Thursday, March 29, 2012

Top 5 Things You Need to Know to Understand the Crisis in Syria

By: Jill Ricotta

1. This is right out of the Assad family playbook. The brutality of the Assads is nothing new to the Syrian people. The 1980s were a tense time for the Middle East, particularly due to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The secular regimes were terrified of the possibility that their own people would want to install an Islamic government. Islamist parties around the Arab world were inspired by the power of the revolution, the images of ordinary Iranians taking the streets, fighting the corruption of the Shah, and putting in place a (supposedly) honest democracy based on the virtues of Islam. For Syria, the main Islamist group was the Muslim Brotherhood, which was based in a small city called Hama, in the west of the country, north of the border with Lebanon.

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This group was a constant annoyance to the regime, starting a bombing campaign against various government buildings, and even attempting to assassinate the president himself. In February of 1982, previous Syrian President Hafez al-Assad decided that this group needed to be taught a lesson. The town of Hama was leveled. Men, women and children were killed. Fatality estimations vary from 30,000 to 40,000. The message was clear, the Assad family would never compromise and any opposition will be met with the most ruthless pushback with no negotiation. Since then, there have been no serious Islamist groups brave enough to challenge the Baath party government. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his closest advisors clearly see the demonstrations of 2011 and 2012 as his Hama. And now Bashar al-Assad is sending the same message to the people of Homs and other cities throughout Syria.

2. It’s all in the family. Just as Rifaat al-Assad (Hafez’s brother) led the charge in Hama during the 1980s, Maher al-Assad (Bashar’s brother) is leading the Republican Guard, which is responsible for much of the killings since the start of the protests. However unlike Rifaat, Maher has stayed loyal to his brother and has not attempted a coup d’état. Like many dictators, Hafez and his son made sure to keep members of the family in very important positions throughout the government and the Baath party. They are constantly advising the president on what to do during this crisis, on how to handle the demonstrators. Bashar al-Assad is Alawi (a small sect of Islam somewhat based on Shi’ism), which is a minority, and previously persecuted religion, and thus other Alawis are often given high-ranking positions in the Baath Party as well as the administration. Bashar's mother and sister (Anisa and Buchra) are also close advisors to the president, and often remind him that these protests are exactly like Hama in the 1980s, and he needs to respond with force like his father did.

3. The movement has not truly spread to Damascus. This point is critical to understanding why the movement in Syria has not been as successful as the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. In the capitals of Tunis and Cairo were overrun by protesters, and images from Midan Tahrir (Liberty Square in Cairo) and Shari’a Habib Bougiba (Habib Bourgiba Street in Tunis) have become iconic.

Tunis, Tunisia
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Cairo, Egypt

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Yet notice we have not seen similar photos coming out of Damascus. Although the citizens of Damascus have used various methods to protest Assad’s rule, including flyers and public mourning of slain protesters, there has yet to be a large scale protest, ones that inspire the rest of the world and put immense pressure on dictators. Until that happens, Bashar will not be in the same situation as Mubarak or Ben Ali to step down. Like in Libya, the effort to take the capital will be slow and painful, if a (somewhat) organized opposition ever truly comes to fruition.

4. Assad has more supporters than one might think. This ties into point number 4, of why the protests have yet to spread to Damascus. The Assad family has been careful in building various groups of supporters over the years including: the Baath party, the Alawite community, the minority Christian communities, the Druze community, parts of the military, and the new elite that the Hafez promoted during his economic reforms, as well as members of the old elite. Plus Assad has the supporters of anyone who fears the instability that may come with his deposition. Most of these groups can be found in the capital. Thus, pro-Assad rallies are not necessarily artificial. This makes the crisis in Syria quite complex, and is the main factor that has prevented a huge sweep of protests throughout the country, as found in Tunisia and Egypt.

5. This has put Turkey in a precarious position. Since the Arab Spring, Turkey has been trying to reposition itself as the leader of the region. By breaking its ties with Israel it has gained legitimacy in the Arab world. Furthermore, with the rise of Islamist parties in the recent elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, the ruling Justice and Development Party (or AKP) has become a model for Islamist parties. Moderate, accepting, firm in its “Islamic” values, and working within a democratic system. This gave Turkey an opportunity to retake their position of power in an Ottoman-reminiscent throwback. But the huge influx of refugees from Syria threatens that new role. It could put a strain on Turkey’s resources , with an astounding 14,700 Syrians now living in camps. Overall, Turkey’s government has handled the situation pretty well, but there have recently been protests in the camps against Turkish authorities expelling some refugees. Turkey has not any bold action and has not used their military to make a buffer zone, in fear of risking confrontation with Russia and Iran. A quote from a recent NY Times article outlines Turkey’s sensitive situation well.

“Yet the conflict has also laid bare the limits of Turkey’s power in the region. Before the Syrian conflict erupted, Turkey was emerging as one of Syria’s closest allies, with the two countries holding joint cabinet sessions and Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Assad even vacationing together. Turkey’s 500-mile border with Syria is its longest, and trade between the countries more than tripled to $2.5 billion in 2010. But despite years of diplomatic engagement and economic investment, Turkey could not persuade Mr. Assad to cease the violence and move ahead with political reform.”

Those that study the region will be watching closely to see if Turkey will actually make concrete moves against the Assad regime, and thus increasing its legitimacy as the new superpower in the region.


Zeyad said...

Nice article. I don't know if it's true or not but I have heard that Bashar never wanted the Presidency in the first place and it was his family that basically forced him to take over. Also, with the harsh response to the protesters, it is the people outside the President (most likely Iran as well) who are influencing him to continue violently repressing his citizens. If it is true what I heard, then he is almost forced against his will to act this way.

Syria really differs from the any of the other protests going on in the Middle East. It can't really be compared because the government reacted with much force compared to Egypt and Tunisia. They don't have a good enough rebellion group as Libya nor NATO intervention. The government can rest easily knowing there is almost no chance of them being overthrown unless someone else intervenes.

Anonymous said...

Nothing new under the sun.

I think it'd do a lot of people a lot of good to understand your first (1) point. In the words of of the geeky ophthalmologist-dictator himself (from a Telegraph interview):

"We’ve been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them.”