Scott Lasensky is the co-author of Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace (USIP Press) and Dealing with Damascus (Council on Foreign Relations). He travels regularly to Syria.

March 28, 2011

Scott Lasensky is the co-author of Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace" (USIP Press) and Dealing with Damascus (Council on Foreign Relations). He travels regularly to Syria.

What is happening in Syria right now?

For more than a week public protests have grown in intensity and spread throughout the country. This is by far the largest domestic challenge to the regime since the 1982 Islamist uprising in Hama, which was brutally suppressed. The fact that the current unrest is taking place amidst a wider regional upheaval reflects the fact that no Arab government can fully insulate itself from the momentous changes now taking place in the Middle East. The traditional strategies relied upon to maintain control at home—in Syria and across the Arab world—appear highly circumscribed in light of:

  • the greater transparency that comes with the surge in information flows;
  • the fast-moving protest movements that have already toppled two Arab leaders, and;
  • an international show of force in Libya sparked by an autocrat’s attempt to brutally suppress a largely peaceful uprising at home

On the surface, the protests--initially centered in the southern town of Dera’a—focused on demands to end Syria’s half-century, draconian “emergency” decrees and the release of political prisoners. Issues of state-sanctioned corruption—which is rife in Syria—have also entered the fray. There’s also a sense of rage, given that state security forces have apparently killed scores of unarmed protesters, mostly in and around Dera’a.

But under the surface these events could add up to far more extensive public demands for change and reform in Syria.

Still, it is hard to get a clear picture given how tightly the regime tries to control the flow of information. Thirty years ago, with the country more isolated and the government’s near-total monopoly on technology, events in Hama almost went unnoticed. But today the landscape is quite different, with mobile phone usage quite high in Syria, and the country far more open to travelers from neighboring countries and beyond.

Still, compared with its regional peers, information is still more tightly controlled in Syria than almost anywhere in the region, including limits on Internet usage and government blockage of outside news sources. In recent days the Syrian government has tried to crack down even further, as evidenced by the expulsion last week of Khaled Yacoub Oweiss, the widely respected, veteran Damascus bureau chief for Reuters.

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How does it affect nearby hotspots like Israel, Lebanon and Iraq?

Syria occupies a strategic crossroads in the Middle East. The potential dangerous scenarios sparked by the current crisis are too innumerable to list: an incident in Lebanon or Israel could be staged to divert attention from domestic protests; with the regime’s attention elsewhere, insurgents could slip across Syria’s long and porous border with Iraq; vulnerable populations in Syria—like hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, or Syria’s disenfranchised Kurdish population—could become scapegoats.

It is relations with Israel that could prove particularly worrisome. Despite the 1974, U.S.-brokered “separation of forces” agreement, which created an uneasy quiet along the two countries’ Golan frontier, war scares have been all too common in recent years. Israeli strategic planners, who for years have been supportive of peace talks with Syria and returning the Golan Heights, will no doubt turn more cautious given the domestic unrest. Although monitored regularly by U.N. peacekeepers, the two countries maintain large arsenals aimed at one another. For Israel, which is locked in a dangerous and violent standoff with Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas-ruled Gaza, and ever anxious about its peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan in light of the protest movements, questions about the Syrian regime’s grip on power will only make the Jewish state more nervous and on edge.

In the short-term, there could be positive implications for the Israeli-Palestinian track. Of the many impediments to Palestinian reconciliation—which, for some, is a prerequisite to peace with Israel---is the Syrian government’s support for Hamas (whose leader, Khaled Meshaal, is based in Damascus). Relations between PLO leader and PA president Mahmoud Abbas and Syria have long been strained, punctuated by Syria’s longstanding support for Hamas. Therefore, with the Syrian regime focused singularly on diffusing the growing challenge at home, and Hamas leaders uncertain about the future, it could provide a lift to Palestinian leaders who have embarked another attempt at internal political reconciliation. But even this modest sense of greater maneuverability vis-à-vis Hamas and its regional patrons could be cancelled out by growing anxiety within the PA leadership itself that regional unrest will spread to the Palestinian territories. Abbas also feels vulnerable since Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt, which had long been a key PA patron in inter-Arab politics.

Also in the short-term, at least in terms of how the larger balance of power is perceived, instability in Syria—a close ally of Iran—could be viewed as positive for the U.S. and its allies in the region. But overall, it’s hard to know what implications there are for regional peace and security until there is greater clarity about Syria’s political future.

For two years, Washington has sought ways to bring about a relaxation of tensions in the ever-fraught U.S.-Syrian bilateral relationship. The Obama Administration has sent high-level officials to dialogue with the regime, approved new export licenses, and restored normal diplomatic relations by returning the U.S. ambassador. It has even tried to coax Syrians and Israelis back to the negotiating table. But these efforts—uneasy even in the best of times—will likely be on hold until the political outlook in Syria becomes clearer.

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What should we be looking out for from Syria in the next few days or weeks?

So far, the regime seems to be pulled in different directions as it tries to tamp down the growing wave of dissent. On the one hand, there are numerous reports of state security forces making arrests and using deadly force on protesters—including the storming of a mosque in Dera’a. But on the other hand, the regime has also reportedly released a number of political prisoners and sent several high ranking officials to meet with community leaders in areas suffering unrest.

The key metric is control. It will be important to see if demonstrations continue to spread and if they grow in vital places like Damascus—where the regime has its tightest grip on power—and in the country’s second-largest city, Aleppo. It will also be important to watch and see how regional actors—like Turkey and neighboring Arab governments—react and whether they begin to publicly pressure the regime and call on President Bashar Assad to enact immediate reforms and “exercise restraint and respect the rights of its people,” as the White House has done.

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