USIP’s Steven Heydemann discusses the recent developments in Syria. The following is a slightly modified version of his interview with the online magazine, Jaddaliya.

April 5, 2011

USIP’s Steven Heydemann discusses the recent developments in Syria. The following is a slightly modified version of his interview with the online magazine, Jaddaliya.

What factors do you consider to be pivotal in determining the course of events in Syria? Do you believe that the opposition movement in Syria will be successful?

The Syrian opposition confronts formidable obstacles. Despite the courage and commitment of protesters, the wall of fear in Syria remains largely intact. It is reinforced not only by the scale of regime repression, but by deep-seated fears among Syrians about the risks of instability. To be sure, fear of instability is in some measure a product of regime efforts to reinforce the sense of Syria as vulnerable to threats, whether of sectarianism or the foreign plots that Bashar al-Assad referred to in his speech of March 30, and to convey the message that only the regime can protect the people from the chaos and destruction that would, inevitably, follow its demise. Yet we cannot dismiss the fears of Syrians as entirely the product of regime manipulation. Lebanese and Iraqi experiences are vivid reminders that sectarianism is real and dangerous. Whatever its sources, however, fear continues to hamper the ability of protest movements to mobilize large numbers of supports on a national scale, and to sustain collective action at a meaningful level.

In addition, protests in Syria have not yet congealed into a coherent opposition. Actions remain fragmented. No coherent leadership has emerged within the country. Outside of social media, protests have not yet gone viral. They have not yet achieved the critical mass needed to pose a fundamental threat to the regime. The weakness of the opposition—the product of the Syrian regime’s effectiveness over the past fifty years—no doubt contributes to the opposition's difficulties. It is entirely possible that this weakness could be overcome, given enough time. Whether sufficient time will be available, however, is not clear.

None of this leads to the conclusion that the Syrian opposition will not succeed in achieving some measure of political change, or that it will fail to achieve its more ambitious goal of democratization. It does suggest that success, however that might be defined, poses challenges for the Syrian opposition that will be very difficult to overcome.

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What do you consider to be missing or exaggerated in the discussion/writings/policy on the Syrian uprisings?

Several elements of the current debate seem to reflect misperceptions or distortions, in my view. Within some policy circles in Washington, the recent wave of protests have revived the long-held dream of “flipping” Syria through regime change, and re-defining the regional balance of power in ways that would work decisively to America’s advantage. Seen from this perspective, support for the opposition is desirable because of the strategic opportunity it represents for America, rather than the possibilities it offers for Syrians to secure their own freedom.

What this analysis tends to overlook, however, are the gaps that would need to be bridged to get there from here—that is, such perspectives underplay the challenges associated with moving Syria through a difficult, dangerous, and complex transition to a stable post-authoritarian political order. They also discount the very low probability that a Syrian democracy would have the political complexion that advocates of “flipping” seem to take for granted. Mis-perceptions or distortions of how a process of regime change would play out, or what its likely trajectories might be, have the potential to lead the US down a dangerous and counterproductive path. Far more effective, in my view, would be put in place a long-term strategy to develop the capacity of the Syrian opposition, and exploit the current opening to create a sustained, incremental approach to democratization in Syria, recognizing that we need to be in this game for the long haul.

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Is Syria different from its Arab counterparts in terms of the uprisings and the response? If yes, how so?

As someone who has long argued for authoritarian learning as a meaningful way to understand how Arab regimes have adapted to changing circumstances, the responses of the Syrian regime thus far have been deeply disappointing. In his March 30 speech, Bashar al-Assad referenced the “lessons learned” by the Syrian regime from uprisings elsewhere in the region. Yet I see very little evidence of learning in the behavior of the Syrian regime.

Aside from the non-trivial differences between the Syrian case and other Arab cases – some of which I reference above – the regime seems determined to imitate strategies that have been proven to fail in other settings. The combination of limited and largely cosmetic concessions on one hand, and repression on the other, has been tried and failed in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen. The presidential speeches blaming outsiders and alluding to plots against the nation have been tried elsewhere, with no more effect. Repression has a mixed track record. It has worked in Algeria. It has worked in Bahrain, but only when a neighboring country’s army moved in to support the regime. In every other case, however, from Tunisia, to Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Jordan, repression has failed to bring protests to an end. It has often been catalytic in mobilizing support for the opposition. So while we can imagine conditions under which repression will be more effective in Syria than in other cases, the general observation is that nothing the Syrian regime has done in response to protests distinguishes it from the approaches taken by its counterparts elsewhere in the region.

On a different level, however, one key argument of the regime has been that its nationalist credentials and association with the “resistance” bloc in the Middle East give it a basis of legitimacy that pro-Western Arab regimes do not enjoy. For all that the current protests underscore how hollow such claims are, they cannot be dismissed entirely. Peace treaties with Israel and close ties to the West, whatever their strategic and economic benefits for countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Jordan, remain deeply unpopular with citizens across the region. It may well be the case that on this issue, and in terms of its overall anti-Westernism, the Syria regime has an element of popular legitimacy that its pro-Western counterparts might lack.

Yet it would be an enormous mistake to place too much weight on this notion. On one hand, it is not hard for regimes like the Syrian to manufacture legitimacy through staged performances of “spontaneous” mass support. On the other, we have ample evidence over the past two weeks that the regime’s nationalist credentials, such as they are, do not insulate it from the deep anger and resentment that ordinary Syrians feel about issues ranging from corruption and inequality, to the humiliations associated with everyday life under an authoritarian regime that pervades almost every aspect of their existence. Even in this respect therefore, what might appear to be exceptional about Syria begins to look more typical if we dig a little bit beneath the surface of the regime’s claims.

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