The End Could Be Near for Syria
There are important differences between Syria and other Arab Spring countries but they all share one thing in common – failing repressive governments. This is particularly true of Syria and I believe we are seeing the beginning of the end. It probably will not come any time too soon but before long the Syrian state will either fail or radically revise itself, and I doubt the latter. The Syrian regime is telling itself and the world a story: it’s a story of foreign backed troublemakers causing problems for the Syrian government and stirring up revolt. The Syrians claim to be opening up more liberal possibilities similar to Jordan and promising reforms. Moreover, they claim that outsiders are trying to destroy the country and that the strength and power of the protest movement is exaggerated by a hostile press. It is true that Syria has initiated some limited reforms, but it is all far too little and transparent.
The story will just not hold. The regime has slowly been coming apart and its political structures seem to be weakening. Other Arab nations have lost confidence in Syria and have little influence with the executive leadership of the country. One reporter claimed that the military was weakening and losing its will to fight the protest movement. There are more reports of Syrian soldiers deserting the army. Syria could certainly produce enough troops to put down resistance but to what end?
One thing that allows Syria to hold on is the support of various elite groups. These groups depend on and have been rewarded by the leadership of the country. Benefits and privileges flow to these groups and they will continue to defend their interests. There also seems to be evidence that the Baathist party is weakening and if this continues then the jobs they provide will disappear and thus further debilitate the regime. There is considerable economic pressure on Syria and it appears as if it will continue. Like most authoritarian regimes Syrian leadership has awarded sweet contracts to individuals for public utilities such as telephones and the operations of power and electricity. This way elites are rewarded and maintain their allegiance to the authoritarian leadership. But social unrest has interfered with trade and market exchanges with other countries such as Turkey. Increasing economic pressures could lead to more rapid decline in Syria.
Assad, like many of his counterparts, has accommodated religious groups because he fears religious extremists. He even claims that the dissidents are motivated by extremism and religion. But most analyses of Islam in Syria explain that the Muslim Brotherhood is not very powerful and certainly not as organized as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Apparently religious extremists are hard to find and the average person is far more oppressed by the Syrian regime than any religious group. Peter Harling of Foreign Affairs has argued that resistance is broad based and cohesive and increasingly sophisticated. He believes that the resistance has been contained so far by violence and thuggish behavior but that will not last long.
The international community seems confused and even though the Arab League began acting decisively they have not been doing so recently. There does seem to be a consensus supporting regime change but no one knows how to go about it. The US does not want to intervene directly and is even hesitant to lead from behind. There is also the problem of those groups and states that support the Syrian regime such as Hezbollah and Russia. Russia fears the rise of religious extremists and is supportive of forceful military action against protesters, and they also fear democracy advocacy by the United States. Syria has not suffered or been isolated as severely as it could have been because of its close associations with Russia and China both of which have protected Syria from more severe circumstances.
Harling is also pessimistic about any opposition in exile. Such groups often play an instrumental role in positive regime change. They often lead the way forward and act as a liaison between their oppressed kinsman and the modern world. Moreover, they can also play an important role in the reconciliation process when the time comes. But the Syrian diaspora seems to be squabbling over minor issues and competing for recognition.
The Syrian leadership still seems to be operating under the assumption that the troubles will all go away, or that it will endure for a while and then slowly disappear. This could be true but it seems unlikely. A military defeat does not seem likely and neither does international intervention. The outcome is, I believe, in the hands of the protesters.