Syria As the Prototype for the Loss of Democratic Freedoms

In a recent Wall Street Journal article Puddington and Kramer reported that there has been a decline around the world in political rights and civil liberties as measured by Freedom House. True enough, the measurement of these things is not an exact science but Freedom House does a decent job of identifying key variables and definitions correlated with cultures that privilege democracy and civil liberties. After some years of improvement because of democratization around the world the general trends have been in decline. The authors report that 54 countries had registered declines in political rights and only 40 registered gains.

The reasons for these declines are interesting and the current conflict in Syria poses a particularly fitting example. The case of Syria is a typical model of authoritarianism that holds its power for a period of time through force and intimidation and then loses that power to violence and revolution (think Egypt, Tunisia, Libya). But even more interestingly the earliest mistakes are confusing violence with politics; that is, organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood or any other anti-government faction resorts to violence because there are no legitimate outlets of political expression and change. There’s a rather simple video you can watch which lays out the structure of the conflict in Syria and is actually a model for many other places. The video is brief and simple but is a template for any number of political situations. It is called “Syria explained in five minutes.” The decline in political freedoms is correlated with the political processes on display in the video.

Many of the losses of political freedom are associated with efforts to sabotage the Arab Spring. Religion and illiberal factions are reinforced for damaging democratic gains. And there is the very damaging influence of outside powers that imagine democratic gains as contrary to their own interests. Hence, countries like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela have conspired to keep Assad in power. Moreover, the Middle East is no longer the worst scoring region of the world when it comes to measurements of freedom. Russia has increased the intensity with which it silences groups, denies rights to nontraditional groups such as gays and lesbians, and uses its oil clout to interfere with any political process that is contrary to its interests. Russia cracks down on NGOs, civil rights activists, journalists, and any political opponent who poses a real challenge.

Russia, China, and Venezuela light the way for authoritarian governments that dominate media, security, as well as legislative and judicial branches of government. They do this mostly by blindly supporting centralized authoritarian governments such as the military government in Egypt or of course Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Syrian opposition to Assad is highly fractionated and is composed of the Free Syrian Army (deserters from Assad’s army), numerous Islamic groups from more extreme (e.g., “Battalion of Truth”,), to less extreme (Liwa al-Tawhid “Battalion of Monotheism”). There are Kurdish groups and independent groups not to mention attempts to form organizations that are more inclusive such as the “National Coalition.”

Clearly, the aggressiveness of extremist Islamic groups keep democratic pressures at bay and their presence in places like Syria will prevent democratization for a generation to come. And, finally, perhaps even more disturbing is the paralysis of places like the United States. We have said little and played an insignificant role in Syria because there’s no group to identify with and support. Secretary of State Kerry has worked to broker discussion at the macro level but the US is less engaged then countries like Russia and Iran. This can’t be good.

About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on January 27, 2014, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Syria As the Prototype for the Loss of Democratic Freedoms.

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