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Journal Of Democracy: Syria and the Future of Authoritarianism

Author: Steven Heydemann
October 2013

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"The democratic aspirations of the protesters who filled streets and public squares across Syria in early 2011 were among the conflict's first casualties. If democracy as an outcome of the uprising was always uncertain, democratic prospects have been severely crippled by the devastation of civil war and the deepening fragmentation of Syrian society."

As the third anniversary of the Arab uprisings draws nearer, the democratic possibilities that they appeared to create have receded. Among the countries that experienced significant mass protest movements in early 2011, only Tunisia seems likely to produce a consolidated democracy in the foreseeable future. In every other case, transitions have revealed the difficulty of overcoming the stubborn institutional and social legacies of authoritarian rule, and the extraordinary lengths to which authoritarian regimes will go to survive. In Syria, any possibility that protesters might bring about the breakdown of authoritarianism and initiate a transition to democracy was extinguished early on, first by the Assad regime's ferocious repression and then by the country's descent into a brutal and increasingly sectarian civil war. Grim statistics only hint at the toll: more than a hundred thousand killed, millions more forced to flee, and eight million in need of humanitarian aid. Officials of the United Nations describe Syria as the worst humanitarian disaster since Rwanda in 1994, and instability is rising among Syria's Arab neighbors.

The democratic aspirations of the protesters who filled streets and public squares across Syria in early 2011 were among the conflict's first casualties. If democracy as an outcome of the uprising was always uncertain, democratic prospects have been severely crippled by the devastation of civil war and the deepening fragmentation of Syrian society. Whether ethnosectarian diversity is a cause of conflict remains deeply contested. However, countries emerging from ethnosectarian civil wars are widely understood to be among the least likely to democratize once conflict ends. Postconflict democratization in such cases fails far more often than it succeeds. More than half of all countries that experience civil wars relapse into conflict after a period of interim peace.

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