Why Syria Squeaked

(Huffington Post) Across the Middle East and North Africa the winds of change continue to blow, with the battle between governments and the people continuing, and governments apparently losing.


Yet those hoping to add Syria to the list of countries in transition were as disappointed as last Friday’s ‘Day of Rage’ in Damascus failed to materialise. So what explains Syria’s seeming invulnerability to the most dramatic events to have struck the region for decades?

Arguably a combination of traditional security measures, including tight control of foreign and domestic media and a large number of security and intelligence personnel, twinned with modern techniques regulating the internet and virtual opposition made it almost impossible for protestors to organise.


Ever since its invention the internet has been restricted in Syria. In fact it’s only in the past few weeks that Syria has allowed its internet users to access Facebook after a 5-year ban. Meanwhile traditional measures included the security forces issuing explicit warnings against protests and making targeted arrests. Human Rights Watch reported that Ghassan al-Najjar, the 75-year-old leader of a small Islamic group based in the northern city of Aleppo, was arrested prior to the aborted ‘day of rage’.  Al-Najjar joins approximately 4,500 Syrian ‘prisoners of opinion’ according to the Haitham Maleh Foundation, a Brussels-based Syrian rights organisation.

In addition Syria, unlike Egypt, has no concerns over dependency on the West  which could act as a break on state violence, and has used the spectre of foreign meddling as a means to mobilise nationalist sentiment against change imposed from outside. While the Egyptian army has largely refrained from violence in response to the protests, Syrians on the other hand, are unlikely to ever forget the events in Hama (pictured) when the Syrian military quelled an uprising in 1982 by simply flattening the city, killing thousands.

The difficulty in organising opposition is put into a context of a population who have witnessed the consequences of revolutions and regime replacement on both its east and western borders, with the corresponding chaos and violence leading to the influx of tens of thousands of refugees. By contrast the stability that youthful Assad has delivered his people, combined with his standard anti-Western rhetoric , is reflected by his popularity in the country, a great departure to those who suspected that the humiliating 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon may signal the end of the Assad dynasty.

Brooking’s Syrian exile Ammar Abdulhamid points out that Syria lacks the grassroots organisations that were the platform for events in Egypt. He describes how “there are really no independent civil society institutions to speak of: no free unions, no independent student bodies, no active political opposition parties – in short, no structures that could enable people to organise themselves and rally others”. However many of the underlying factors behind Egypt’s emerging revolution remain present in Syria. Although there have been significant recent improvements the country’s economy it still fails to meet the expectations of a young and growing population. Veteran Syrian commentator Joshua Landis correctly described it as “not a situation that is endlessly sustainable.”

What events in Egypt have shown is that the authoritarian inertia of the majority of the Arab states is no guarantee of its survival. Improved transparency born of Wikileaks has combined with internet social networking tools to circumnavigate traditional modes of state security. The battle is by no means over however, as what Mubarak’s regime’s continued rule shows is the durability of the state and how its mode of politics may remain with or without Mubarak at the helm. Assad’s assertion that Syria is ‘immune’ to any reverberations may be true in the short term but until the dust settles in Egypt it will be impossible to know what the long term effects will be across the region.


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