, but exactly how these changes will ultimately impact the Middle East and the rest of the world are questions that remain to be answered. BACK TO TOP