Syria: A Way Forward

Three years ago, in advance of the US Presidential elections, I was invited to lecture at the Syrian International Academy, the first and only “think-tank” in Damascus. (It was government-sponsored, of course, and is now defunct).  I delivered my remarks, mainly a speculative look at potential changes in US-Syria relations, to an audience comprised of government operatives, Arab diplomats, and even journalists from NPR and the BBC.

The cockiness in the reaction of the Syrian officials present was matched only by the disgust of the foreign journalists in response to it.  Yet, in retrospect, the swagger was understandable.  In the preceding years, the regime, led by the young President Bashar Assad, who inherited power upon his father’s death in 2000, had doubled down on its regional bets and scored a string of foreign policy victories. Syria had successfully navigated challenges to its East (the Iraq War, from which it emerged unscathed militarily but with key influence post-invasion), its South (Palestinian elections, in which Syria’s protégés in Hamas soundly defeated the Fatah movement preferred by the US), and its West (a retained kingmaker role in Lebanese politics despite its rushed 2005 military withdrawal).  All the while, to Syria’s North lie Turkey, an resurgent powerhouse with whom relations improved exponentially on both political and economic fronts.

Essentially, Assad had played a regional game of “chicken” with his American counterpart, and won.  By the time President Bush left office, the neophyte Syrian leader had earned his bona fides.  The country remained a key player in the Middle East, demonstrating an intransigence that Washington loved to hate, but simply could not eliminate or even bypass.  What’s more, the intense foreign pressure and isolation imposed by the Bush Administration had rallied the Syrian people to Assad’s side in the face of external threats.  He predictably but effectively portrayed himself as their protector against an American-Israeli plot to undermine Syria, crafting rhetoric like “it is not for President Bashar to bow his head, or the head of his country – we only bow to Almighty God.”

Nevertheless, these foreign policy successes and their resultant popular goodwill amounted to band-aids placed over critical domestic wounds. First and foremost, there is a nearly complete lack of political freedom in Syria – the press is still highly censored, activists are jailed at length without trial, and the constitution enshrines a one-party state with no competitive elections and no alternative agenda to the obsolete Baathist platform.

While to us this seems offensive and intolerable, the Syrian people have by and large accepted to be held in this political grip for the past decades.  Why?  On the one hand, there is fear of the dreaded mukhabarat or security services, who have dealt with political challenges in the past through imprisonment, torture, or even wholesale murder.  On the other hand is the Syrian people’s sense that they have benefitted from a unique stability in the region:  to their East, the watched Iraqis trade the sociopath Saddam Hussein for a humiliating foreign invasion and military occupation in the name of “democracy”; while to their West, they saw the Lebanese spend years in a bloody civil war in which different religious groups took turns massacring each other.  Therefore, as long as a man can head to the coffee house to play backgammon with his friends without being killed – the average Syrian concludes – the government is doing a “good enough” job.  Sadly, these criminally low expectations pervade Syrian society and explain in large measure the country’s poor performance in many categories.

But equally as dramatic as the political depression is the economic hardship facing Syria.  It is estimated that more than 30% of the population lives on less than $2 per day.  Severe droughts in recent years wreaked havoc on the rural southern and eastern regions.  Oil reserves dwindled, painting an extremely bleak revenue picture for the coming years.  And like all underdeveloped countries that have seen their populations explode over the past generation, the government scratches its head when asked how the nation’s economy will provide jobs for the hundreds of thousands of young people entering the workforce each year.

And so it is with Assad: he failed to articulate an economic plan to remedy these circumstances; or if he did have the right ideas, he failed to implement them.  In either case, after 11 years at the helm in an autocratic system, he alone must bear responsibility for the country’s poor economic conditions. Furthermore, the endemic corruption of the ruling echelon, best exemplified by the monopolies of Assad’s controversial cousin Rami Makhlouf (who has since announced a doubtful “retirement” from business) poured salt on the wounds of those struggling to put food on the table, and who have no political avenue to pursue better circumstances.

Not all have cause to complain, however.  Those middle-class city dwellers who have managed to benefit from the few reforms Assad did enact (e.g. internet access, private universities, foreign banks, a nascent stock market) and the capital flows stemming from tourism, real estate, as well as other investments from cash-rich Gulf Arab states, staunchly support him.  Their quality of life has never been higher, and they give credit to his leadership.

These two groups, the “haves” and the “have-nots”, set the stage for the current political scene in Syria. When the “Arab Spring” spread from Tunisia and Egypt to the Syrian countryside, Assad’s foreign policy credentials could no longer placate a desperate and neglected population.  The fuse was lit when the regime responded in a clumsy and heavy-handed way to the anti-regime graffiti of some teenagers in the southern town of Deraa.  Residents took to the streets to mourn the fatalities en masse and another government crackdown ensued. The vicious cycle thus began, and soon spread nationwide.

Adding fuel to the fire was hard-line Saudi-sponsored theology pumped over the past decade or so into the impoverished areas where the uprising has taken root, thanks to economies of scale in satellite broadcasting.  One cannot say for certain how much of the movement can be attributed to this ever-growing Islamist influence, but it has certainly manifested itself in a strong current among the protests flowing toward a religious revolt and should not be discounted.

Regardless, the turmoil that has engulfed Syria possesses a geographic and demographic profile opposite to that of Egypt – it was the urban middle class who turned out to reject the abuses of the Mubarak regime.  Coptic priests said Mass in central Cairo while their middle-class Muslim neighbors stood guard.  But there is certainly no communion being distributed in the poor towns where the Syrian youth has taken to the streets.  By contrast, the multi-confessional middle class of Syria’s largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo has been unwilling to join the anti-government movement; rather, they have turned out at pro-regime counter-rallies, if only to show their support for stability.

What is yet to be determined is the disposition of the vast majority of Syrians committed to neither camp.  They rightfully share the frustrations and hardships of the protesters concerning corruption, lack of political freedom, and economic adversity.  Their hearts have sunk because of the violence that has claimed an estimated 1,400 lives at the time of this writing, and imprisoned many times that.  The domestic tranquility that Syrians relished has been shattered, and no matter what may come, Assad will have to toil to atone for the deaths of so many innocents at the hands of their own government.

At the same time, this uncommitted mass has virtually no confidence or trust in the protesters or the fledgling opposition, whose activists have shown little political maturity and are perceived – despite the efforts of a few emerging leaders to say all the right things – to have a vision for the country derived only from anger towards the Assad regime and a desire for vengeance.  Such attitudes strike fear into the heart of the fence-sitters, whose minds conjure up images of sectarian violence in Lebanon or Iraq.  It’s as if the majority wants to say to the regime,  “we’ll accept to be in your grip, but you don’t have to squeeze the life out of us; and we’ll accept to be poor, but treat us like citizens, not servants on your family farm.”

Going forward, there are 3 main scenarios that can play out.  First, the vicious cycle of protests and military crackdowns can continue for months on end, with dozens more dead each week.  Any dissent in the army that might emerge will be dealt with swiftly and brutally, since the upper ranks report directly to Assad’s brother and mostly belong to the Alawite sect, which is native uniquely to Syria’s coastal mountains. Given their communal history of past mistreatment at the hands of the majority, continuity of the political status quo and Alawite military dominance in their only homeland is practically existential in their collective mentality. 

In this scenario, capital flows will dry up, tourism will disappear, sanctions and other foreign isolation will be imposed, the economy will weaken dramatically, national morale will badly degrade, and a “brain drain” is sure to follow.  In other words, the country will die a slow and painful death with its problems only exacerbated.

In the second case,  a foreign military coalition could intervene, mainly if Turkey – the political bridge between Syria and the West – concludes that the situation cannot be salvaged and gives the green light.  The Syrian regime will fight to the death and will sabotage everything it can touch on the way down.  The result would be utter mayhem, dwarfing the destructiveness of the Iraq War, the bloodiness of the Lebanese Civil War, and the complications of the air strikes on Libya.  Policymakers in Washington and Brussels can wring their hands all they want, but military intervention will not solve anything, and nobody will want to absorb a few million Syrian refugees. (Incidentally, Syria herself has already taken in over 1.2 million Iraqi refugees.)

The third case is a “soft landing”, where all people of good conscience, Syrian or not, ought to place their hopes.  In this scenario, the constitution would have to be amended to allow a multi-party system.  Legislative elections would have to be held to give the protesters somewhere else to channel their energy – but within a year, not in some vague near-ish future to which the government’s latest lip service alludes.  A true parliament would have to be created, in stark contrast to the circus of stooges and Baath Party hacks that Assad addressed when the crisis first erupted, which any clear-thinking Syrian ought to label a national embarrassment.

A reasonable compromise would be for a free, multi-party parliament to appoint a slate of ministers for those departments that directly impact the economy, e.g. Finance, Agriculture, Industry, Infrastructure, Tourism, Transportation, Energy, Education, etc. while the President would keep autocratic control of the military, security, and of course foreign policy.  As such, Syrians would get stability and continuity in the areas where their President is perceived to be popular and effective, but they would have enough political freedom to begin to hold their government accountable to enact more responsive economic policies and tackle corruption.

For many seasoned observers of Syrian politics, the power sharing described above reads like a pipe dream.  For others, it does not go nearly far enough.  But those with “Assad must go” on their lips can spare the crocodile tears – it is a completely unrealistic proposition.  Ceding control over domestic policies will be a hard enough pill for the Baath Party establishment to swallow, but it would be unthinkable for them to relinquish the military and diplomatic spheres without a fight to the death.

What Assad must do, however, is demonstrate that he possesses both the will and the ability to push through the above changes.  For the sake of his own long-term survival, he must prove to the Syrian people that he alone sets the agenda.  They will no longer accept the tired excuse of the “old guard” standing in the way of real reform, and Assad can no longer rest on the laurels he received for supporting the Arab resistance and standing up to foreign powers.

If Assad does prove he is in control and succeeds in bringing these meaningful changes at the cost of less than a few thousand casualties, he will have triumphed.  Those who perished during the protests will be remembered as martyrs, and Syria will have taken a gigantic leap forward.  Assad could still emerge a hero, but the window is closing fast and hopes in him are duly fading.

If, on the other hand, he can’t manage to deliver that much after 11 years as President and when stakes are this high, then quite frankly he’d be best described by the term he once infamously used to refer to the compliant rulers of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia: a “half-man”.