Syria: patience of people running thin

Interview with the Russian expert in Middle East and North Africa security studies Vladimir Ahmedov.

According to news reports, during six days of demonstrations for political freedoms and an end to corruption in the country of 20 million Syrian forces have killed over a dozen of civilians. Is it a start of a revolution?

Of course the number of casualties quoted in news reports coming from Syria, is relatively small compared to number of casualties in other Arab countries, swept by unrest. The protests which we are witnessing now in the southern Syrian province of Deraa, is something quite unusual for Syria under Bashar al Assad.  Back in 2004 Syria also saw some protests – at the time that was Syrian Kurds’ unrest provoked by what was going on in Iraq, but that was different. So, what we are witnessing now is a rather disturbing factor which must come as signal of alert for the Syrian power circles. It is also a challenge for the President Bashar Assad himself and his team.

Now the most serious protests have been registered in the south of the country in Deraa province, close to Jordanian border. People were killed there and various efforts undertaken by the Syrian government to stabilize the situation, though quite prompt, have been inefficient as yet.

However, protesters do not demand resignation of the President – something which was the aim of the protests in Egypt or Tunisia. Their major demands are greater freedom, better economic conditions. Besides if we compare them to revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, protests in Syria don’t seem to be so well organized. Reasons for protests are different in regions along Mediterranean coast or in the south of the country. In the south it all started after a group of school students started to write some sort of proclamations and complaints, protesting against growing food prices. The reaction from the local authorities, who detained several of those kids, was exaggerated, causing a wave of protests this time from the angry parents of the kids who were detained. So that’s how it all started.

Protests in the East were caused by different factors. But to sum it up – these protests are coming as an important signal for the present government, all the more so that in spring and summer this year some of the most important developments are supposed to take place in Syria. What I’m referring to is a long-anticipated – and long overdue party reform, local and parliamentary elections.  People have been looking forward to their government final approval of a new and important legislation, like the law on the role of the ruling party, a law on Amnesty, and other important drafts which have already been approved by the President.

Economic issues are very important, since Syria is facing much the same economic problems as other Arab countries – poverty, which has been growing during the world recession, there is an issue of unemployment, and here we see that official data paint a more optimistic picture, since, as we all know they do not account for something like (hidden) unemployment. Therefore new jobs need to be created, there’s a growing number of young people who need work. Young people form more than 60% of the whole of Syrian population. They are all looking for well-paid jobs so that they could marry and start a family, which is a rather costly project in Syria, just like in any other country in the region. There’s also an issue of rising prices for basic consumer goods… Of course the government has been trying to take measures to alleviate the problems – they have increased wages for government workers, they have also been trying to regulate food prices, to introduce subsidies, but these measures cannot alter the situation, they are not enough to change it in a more radical way.

The trick is that in almost all countries of the region the rate of economic growth is almost equal or only slightly exceeds birthrate. This creates conditions when even what could be seen as a healthy economic growth, is literally consumed by the growth of population – so the gap should be much greater.

But what prevents Syria from expanding the gap?

Well, they need more investments. Of course, Syria has generally been regarded as an oil producing country, but the volume of oil production has always been much lower than in such countries like Saudi Arabia, for instance, and besides its oils reserves have been almost exhausted. Therefore though Syrian oil is light and expensive the oils money is no longer enough to finance their economic growth.

But don’t they have something like an oil fund?

Yes they do, but on the one hand it is not as big as in some of the Gulf monarchies, and on the other hand Syria has been spending relatively large sums on military budget, since it needs to maintain its defence capabilities in their long-time stand-off with Israel. Of course the country gets some money for transporting oil across its territory, but this, too, is barely enough.

Therefore, the country’s economic leaders insist on the need to attract more investments into Syrian economy. Otherwise the government would find it extremely difficult to solve the economic problems it’s been faced with. However, compared to other neighbors, Syria has relatively favorable outlook in what regards food security, for example. It’s not as good as back in the 1980’s when this country in fact solved the issue of its food security. Now the country already has to import some of the food products, but still the situation is far from being critical.  

Mr Ahmedov, but Western media says that Syria is not exactly attractive to investors, due to a number of factors including high level of corruption. So, does the Syrian government see it as an issue?  

Unfortunately, in Syria and in other countries, the fight against corruption becomes an element of the political struggle. So a fairly high degree of corruption persists. From the point of view of investment attractiveness, the Syrians with Bashar al-Assad and his team of economists are quite advanced in that sense and are generally geared towards the West and they have tried to do quite a lot to bring western investment into Syria and creative a positive investment climate. And I think that they have been quite successful to that end. Last year, they opened a stock exchange and introduced new banking legislation because all in all, the economic modernization course charted by Bashar al-Assad after he came to power has been advanced quite far along, because modernization was primarily economic – political modernization took a back seat after February 2001. In this context, there are many foreign companies, including Russian ones, working there. Priority was given to reforming Syria’s financial system, in terms of establishing new banks and new investment conditions, working with other banks, etc – that is, the banking system was the core of Syria’s economic modernization. However, this is obviously not the kind of thing you can do quickly. In the last ten years, Syria has withstood some serious challenges, the number one being Iraq. Between 2003 and 2005, there was a real expectation that American troops would be deployed in Damascus and the Syrian regime would fall. This didn’t happen, but nevertheless the problem was there. And Syria was in a very serious predicament – there were attempts to isolate it by the Arab community and the world at large, which prompted the country to foster such close ties with Iran. Iran renders great help to Syria, there is massive Iranian investment in that country.

Which sectors of the economy?

Practically all sectors, but certainly the key ones. What’s more, in recent years, after ties with Turkey were rebuilt following al-Assad’s famous visit in 2004, there have been free economic zones created in the border regions and there is a huge flow of investment there too. There are joint Syrian-Turkish and Syrian-Iranian economic commissions that meet regularly in Damascus, Ankara and Tehran. So these three countries have very solid ties, but they took a long time to reach this point – they only got there maybe one-two years ago. Nevertheless, this dichotomy, as regards the birth rate and the economic growth rate, still persists and there is a very real need for investment into the Syrian economy – they place this at USD 8-10 billion annually, but this is still out of reach. Another option is the introduction of restrictions on births in the country. That is, if they can’t boost economic growth, they can try to rein in birth rates, although you have to consider this in the context of the norms for an Islamic society. And even though the lifestyle and mentality of the Syrian people is rather more secular, the influence of Islam has really increased in recent years under general regional trends.

You said that the current Syrian leadership has a powerful team of economists and I understood that these are people with a western education…

Yes, these are Western-oriented people, this is true. You see, when al-Assad came to power, in June 2000, he pursued some major political reforms. At least he spoke about this at first and there were a series of laws adopted at all levels to this end. In February 2001, the political reforms were soft-pedaled down to zero, with many political activists arrested and put behind bars, and political organizations disbanded. So in February 2001, political reforms stopped before they got off the ground – the “Damascus spring” was over. At the same time, you must be mindful of the fact that al-Assad came face-to-face with opposition that he hardly expected, being of another generation and a person with a strictly civilian background – unlike his brother, who is a professional military man. He’s an ophthalmologist with a western education, at least as regards his specialization – he was trained in London where he met his wife – prior to that, he studied at Damascus University. He came up against opposition from the law enforcement side and also from political parties, and there were opponents from both the old guard and the new guard, so to say. This was a surprise for him. After this happened, he discontinued the political modernization and focused instead on the economy side of things. When the Syrians started mulling various economic development models, they sought out international specialists. There were many options under consideration – they found the Chinese model very appealing, there was a team of French experts on board, who were working out a series of programs. The Germans joined in at one stage and put together an entire framework for administrative reform in Syria from the point of view of economic development – there was a lot written and published on this topic. This was all done in preparation for Syria joining the Mediterranean Union, but so far, this accession has yet to actualize in full.

One of the major western criticisms of Syria has been that it ruthlessly suppresses the opposition. How much truth is there to this?

That’s a good question. To figure out who the opposition really might be, let’s backtrack a little and consider that when all of the Facebook and Twitter campaigns started back in January, the Syrian calls were either superbly clumsy or the Syrian Special Services did a great job. For instance, there was a poster with a clenched fist against a red background, with calls to join the rallies. This was ridiculous for Syrians, even though the population there is quite politically active. Anyway, let’s return to the issue to why a Tunisian or Egyptian scenario is not possible in Syria. There is no systemic internal opposition in Syria. The only oppositional force that poses a threat to the current government is the so-called Islamists represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. Particularly in view of a foreign branch of the exiled Syrian Brotherhood getting new leader. You see, the Syrians managed to establish certain ties with the previous head Ali al-Bayanouni, who has now been replaced with a fairly stern new chief, who has pledged action. But after the 1976-1982 events in Hama and other northern Syrian cities, the Syrian Special Services did some serious damage to the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country, pushing them out of Syria, west-wards and into other Arab countries. So this is the only more or less serious systemic oppositional force that can represent a threat to the Syrian regime. But this opposition is beyond Syria’s borders. If we talk about opposition that is acting from, say, the United States – well, the Syrians have done quite a lot to discredit it and bind it to US State Department financing. They have been able to prove this – there’s one Mister Gadari there in the US. Whereas the opposition that’s acting from European countries is more of a threat to the current government because there are foreign branches of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Paris, London and Aalen in Germany  and secondly, there are also non-Islamic oppositionists, say Abdul Halim Khaddam, who’s been lauding recent events on his websites. This is a former vice president of Syria, a Sunni, who had to flee Syria in 2005 after he was named an enemy of the state. There’s also the uncle of the current president, Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of the deceased Hafiz al-Assad, who had been striving for power but never got it.

And these forces are obviously dangerous, especially given that they can find some ways of interaction, despite all efforts which Syrian secret services to avert that. Otherwise, this will be an opposition of top echelons because Abdel Khalim Khaddam has been part of the Syrian leadership for a long time and still has ties to the country’s parties, especially the ruling one. People like him do not exactly advertise their views and links but can activate them at any time if necessary. However, in Syria, opposition groups are mostly based abroad, without forming any well-organized opposition parties. There are parties existing as part of the popular front – a quasi organization comprising 8 factions – but the key role is played by the Arab Socialist Union Party. The law of parties itself underwent numerous discussions but has not yet been adopted though. It is ready in fact. This was a presidential initiative, which nevertheless encountered serious resistance within party, administrative and bureaucratic circles. The country therefore lacks an organized system-based opposition. This may be an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time, since all statements coming from Syria are spontaneous in their nature and have no single organization. But we saw nearly the same initial situation in Egypt and Tunisia.

You said there are some peculiarities in Syria which can prompt an absolutely different scenario, right?

Yes, there are some. There are certain factors showing the differences of Syria among other countries. First and foremost, they have a young president who enjoys great popularity among the masses, especially the youth which was sort of an engine for all these revolutions in Arab counties. He was really accepted with much enthusiasm and there were also many hopes pinned on him. But this expectation threshold so to say was unfortunately decreased by the present-day actions of the government. The president still manages to maintain his high popularity, with his wife playing not the least role. There is a whole article about her published in the last but one issue of Vogue Magazine, which evoked a wild reaction in some of the US specific circles. She is really doing a lot in terms of support to her husband. We also need to consider that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes from the Alavit community that forms 12 percent of that country population, whereas his wife Asma al-Assad, née Asma Fawaz al-Akhras, originates from a noble family. She graduated from a business school in London and worked in the banking sector. Such a combination is rather favorable in terms of Syria’s multi-confessional structure. Then, unlike Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Saleh, the president of Syria is young. But again, you should not get your hopes up. In Egypt and Tunisia there is a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor. In Syria it’s different. The link between different social classes is not lost, and it is very important. There seem to be kind of small elevators still functioning between different social strata.

So, the stratification of society does exist, even though on a smaller scale, is that correct?

It is rather substantial nevertheless. There are families in Syria, Arab families, which speak only French, like it once was in Russia. There are people, for instance, who can fly to Paris in the morning to have their hair done and they be back in Syria. There are not many of them but still. And Syria somehow manages to preserve these ties between various social strata. Once a person goes in for business, he is not completely lost for ordinary people and seeks to maintain contacts with them. This is a positive moment as regards the social situation in Syria. One more thing is that its military force, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, are very closely interconnected by the regime. Syria has an ideological non-depoliticized army. In Egypt, especially after Sadat’s assassination, Mubarak’s attempts to integrate the military into the economic sphere resulted in his depoliticizing them. But he failed and things turned out to be quite the opposite. And the army in Syria has always been ideological in character. The leadership and directing role of the ruling party is laid down in one of the articles of that country’s Constitution. The army and secret services are therefore closely connected with the political power, unlike Tunisia and Egypt. In case of some large-scale events, the government will offer tough resistance but special services will have to take pains to tackle the problem as quickly as in Egypt and Tunisia. Syria also has very powerful parallel military structures, particularly riot control forces which were until recently led by current Syrian Defense Minister Ali Habib, republican guard units and other subdivisions engaged in not only protecting Syria’s external boundaries but also ensuring domestic policy order and preserving the stability of incumbent authorities.

And what if instability lingers in Syria? We have an example of Libya with the interference of some outside forces. It is at all possible in Syria?

It is, but there is one more important moment regarding Syria. Syria is a special country in this sense, a country that survived eight military coups, from 1949 to 1969. A generation of those who went through the latest one is still living in Syria. They are naturally displeased with the situation. And there is another generation which witnessed the events of 1976-1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to overthrow this regime. And there is a new generation which saw the events in Iraq – some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees currently residing in Syria. These three experienced generations can hardly be driven into a revolution; they are simply scared.

As for external forces – some might say these protests have been instigated by what we term as external factors. That is something we might also take into consideration. Relations with Syria have always been seen as a major headache in Israel. However, the current Israeli government is opposed to the resumption of peace process between Israel and Syria. Their Foreign minister has been blocking every attempt taken in that direction, putting forward all sorts of unrealistic conditions. On the other hand Israeli military command has been in favor of resuming peace negotiations with Syria. Americans have also been trying to encourage Israel to start talks with Syria, but the split within the Israeli establishment still remains. So, theoretically there could be some efforts to destabilize the situation in Syria, which would look quite natural against a backdrop of the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world now. However, and I continue to insist on that, this would hardly be in the interests of Israel itself. For one thing, Bashar Assad, like I already said, belongs to Allavit religious minority. As a member of minority he needs to move with caution and for that reason he is likely to prefer negotiations to the use of force. Now, if we look at different scenarios of regime change, it is most likely that in that case the Sunnis might come to power. There are Sunni regimes in the neighbouring countries, which would offer their support for a new government in case the need arises. Which means that a Sunni government would be more prone to the use of force than the current one.

So the change of the regime is hardly a desired scenario. But there let me stress. The need for political reforms is really urgent. The patience of the people is running thin. Which means that President Assad and his team should initiate the process of political reforms and bring back the so-called Damascus Spring which was interrupted in February 2001. If they fail to address popular concerns by tackling some of the most sensitive issues, that would be their fatal mistake.  

To find out more on the issue, read or listen to our Burning Point program from March 24, 2011 in Radio section. 

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