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Andrew Tabler is Next Generation fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The 2011 Syrian Uprising: An Interview with Andrew Tabler

Like many other countries in the Middle East, Syria has been gripped in the past few months by a wave of massive civil unrest. President Bashar Assad’s brutal response to the unrest has been met with international condemnation and increasing internal pressure. To gain insight into the situation in Syria, Near East Report interviewed Andrew Tabler, Next Generation fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the newly released book “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Assad’s Syria.”

Near East Report: Could you briefly describe the current situation in Syria?

Andrew Tabler: We have a situation where protesters continue to go out into the streets every day demanding the fall of the regime. The regime is responding to these protests with the use of live fire and sweeps of mass arrests, which has dramatically worsened the human rights situation inside the country.

Thus far the regime has promised a number of reforms in reaction to the demands of the protesters but has not implemented these reforms in any meaningful way. Together with the regime’s brutal response, this has incensed protestors and moved their demands away from reforms to the overall fall of the regime.

NER: Has the uprising affected the economic situation in Syria? Are all Syrians feeling a change in the economic situation?

AT: The economic situation inside the country is worsening rapidly. I think that it will continue to send out waves throughout society, and the real economic destruction of the country will begin to affect Syria’s social and sectarian fabric. This will increase the tension in the country, adding to the sectarian tensions resulting from the regime’s brutal crackdown.

All sectors of Syrian society are affected by the economic crisis. Demand has contracted significantly and people are hoarding money. They’re afraid and don’t want to invest their money. As a result, factories are closing and laying off workers. Unemployment is going up, meaning that there is less taxation for the Assad regime, which is increasingly reliant on business taxes.

The regime’s revenue stream has been heavily affected by the combination of the uprising and the sanctions on Syrian oil exports, forcing it to burn through its currency reserves far faster than ever before. This is a significant problem, which will become increasingly hard for the Assad regime to deal with in the coming weeks, months and years.

NER: Why has the uprising largely excluded the central cities of Damascus and Aleppo until now?

AT: First of all, there have been protests in the environs of Damascus and Aleppo for a long time. Like the Iranian revolution in 1979, the revolution basically started in rural areas and has been spreading to urban areas.

The presence of the military and security forces is the strongest in Damascus and Aleppo. In addition, the bourgeoisie there have close ties to the regime. However, as the regime’s hand weakens, many more individuals in the bourgeoisie are reaching out to the opposition and to Western countries and saying that they support Assad’s ouster. They are theoretically willing to break ranks with him, but of course this will only be proven when push comes to shove. That point hasn’t been reached yet.

NER: What was the catalyst for the uprising against the Assad regime?

AT: It began when four children who had scrawled on a wall “People want the fall of the regime” were arrested and taken to Damascus by security forces. Their families became incensed when the government refused to tell them where they were, and after a week or so the protests began.

The regime responded with live fire to these protests, killing a number of demonstrators. There were funerals that led to more gatherings and protests, more live fire in turn, and this cycle quickly spread throughout the country.

NER: This type of regime response would likely not have led to the same result 20 years ago. Why is the situation different now from what it was back then?

AT: It is different because of the demographics of the country. There are so many young people and the Assad regime is too rigid to accommodate them. In addition, the spread of globalization means that people know they are no longer isolated and are not afraid to confront the regime. People want the same thing for Syria that they have seen in the rest of the Arab world.

NER: In what ways is this uprising similar to and different from the uprisings in other Arab countries?

AT: It is similar because it is being driven by demographics. It is different in that the country is ruled by a minority Alawite regime, and the generals and security services hail from the same Alawite sect that the Assads come from. This galvanizes Syria against the kinds of splits we saw in Egypt and Tunisia, where the military acted as an independent body to oust the ruling family.

The Assad regime is galvanizing the Alawite members of the security forces, but even galvanized steel has a cracking point. We haven’t found what that is yet. I think that it will be a long time before we see the generals breaking ranks.

NER: How might the uprising end? What are the possible scenarios?

AT: One option is that the stalemate between the regime and the opposition movement continues. Because the opposition has always included an armed component, consisting of defectors from the military, radical Salafists and some criminal elements, this would lead to a lot of bloodshed without a decisive outcome.

Another possibility is that other countries get more involved, helping the opposition to better organize and use a civil resistance strategy to bring down the regime. However, given the regime’s brutality, it’s hard to see how this is possible without some military intervention.

NER: Is there a chance that Assad will be willing to step down and find refuge in another country?

AT: I think we’re now approaching a situation where it’s too late and the level of atrocities is too high for Assad to do so. Assad’s back is up against the wall, which possibly makes him fight even more.

NER: What can the United States do with respect to the current situation?

AT: The United States can develop a plan to maximize sanctions and leverage the economic situation, as well as work with the opposition to get certain communities to stop supporting the Assad regime.

The Assad regime is like a slow-motion train wreck, where each car represents a different community. The idea should be to get as many cars off of that train as fast as possible before it crashes. That involves creating junctions in the track, which the United States can help with.

At the same time, people in each car will be willing to get off the train only if they see another locomotive being built. This means that the United States also has to spend a lot of time building the opposition. This is going to be a very long and tedious process.

NER: Russia has firmly opposed international action against the Assad regime. Might its attitude change?

AT: On the one hand, Russia maintains its position because of its military ties with Syria: the Assad regime buys a great deal of arms from Russia and Russia has a military port at Tartus. The Russians are also doing it simply to spite the United States.

On the other hand, if the Assad regime carries out more and more massacres, it’s harder for the Russians to stick to their position. The Russians may reach the conclusion that they need to look after their economic and military interests at the expense of preserving the Assad regime. But we’re not there yet.

NER: What might a post-Assad regime look like?

AT: It will be a Sunni-led government of some type. I think it will be difficult for the government to be hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood because the Sunni community is very divided and because over a quarter of the population are minorities – Alawites, Druze, Christians, etc. But only time will tell.

NER: What might a post-Assad regime mean in terms of foreign policy, in particular with respect to the U.S. and Israel?

AT: A Sunni-led government would break the Iranian alliance. If you remove the keystone of the Shiite crescent, it will fall apart. This does not mean they will love the United States or Israel, but they will be very suspicious of the Iranians and their machinations. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. BACK TO TOP