Syria’s Uprising

Bassam Haddad, George Mason University
Salwa Ismail, University of London
Steven Heydemann, United States Institute of Peace

Moderated by:
Marc Lynch, George Washington University

Syria’s Uprising

Three leading political scientists discussed the uprising and future prospects for Syria. Marc Lynch, moderating the discussion, began by describing the challenges that the Syrian uprising has posed for the academic community. While we have seen largely peaceful protests throughout the Arab world over the past year, those in Syria have taken a violent turn. How to deal with the situation from the Syrian perspective and not from Washington’s is the brutal task at hand.

Bassam Haddad, the director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, began the discussion. He asserted that while uprisings are always complex, Syria’s is particularly complicated. Uprisings touch on many solutions, but political histories often paint a picture where we ask ourselves how to get out with the least horrible effects. Haddad described the structural effects and elements of the uprising, showing a system of dual polarization in Syria over the last 25 years that saw economic change and growing disparities between the haves and have-nots. Most of the economic growth that has occurred in the cities has been at the expense of the rural countryside, creating a situation that was nearly unbearable in the early 2000s. Since then, there has been major migration from the country to the cities, and some cities have been more successful than others in absorbing the added population. Haddad drew a parallel to Iraq, where post-2003, it saw an influx of capital from the countryside into the cities. In Syria, the countryside, as a result of these structural effects, was ready to explode prior to the start of the uprisings and is now the place where they are the strongest.

Haddad continued by looking at the Syrian regime’s resilience thus far, and asked how it has stayed strong. He examined the level of societal opposition and found that pro-regime forces are far more organic and cohesive than in other uprisings. He pointed out the difficulty in separating the regime and its supporters into their different elements, which are a lot more heterogeneous than people think. In explaining the stalemate, Haddad also looked at the structural dimension of the regime’s coherence versus the heterogeneity of society. He noted that while the regime has been losing control of certain locations, and has therefore resorted to relying on its security apparatus, the physical and mental dimension of the regime is still holding up. As for the non-material dimension, the regime has lost much of its authority and legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and this has impeded upon its ability to govern its territory. Nonetheless, Haddad asserted that the regime is still holding on, and with a tougher response at that. Last, he described the way that Syria is seen not just as a humanitarian crisis but as a legitimate opportunity for international actors to reshape power relations in the region.

Salwa Ismail, professor of politics in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, sought to dispel the notion that this is a sectarian conflict. She asserted that Sunni protests against Allawi rule differ and are not homogenous, but rather derive from a mix of motivations. Ismail described a struggle that is, in her eyes, sociopolitical and economic at its core. She emphasized that the process of sociopolitical exclusion and growing wealth disparities has been going on for 40 years and is finally culminating in what we’re seeing today. She noted that there are even Allawis and Druze, groups that are traditionally seen as allied with the regime, that are joining the ranks of the opposition.

The last speaker was Steven Heydemann, the senior advisor for Middle East Initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace. He sought to provide the “policy wonk” response to the uprising, and began by describing the way Western powers like France and the United States see political transition as the only, albeit difficult, way for moving forward. Heydemann described the group “Friends of Syria,” set to meet in Tunis, as an example of actors that may become more prominent now that the “U.N. pathway is closed.” In describing the United States’ policy dilemma, he focused on three points. First, the administration has in the last few months “bumped up” the use of economic policies, like sanctions. According to Heydemann, the United States strongly favors these traditional forms of policy that simply do not work, with the false expectation that raising the cost of loyalty to the regime will trigger its collapse. He described this as a failed fundamental reading of Syria. Second, he described the lack of viable alternatives for U.S. policy makers. The veto power held by Russia and China in the U.N. Security Council undermines the route of UN-sanctioned intervention, while violence continues to escalate. Underneath this, he asserted that none of the conditions needed to make a meaningful intervention work are in place. He described a policy of economic sanctions as only “more of the same” and admitted that he does not see the administration as standing on a strong foundation. His last point was the increasing concern for the growing militarization of the uprising. While the administration has admonished this militarization, he believes that they lack the right policy tools and the multilateral political aspect of change. He asserted that the ultimate goal should not simply be regime change, but rather a legitimate push for democracy — an area that he believes U.S. efforts should be expanded in.