Sunday, April 3, 2011

Syrian Protests: Underlying Causes

Since January 2011, the Middle Eastern nation of Syria has been experiencing large protests calling for the ousting of current president Bashar Al-Assad. He has been in charge of the country since July 2000, when he inherited power from his father. While these are pro-democracy protests, just like with the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and all around the Arab world, these protests have major underlying social, economic, and political factors. The purpose of this essay is to examine those factors as well as the interests of foreign actors, specifically the United States, Israel, and Lebanon.

Syria is a diverse nation, with the population being of Kurdish, Arab, Armenian, and Turkish descent. It is also split up along religious lines with  Sunni Muslims making up 74% of the population, Alawis making up 12%, Christians 10%, Druze 3%, and there are a number of smaller Muslim sects, Jews, and Yazidis.[1] (It is important to note that the Alawi minority is of the Shia sect of Islam.)

In the past, there have been ethnic tensions. An example occurred in 2004 when there was “a week of clashes between Arabs and Kurds that left 25 people dead and more than 100 wounded in northern Syrian towns.”[2] A year later “Sheikh Mohammed Mashouq al-Khaznawi, a cleric who had been outspoken regarding discrimination against Kurds, disappeared.”[3] It was found out a month later that he had been tortured. This sparked 10,000 Kurds to go out into the streets and protest, however, they were quickly beaten back and Kurdish shops raided.

The Alawi sect, under Sunni-ruled Syria, faced widespread discrimination and resentment. This changed, however, “once Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi, seized power in 1970[.] [G]roup members rapidly gained privileged status.”[4] To secure Alawi gains, Assad made sure that the Muslim Brotherhood was crushed after they targeted Alawis in the 1970s and created a dictatorship so that his group would remain in power. Past discrimination has led Alawis to fear the democratization of Syria. As was noted before, 74% of Syrians are Sunni, thus the Alawi ethnic group fears that if Syria does become a democracy, they will have face the same persecution as before. It must be noted, however, that not all Alawis agree with the current regime as some are protesting in the streets to bring down [Bashar] Al-Assad.

The Druze ethnic group has been wanting there own independent state for quite some time, going back to the 1920s, when they, in concert with other Arab nationalists, virtually ejected France from the country. In the 1960s, the Druze were ejected from power by the Baath Party, after a Druze officer (unsuccessfully) attempted a coup.[5] In modern times, over 10,000 Druze live in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and have clashed with Israeli settlers. Yesterday, it was reported by Ynet News that thousands of Druze had participated in pro-Al Assad marches, proclaiming their support for Bashar.[6] This may very well be because in 2008, when Israel sent a secret message to Al-Assad, saying that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights in order to have peace with Syria, Al-Assad accepted. Also, Al-Assad has backed Lebanon against Israel.

Economically, according to Lahcen Achy of the Carnegie Middle East Center, there are five major problems in Syria today: unemployment, drought, monopolies, declining oil revenues, and major income inequality.

In terms of unemployment, the private sector has not done enough to keep up with the demand for jobs. In addition to this, half of the current jobs are “of poor quality, with low pay and no social protection.”[7] This has caused the unemployment rate to increase to 10% and the youth unemployment rate to be 30%. What is most important is the youth unemployment rate because just as has happened in Egypt and Tunisia, the youth were the driving force in the revolutions due to their being unemployed.

Droughts “have led to a 25% decline in the agricultural sector's output, which provides jobs to 20% of the labor force and contributes a 20% share of the gross domestic product.”[8] This has caused many to flee to urbanized cities and the rural unemployment rate to increase.

Monopolies are a serious problem as they are all connected to the regime and force small business to turn to the underground economy. Oil revenues are declining as Syria’s reserves are depleted. The government has cut social services to try and balance the budget, thus the poor have been in the most economic pain. The government’s effort to offset the loss in oil revenues via an increase in taxes has failed. Income inequality has increased in Syria due to excessive inflation.

All of this has led to a populace which is largely unemployed, poor, and over taxed. These problems have laid the economic foundations for the populace to revolt against their government, seeing as how they have lost faith in the regime to do anything for them besides do everything to advance their own power.

Recently, there have been large on-going protests in Syria, with protestors being attacked and killed by government forces.[9] While the world focuses its attention on Libya, there has been little talk of the interests that Syria’s neighbors have in regards to the protests. The focus will be on the United States, Israel, and Lebanon.

A recent NPR interview stated that the Obama administration had “been trying to bring Syria into the fold of the Arab-Israeli peace process, with little success” [10] and attempting to curb Iranian influence. Ambassador Kattouf stated that “if the Assad regime topples, it could unravel the intricate network of Syrian relations with its allies and foes.”[11] If a large amount of instability occurred in Syria it “could lead to civil war and inflame sectarian tensions there and elsewhere in the region.”[12]

Israel, too, is worried about the protests in Syria. They are “quietly rooting for the survival of an autocratic yet predictable regime, rather than face an untested new government in its place.”[13] For Israel, while the Syrian government wasn’t very friendly towards them, at least they were predictable. The main worry for Israel is that Syria does not have a peace agreement with them and Syria has “a large arsenal of sophisticated weapons” which includes “Scud missiles, thousands of rockets capable of reaching all of Israel, chemical warheads, advanced surface-to-air systems and an aging air force.”[14] Israel is worried that if the country falls into civil war and an Islamist radical group takes power, that their security will be threatened and that it will bolster Iran and Hezbollah.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its ally Iran have potentially been aiding in the suppression of pro-democracy forces. [15] This would not be surprising as Hezbollah, Iran, and Bashar Al-Assad are all allied against Israel and have fought against Israel in the past.
What the main problems seem to be are that the Alawi ethnic group is worried that if they give up power, they will once again be at the mercy of the Sunni minority, as well as the Druze support Al-Assad because he has stood up to Israel in their defense.

What needs to occur for this situation to end peacefully is the following:
1.      ‘President’ Bashar Al-Assad Needs To Step Down and democratic elections need to take place
The majority of the Syrian people want Al-Assad to step down. He has been in power of 11 years and while his Cabinet has recently stepped down, the process will not be complete unless he steps down. The people of Syria want a truly democratic government and that is what they deserve and should get. The situation will get worse and worse until Al-Assad realizes that he cannot hold onto power any longer. The Syrian people need to keep protesting because non-violence can bring down a regime.
2.      There needs to be a change in government to protect the Alawi minority and a multi-party system needs to be put in place
As was stated before, the Alawi minority fears the democratization of Syria, thinking that they will be at the mercy of the Sunni majority once again. In order to calm these fears, what Syria needs is a governmental system of checks and balances where there is no way that any group can pass discriminatory laws and if those laws do pass either the President vetoes it or, if all else fails, the courts step in and rule that the law is unconstitutional. Of course, the court system would have to have representatives of all ethnic groups. 
A multi-party system needs to be put into place because as of now, there is in all but name a one party system. In order for Syria to be a true democracy, there has to be a multi-party system so that everyone can express their political views.

3.      The government needs to end the cutting of social services, break monopolies, and encourage small businesses to grow
As long as the government continues to back monopolies, there will never be economic growth as they will eliminate any competition whatsoever. To increase and maintain the economic health of the nation, the government of Syria must ban monopolies from forming. Also the government needs to end the cutting of social services because that serves no purpose except to increase the number of poor on the streets and increase anger at the regime. To combat unemployment, what needs to occur is that after monopolies are eliminated, the government should issue small tax breaks to businesses that hire young workers. While this would hurt in the short term, ultimately it would create a number of new businesses and lower the amount of unemployed.

4.      The government needs to work out a peace treaty with Israel to protect the Druze.
In order to make sure that the Druze minority is protected, a formal peace treaty needs to be made with Israel. This may prove easier than expected as earlier this week “Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is willing to reach out to Israel, he will find a willing partner for negotiations.”[16] Yet, at the exact same time, Israel is quite cautious about such agreements since the region has become so politically volatile.

While this will obviously not happen anytime in the foreseeable future, the people of Syria need to continue their fight for democracy and the end of the Al-Assad regime. Without it, the government will change only on a superficial level and the same problems will still exist. Only if the will of the people is yielded to, will the nation of Syria begin to change for the better.


8: Ibid

11: Ibid

12: Ibid

14: Ibid

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