- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is scheduled to speak this week in response to recent protests and perhaps lift Syria’s emergency laws, and the Syrian cabinet resigned (al-Jazeera), creating questions about whether Assad’s government could meet the same fate as those in Tunisia and Egypt. But Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says the protests’ "momentum has not caught on." Landis says protests have largely been confined to southern Syria, in the impoverished region around Deraa--which has been hit hard by rising commodity prices--and they generally haven’t been large enough to overwhelm security, as they did in Egypt. Landis says that the alliance seems to be holding between the Alawite leadership that runs the political and security forces under Assad and the majority population of Sunnis who control the country’s economic and cultural life. He also notes that Saudi Arabia has made clear its support for Assad’s regime. "It is too early to say definitively, but it is very possible that the winds of change that have been sweeping the Arab world will stall in Syria," says Landis.
Last week you wrote on your blog that the Ba’athist regime in Syria led by President Assad was on the ropes. How do you see the situation now?
March 25 was the big day for the opposition; it was a day of prayer. The opposition to the regime was calling for everyone to go to the mosques, assemble and come out demanding change and freedom. By and large these protests did not spread to the cities, and they have not really spread beyond Daraa in the south. There have been isolated protests throughout Syria, but none of them large enough to overwhelm security as we saw happen in Egypt. The momentum has not caught on. It is too early to say definitively, but it is very possible that the winds of change that have been sweeping the Arab world will stall in Syria.
In Damascus, I gather there have been really no significant protests.
There have been a number of small protests that have not lasted for very long. Hundreds of people, perhaps one thousand people at the most.
For the revolution to be successful, the Sunni elite in Syria has to abandon its alliance with the Alawite leadership in the country.
The Syrian government has been led by the al-Assad family, who are Alawites, since Hafez al-Assad--the father of current leader Bashar al-Assad--led a coup in 1970. Tell us about this family.
The al-Assad family is from the Alawite Mountains on the coast of Syria between Lebanon and Turkey. The Alawites are a sectarian group, an offshoot of Shia Islam. They are a compact minority and constitute roughly 12 percent of the Syrian population.
By and large, these protests did not spread to the cities and they have not really spread beyond Daraa in the South.
How did they seize power and keep it all of these years?
In many ways, Syria is still a reflection of the post-colonial Middle East. When the French occupied Syria in 1920 as a League of Nations mandate, which they ruled until 1946, they faced an Arab nationalist backlash that was lead by the Sunnis of Syria. In order to fight that nationalist movement, they built an indigenous army which they packed with Syria’s minorities and rural Syrians from places like Daraa.
When the French left, the Sunni elite were faced with a military they inherited from the French that had a very different religious and class composition than the political leaders who led the national bloc of Syria. It wasn’t long before the military leaders kicked out the Sunni upper classes and took over. This was contemporaneous with Nasserism [in Egypt] and the rise of Arab nationalism throughout the region, which put the whole Middle East into revolutionary ferment. There was a long period of instability once the military took over, because there was a sorting out that took place between the various sectarian and regional groups in the military. The Alawites ended up at the top of this. Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. He put his relatives in power. We see the same paradigm reproduced throughout the Middle East, whether it is in the monarchies or the republics. The family, region, and sect provide loyalty which ultimately can produce stability and security for the nation. Of course, it produces authoritarianism.
Talk about Bashar Al-Assad.
He is heir to this regime and one-party state with his military dominated by Alawites. Of course, the Sunnis play a very important role and the security of the state, and its stability has been predicated on this alliance between the security forces, leaders, and presidents who are Alawites, and the Sunnis who get to dominate the ramparts of the economy. The Sunnis are the moral and cultural leaders of Syria. As long as those two groups remain united, it will be very difficult for an opposition to arise.
Is there a visible opposition in Syria?
This is the million dollar question. In many ways there is no opposition leader who people can look to. Every Syrian is asking: What is the alternative to this regime? They don’t know.
There is nothing in Syria comparable to what happened in Cairo, where the young people led ad-hoc demonstrations that eventually toppled president Hosni Mubarak?
No. In Cairo in Tahrir Square, the numbers were extraordinary. Thousands and thousands of people took that square, and within a day or two the revolution spread to the major provincial cities and the security forces in the state were overwhelmed. This did not happen to Syria. What we’ve seen in the last few days is the leading imams in Syria have come out calling for unity and supporting the regime. None of the major Sunni leaders, economic or cultural, have come out in favor of revolution.
What about Daraa, this little town on the border with Jordan? Why have they had demonstrations and shootings there?
Daraa represents the great hardship and suffering of many Syrians. Thirty-two percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, earning $2 a day or less. Syrians have been hammered by the rise of commodity prices. Wheat alone has gone up over 100 percent in the last two years. All food items have gone up. Half of Syrians are spending 50 percent of their income on food alone.
Why? Isn’t that region a breadbasket?
There is, but world prices are going up because the Chinese and the Indians are getting rich, and they want to eat beef and other things that are driving these commodities up. There have also been terrible weather patterns in Russia and Australia and so forth that have hurt wheat production. The worldwide commodity price rise is combined also with a terrible drought in Syria over the last four years that has devastated wheat crops, and Daraa is the center of Syria’s wheat region. That area has been hurt badly by this combination of events. Ironically, Assad has launched economic reforms, abandoning the socialist state of his father and trying to lead the country towards free market systems. This is undermining a lot of the social support systems.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said members of Congress who have been to Syria say that Bashar al-Assad is a reformer (CBS). She gave that as one reason why the United States has no interest in intervening in Syria. Do you agree that he is a reformer?
He’s a reformer on the economic front, but he is not a reformer on the political front.
He’s expected to speak and possibly lift Syria’s emergency law. Is this significant?
I fear will be largely meaningless. There are many laws the Syrian state can use to contravene the constitution. The Syrian constitution has some very good clauses in it that guarantee freedom and individual rights, the right to assembly, free speech, but they have been abrogated by laws that supersede it. The emergency laws were just the first of these in 1963 when the revolution of the Ba’ath party took place and it needed to override the constitution. The government claims that it is going to pass a new anti-terrorism law as it rescinds the emergency law. We don’t know what is in that anti-terrorism law, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it allows some of the things that the emergency law does.
What we’ve seen in the last few days is the leading imams in Syria have come out calling for unity and supporting the regime. None of the major Sunni leaders, economic or cultural, have come out in favor of revolution.
What has happened with U.S.-Syrian relations?
They’ve been bad since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. President Obama tried to engage with Syria, but in order to really engage with Syria you need to have peace between Israel and Syria. The Golan Heights issue has to be solved. It raises the whole question of Arab and Israel peace, which so far is too much for Obama. Obama didn’t have either the desire of President George W. Bush to hurt Syria, nor could he solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. I think to a certain extent he ignored Syria. He did use his powers of the president to make an interim appointment of the new Ambassador Robert Ford to Syria last summer, who is there against the wishes of many in Congress. There was a congressional delegation that went to Syria a few weeks ago, just before these protests took place. By all accounts they had a long meeting with Assad and were impressed. Undoubtedly, Clinton’s comment stems from this delegation’s report.
Have Arab countries stood behind Assad in the recent time of trouble?
They have in a sense. Saudi Arabia came out yesterday and said that the King of Saudi Arabia called Assad and gave him Saudi Arabia’s support in face of the "plots" that Syria has faced trying to undermine its’ security.
That’s the Saudi version of the phone call?
That’s the Saudi version; it was in a Saudi paper. Bashar al-Assad supported the Saudis in their crackdown in support of Bahrain. There has been a little mutual back- scratching going on.
Normally, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Syria are fairly tense?
They were tense until the two sides put Lebanon behind them. After Obama came to power, Saudi Arabia and Syria went to work patching up their relations. They’ve had a sometimes tense relationship, but they’ve had an understanding recently that they don’t want their differences on Lebanon to impede cooperation on questions like Iraq and mutual support on questions like Yemen. Saudi Arabia was looking for support in the Yemen situation against Iran, which they got.
Two years ago, Bashar came out and made a statement that there should be no foreign interference in Yemen, with the Hutti rebels in the north of Yemen, meaning that Iran should keep its’ nose out of Yemen. Saudi Arabia solicited that statement, and they gave it to them. This set the groundwork for a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement.
What about Lebanon?
Syria has reasserted its authority in Lebanon to a large degree with Najib Mikat [the choice of Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria] being nominated for prime minister. He has not formed a government yet, so there are still important differences between Hezbollah and the parties aligned with former prime minister Saad Hariri. These could be patched up or not, depending on how the outcome of all of this comes. If there is a Saudi-Syrian agreement on the running of Lebanon, it might go forward. People are beginning to say that Saudi Arabia may try to benefit from the instability in Syria and it’s giving support to al-Assad in order to get greater concessions on the Hezbollah issue, which is backed by Syria and Iran. We don’t know for sure, but Lebanon is always a bargaining chip between Syria and Saudi Arabia.