Making Sense of the Syrian Uprising

The Syrian uprising began as soon as Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.  Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, came to power in 2000, with the transition from father to son marking Syria as the first Arab republican hereditary regime.  It was an especially unpropitious time -- not only was Bashar confronted with an international environment that his father could not have prepared him for, but the domestic patronage system, on which his power and the country's stability partly depended, was in danger of breaking down.

Syrian stronghold: the rise of Alawites

Syria's demographics are complex, making it a difficult country to rule based on ethnicity.  It is believed that three-fourths of the country's roughly 22 million people are Sunnis, including most of the Kurdish minority in the northeast.  Given the volatility that generally accompanies sectarianism, Syrian leaders deliberately avoid conducting censuses on religious demographics.  For example, the Alawite minority has grown significantly and has secured a power base through patron-client interaction deep within Syrian society.  Most experts put the number of Alawites in Syria at around 1.5 million, or close to 7 percent of the population.  When combined with Shia and Ismailis, non-Sunni Muslims average around 13 percent.  Christians of several variations, including Orthodox and Maronite, make up around 10 percent of the population.  The mostly mountain-dwelling Druze make up around 3 percent, according to many geopolitical analysts.

Historically, Alawites have been divided into rival tribes and clans geographically split between mountain refuges and plains in rural Syria.  This explains the relationships among the cities that rebelled against the regime.  The province of Latakia, which provides critical access to the Mediterranean coast, is also the Alawite homeland, ensuring that any Alawite bid for autonomy will be met with stiff Sunni resistance.  In modern-day Syria, the Alawites used to represent the impoverished lot in the countryside, while the urban-dwelling Sunnis dominated the country's businesses and political posts.  Unable to claim a firm standing among Muslims, Alawites would often embrace the Shiite concept of taqqiya (concealing or assimilating one's faith to avoid persecution) in dealing with their Sunni counterparts.

Assad and majority of his Ba'ath party members are from the Alawite tribe.  They completely dominate power centers in the country, including army, police, and state-supported militias in the border areas.  Under the Assad regime, Alawites have received preferential treatment in government services, economic opportunities, and armed forces recruitments, marginalizing the traditional Sunni clans.  Since the Ba'ath Party took power in the country, Alawite officers have multiplied in number, gaining control over the army (especially intelligence, air squadrons, missiles, and armored brigades).  This army control has helped perpetuate the Assad family rule over the Sunni-majority population.  Further, armed Alawite villagers have grouped into loyalist militias that threaten and attack opposition demonstrations against the ruler.

Threats from within

The al-Assad regime has also experienced serious threats from within the family.  After Hafez al-Assad suffered from heart problems in 1983, his younger brother Rifaat, who drew a significant amount of support from the military, attempted a coup against the Syrian leader.  None other than the al Assad matriarch, Naissa, mediated between her rival sons and reached a solution by which Rifaat was sent abroad to Paris, where he remains in exile, and Hafez was able to re-secure the loyalty of his troops.  The 1994 death of Basil al-Assad, brother of current president Bashar and then-heir apparent to a dying Hafez, also posed a significant threat to the unity of the al-Assad clan.  However, the regime was able to rely on key Sunni stalwarts such as Tlass to rally support within the military for Bashar, who was studying to become an ophthalmologist and had little experience with, or desire to enter, politics.

Role of support base: when loyalty counts

The Syrian regime met the protests have erupting throughout Syria, fighting fire with fire.  Indeed, over the past few weeks, the regime has proven its strength by recruiting hundreds of thousands of counter-protesters to show support for Bashar and his regime.  However, unlike in Egypt, the Syrian regime continues to enjoy the unconditional support of the army and security forces.  These, unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries, have not hesitated to disperse the demonstrations with brute and even lethal force.  Indeed, most of the leaders of the Syrian army are members of the al-Assad's family, tribe, or ethnic group, which is unlike Egypt, where the defense minister took the reins of government from Mubarak.  In Syria, the army has a vested interest in al-Assad's continued rule: the protesters want the heads of the top brass, so if Bashar al-Assad falls, they fall, too.

The security service, thought to number at least 65,000 full-timers, has been responsible for most of the violence.  Set up by Hafez al-Assad soon after his coup in 1970, its fifteen-odd branches fall under four main intelligence headings: general, political, military, and air force.  Only remotely linked to any civilian institution, they are above the law and sign off on virtually all big decisions.  Their heads report directly to the president.  They also spy on each other as a counterintelligence measure.  On occasions during the current crackdown, their members have arrested or shot people from rival branches.

Unrest fueling uprising

As in other Arab countries, the labor force has been growing by leaps and bounds, a consequence of the expanding numbers of people in the 15-24 age group.  At the same time, there have been four consecutive drought years since 2006, with 2007-2008 being devastating.  This has affected food security and has pushed 2-3 million people into extreme poverty; it is estimated that 800,000 people had their livelihoods ruined by drought, mainly in the northeast of the country, but also in Der'aa province (population 300,000).  Small-scale farmers have been the worst affected; many have not been able to grow enough food or earn enough money to feed their families. As a result, tens of thousands have left the Northeast and now inhabit informal settlements or camps close to Damascus.  This center-periphery relationship has fueled the revolution for more change through political reforms.  Additionally, Syrian industry is hampered by a lack of investment, technology, and management expertise, and restricted by a choking bureaucracy and widespread corruption.  These factors, together with uneasy relations with neighboring countries, have also discouraged investors.  Recently there has been an increase in investments from other nations in the Arab world -- however, these investments have mainly been in real estate.

The U.S. has not yet recognized the opposition demonstrating in the streets, as a clear united political entity has yet to coalesce.  As in many other Arab states, the absence of a leader in the Syrian uprising makes it difficult for the U.S. to decide on a policy route.  In the meantime, casualties continue to rise.

Many geopolitical experts feel that Syria (along with Lebanon) has become the test bed of the Iranian regime vis-à-vis influencing policy, as a large proportion of the Arab world's Shiite population resides in these two countries.  Syria's border with Israel is also a major factor that might determine the chances for peace between the two nations.  It will be interesting to see how the al-Assad regime hangs on to power while supporting Hezb'allah in Lebanon and ignoring the Syrian public craving for freedom throughout the bloody uprising.

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