RGE Wednesday Note – Syria: The Latest Victim of the Arab Spring
Though Syria previously looked relatively sheltered from unrest elsewhere in the region, protests, now in their second week, are shaking the legitimacy of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The violence perpetrated by security forces is likely to undermine promises of reform and political change, putting a question mark over the ultimate survival of the regime.
The biggest rallies have taken place in the impoverished southern city of Dara’a, where agricultural production, on which most people rely for income, has been wracked by drought in the past few years. However, the uprising has spread to bigger cities around the country, including Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, Homs and Hama, the site of a 1982 massacre of Islamists and other opposition activists. Demonstrators represent different religious groups, including Sunni Arabs, traditionally loyal to Assad’s regime.
While protesters’ demands have been dominated by political grievances, many silently oppose the unequal distribution of economic power, as the majority of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a select elite. This political focus—which contrasts with that of protesters elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—might be explained by the fact that economic conditions have been slowly improving. Protesters have not generally called for the fall of the regime but rather for greater political freedoms and the end of corruption.
The government’s message has been inconsistent as it deploys force in putting down demonstrations but also extends offers of reform. The cabinet, appointed by Assad, has resigned, likely a ploy to regain support. Authorities have hinted they would consider ending the state of emergency, in place since 1963. However, they also launched a crackdown that caused a significant number of casualties—reports suggest at least 61 people have been killed. The Syrian president remained largely unseen during the repression, relying on intermediaries, and there have been no official statements regarding the upcoming parliamentary elections in April. Given this silence coupled with the cabinet shuffle, there is a risk these elections could be delayed.
Beyond the domestic implications, Syria is a strategic regional player due to its role in the Middle East peace process, its influence in Lebanon and its relationship with Iran. As such, Syrian protests have the potential to destabilize Lebanon, where a new government has yet to be formed. Israeli officials, already struggling to respond to teetering regimes on its borders, will be more on edge. Hamas, among other groups, may want to take advantage of the uncertainty.
Despite the absence of a meaningful change on the political front, many continue to see Assad as a reformer, primarily for his role in the opening of the economy in recent years. A prolonged crackdown will cost him the support of global leaders. Nevertheless, the spreading of the unrest to Latakia, one of the few cities where the majority of residents belong to the minority Alawi elite (12% of the Syrian population), like Assad himself, implies that the days of the existing system may be numbered. As RGE has noted in the past, the Syrian government’s scarce resources leave it little space to respond to grievances, meaning structural reforms need to be stepped up.
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