“What Does the Future Hold for Syria?” By George Saghir

What Does the Future Hold for Syria?
By George Saghir
For Syria Comment
February 6, 2011

The demographic challenge

Like most countries in the region, Syria has experienced rapid population increase since independence in 1946. According to the UN, total fertility or the number of children that the average Syrian woman gives birth to in Syria averaged 6.44 over the last 60 years.  As one would expect, this rate had declined, but still averages 5.85 children per woman since 1970. Syria’s fertility rate today stands at 3.02 (2010), while Turkey’s is 2.18 (2010), Egypt’s is 3.01 (2010), and Yemen’s is an astonishing 4.81 (2010). For the record, the U.S. and Western Europe averaged 1.95 and 1.64 respectively since 1970. Run away population growth in Syria explains why the percentage of the population under the age of 14 is nearly 40% and those over 65 are a mere 3% (it is 18% in Western Europe). Is it any wonder that Egyptians feel that Mr. Mubarak is too old? Only 0.4% of Egyptians are 82 years old. Needless to say, most Syrians can identify with their president who is in his 40s; some 60% of Syrians are between the ages of 15 and 59?

Unemployment trumps all

It is an accepted truth that the Arab world can do with less corruption and more democracy and freedom, but none of this is likely to matter much if rapid population growth is paired with slow economic growth. The 40% of the people who are under the age of 14 will be looking for work in a few short years. To make matters worse, Syria, like others countries of the region, has one of the lowest women labor participation rates in the world – only 21% (2008) of Syrian females between 15 and 29 years of age are currently in the labor force. This is also likely to increase. Both demographic groups are expected to exert significant and steady pressure on Syria’s future unemployment rate.

Real Economic Growth

While Syria’s population almost doubled between 1975 and 2000, real (inflation adjusted) income growth was largely stagnant. The economic reform process of the past decade has brought the country faster growth, but not nearly enough given the population growth. While analysts and experts alike may offer a laundry list of reasons for the events in Egypt, there is little doubt the protests are primarily linked to the country’s failure to boost economic growth. Per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product divided by the population) is a useful indicator. In 20 years, Egypt’s nominal per capita income has remained stagnant at USD $2,155. It has not grown at all. Factor in inflation and it becomes clear that real standards of living have actually fallen. There can be no surprise why Egypt’s youth poured into Tahrir Square to protest. It was only a matter of time.

Compare Egypt to Turkey

Over the same 20 years, nominal per capita income in Turkey grew by nearly 275%; it grew from $2,160 to $8,300 today. Had Egyptians been earning close to four times more than they were in 1990, one wonders if they would have taken over Tahrir in protest. Syria must emulate Turkey and not Egypt:

The best way to achieve this is by developing an increased sense of urgency about the need to accelerate economic growth and cut population growth. Patience in this case is not a virtue. Neither is indecisiveness. Every member of Syria’s economic team must get behind the reform agenda. Too much is at stake for indecision and backbiting.

Growth without population control will not cut it. According to the UN, Syria’s current population growth rate is 3.26%. This means that the population will double to 45 million by 2032, a short 22 years from now. However, were the birth rate to drop by a full percentage point to 2.25%, the doubling of the population to 45 million will be delayed till 2042, giving it ten extra years to grow the economy.  Turkey’s current population growth rate of %1.24 is a full two percentage points lower than that of Syria’s. Were Syria’s population growing at Turkey’s rate, it would have until 2067, or 35 extra years, to raise incomes for the same amount of people.

When discussing economic growth, it is important to emphasize the difference between nominal (current dollars) and real (constant dollars) growth. The former does not factor in inflation. The latter does. The distinction between the two measures becomes more pronounced in high inflation environments. One may experience a growth rate in incomes of say 5% but if inflation is also at 5%, real (constant dollar) income growth is zero. This is why it is hard to achieve real economic growth rates of 7 and 8 percent when an economy is experiencing inflation of 5%. Nominal or actual incomes would have to grow by 13% to experience a real growth rate of 8%.

Turkey’s reform process kicked into high gear in the early 1980’s under the leadership of the late Turgot Ozal. For Syria to achieve Turkey’s per capita growth rate of the past 25 years, it must do two things: 1- It must grow its economy by a real inflation-adjusted 8.5% if  population growth continues at 3.26%. 2- It can grow by a real inflation-adjusted 6.5% if it succeeds in slowing its population growth down to Turkey’s current level of 1.25%. Either option presents a formidable challenge and highlights the feat that Turkey has pulled off since 1980. Growing an economy at an inflation-adjusted rate of 8.5% is of course what China has been able to do recently (if you trust the country’s statisticians). Chinese planners have also been able to drop the country’s population growth rate to low of 0.63%.

Syria must tackle its population growth challenge

The late Yasser Arafat once famously said that “the womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon”. The region had long held the belief that high total fertility rates are positively correlated with economic and strategic strength. Up to a few years ago, Syria used to hand out medals to women who conceived 12 children or more. As a result, family planning was never thought of as applicable public policy for the region. This must change. Syria’s resources cannot keep pace with the present galloping population growth. Water will run out and incomes will fall. We can all imagine a number of nightmare scenarios about how thing will begin to go wrong.

But the World has many examples of countries that have conquered run away population growth. Thailand is one such example. In 1974, the average Thai mother gave birth to 7 children. The politicians understood that they faced ruin unless they got control of the problem.  Along came Mechai Viravaidya. His solution? Walk around the country handing out condoms. Over the past 36 years, the Thai state took up the example and has brought down the number of children per mother from 7 to 1.5. Ask about “Mr. Condom” in Thailand today. He is a hero. China of course saw the need for even more draconian action back in 1979. Chinese economic planners understood that unless they slowed down the population growth rates and significantly increased economic growth, the country also faced ruin.

By all accounts, the current demographic trend in the Arab world is a train wreck.  Most Arab leaders will fail unless they can convince their societies that nothing else matters if they can’t control their exploding population growth. Until then, economic reforms will fail. More stomachs will go empty; and more kids will come of age with no prospect of finding an honest job. The old Arabic adage that a new born baby will carry his riz-keto (fortune) with him must be ridiculed. It is no longer funny.

The Urgent Need for Economic Growth

Even if Syria implements an aggressive family planning policy soon, significant population growth changes take time. This leaves most of the burden on faster economic growth to raise the country’s per capita GDP. Since 2003, real growth has averaged between 3.4% and 4.8%. At this rate, Syria’s per capita incomes will grow at half the speed that Turkey’s did over its past 30 years. This leaves Syria with little room for error. Losing one or two percentage points of growth exposes Syria to Egyptian sized problems – stagnant per capita income over the next two decades and a population of 40 million.

Syria’s economic planners understand this dynamic for they have targeted a real growth rate of 7 to 8 percent. However, doubling real incomes is not easy and requires that Syria’s economy fire on all cylinders. It must get its legislative, fiscal and monetary policy in sync. I think that even the government would admit that this is yet to happen. The area of legislation, in particular, needs urgent attention. Rather than embracing best-practices that already work in the rest of the world, legislators seem to get bogged down in a bureaucratic maze that ends in legislation that lacks clarity, simplicity or business friendliness.

A word on Subsidies:

Middle and low income families spend up to 50% of their incomes on food. Over the past 4 decades, the Syrian state subsidized a list of basic commodities and energy products as part of its socialist economic strategy. When this policy was adopted, the Syrian population was barely 6 million. The Soviet Union was a strategic partner. New oil was being brought on line until it peaked at just under 600,000 b/d in 1996. Today, production has fallen just under 400,000 b/d.

The Soviet Union is of course no longer. The population is now higher by almost four fold. As of last year, the Syrian government’s bill for total subsidies was close to USD$ 8 billion. This amounts to USD$ 355 for every man, woman and child. For an average family, this is close to USD$ 2000 a year. What started as a perfectly honorable and humane government program that may have cost less than USD$ 2 billion a year, when it was first initiated 40 years ago, will end up bankrupting the state. If subsidies are not cut the bill will rise to $30 billion in 40 years.

Subsidies distort the efficient allocation of resources. They work by robbing from Peter to pay Paul. The Peters in this case are government hospitals, universities, roads and municipalities. They are underfunded and in disrepair. The Syrian public is constantly griping about the decline in state services. The Syrian government is not a magician. It cannot be expected to subsidize the population to the tune of USD$ 8 billion at the same time as it provides quality health-care and education. It must either raise taxes, borrow, or print money. The political pressure on the Syrian government to continue subsidies is immense following the Egyptian uprising. It would be wise for the leadership to resist such pressure and stick to its guns on cutting subsidies. The short term pain will be great; it is imperative to begin impressing on the public that they will be better off in the long run for the added pain in the short run.

A culture of dependency on the state has developed in Syria over the past several decades that will be hard to reverse. While the subsidies help many needy Syrians, they also fatten the pockets of smugglers. When you sell heating oil at prices that are less than a third of what they are in neighboring countries, you invite illicit trade. Syrian taxis travel with a full tank of gas to Turkey, empty the gas right across the border and return for an encore. While there is no denying that the poor is being helped by the subsidies, the fact is that the rich and powerful are also benefiting. The government must communicate to the public that what it is doing is not an assault on the poor or that it is deaf to their predicament. The arithmetic of falling oil revenues and increased population has combined to make these subsidies unaffordable.

The High cost of housing and the need for more education reform:

Arabs have generated much of their wealth from asset price booms. Think of real estate or oil. In contrast to East Asian countries that have built industries and knowledge-based services, Arabs have counted on scarcity. Asset-based booms do not depend on human capital inputs. They do not indicate a real rise in competitiveness, education or social organization. This is best illustrated by the ratio of the price of a house to annual income. The average house price/income ration in the US is 3. It went up to 4 during the real estate boom but dropped back to 3 when the sector lost close to 25% following the 2006 collapse. Syria and the rest of the Arab world have ratios approaching 10. In other words, it takes close to ten years of wages for the average Syrian to buy his house. This is made worse by weak credit markets that leave many of the youth unable to access financing.

Youth also face the challenge of overcoming an outmoded education system, that values memorization over all else. Critical thinking, working in groups, sports, arts, and personal leadership qualities all have zero bearing on a young student’s prospect of success in high school or university. When they graduate, Syrian students often find that they lack the skills they need to find a meaningful job.


Syria, like the rest of the Arab world, can no longer afford to live without a serious family planning campaign. Also, it must deliver high growth rates. Only by pursuing both policies together can it hope to raise incomes and create the jobs that young Syrians count on to give dignity and meaning to their lives.

Comments (178)

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151. Norman said:

Majid , You said ,

((( Dear Norman
The original Baath party founder,like Salah Bitar,who I attended three of his lectures,I have full respect for him,but you have not been in Syria for over 20 years,the current Baath leaders are opportunistic, they abandoned the principle of Baath party of freedom and union,they supported dictatorship,and cruel one, and abolished all other parties,that differ from them,they can not tolerate freedom,they got rich from corruption,and if you have any dealing with them you can see how corrupt they are,how evil they are, you can not discuss things with them.))).

That is exactly what i think there is a difference between the party and the party members, The party is valued for it’s ideology and principles while the members should evaluated for their deeds and as there are bad and good Christians and Muslims , Christianity and Islam are good religions but their members are sometime not , their religions should not be prosecuted for these member’s deeds ,

As you know that in the US there are bad republicans like Abramov and good republican like Ron Paul , That does not change my views of the republican party , the same thing for the Democratic party ,
Yes there are corrupt members of the Baath party who should be prosecuted and punished , they are corrupt because of the single party system that we have in Syria , not because they belong to the Baath party , that would happen no matter what party is in power , it is just simple , power corrupt and the only way to prevent that is to instill fear in the officials that they will be punished if they do anything wrong or be thrown out of office ,

Alex ,
I hate to disagree with you , yes president Assad is the president of Syria and for that get most the credit for navigating Syria safely in the dangerous waters of the Mideast , but you all have to remember that he is the secretary General of the Baath party and that he governs with the Baath party and the other parties around him who deserve credit too,

The movement of the economy and the reform we see would have never happened without the participation and the approval of the Baath party , so let us the give the Baath party credit for the willing to change and evolve.

And yes i like to have free elections but my preference is to start with local elections that will test the metal of the candidates and see their work before putting them in the spot light ,

I believe decentralization and self rule in the counties is essential for the people to have and feel control over their lives ,

Lastly i agree with you about the libertarian party , i like that too , but that is not in Syria , which party in Syria , not members of party can fulfill your aspiration of a united Arab nation prosperous and strong?,

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February 11th, 2011, 7:26 pm


152. Ziadsoury said:


A marriage of inconvenience
What an Arab democratic spring will mean for America’s relations with the Jewish state
Lexington Feb 10th 2011 | from PRINT EDITION

BRITAIN’S is based on history and showing its age. Geography dictates that Canada’s and Mexico’s will stay strong. Saudi Arabia’s will endure as long as America needs to buy its oil. The one with Hosni Mubarak (though not the one with Egypt itself) was dropped like a hot potato once the protests began.

America, in short, is both promiscuous and flighty when it comes to “special” relationships. One of the most fascinating is its long-standing fling with Israel. What, exactly, does America see in the Jewish state? And is the relationship in danger from the wind of change rattling Egypt and the wider Arab world?

These questions are best tackled in reverse order. It is easy to see why an Arab democratic spring might chill relations between America and Israel. The peace between Israel and Egypt was made between leaders, not peoples. That hardly mattered when the people of Egypt, like other Arabs, had no voice. But it will matter once they find one. Right now, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square are demanding their own freedom, not Palestine’s. But the statelessness of the Palestinians remains the great unifying cause of the Arab world. So even Israelis acknowledge that if Arab leaders have in future to respond to the wishes of their people they will become more hostile to Israel—and, by extension, to Israel’s American paramour. In that case, if America’s relationship with Israel was a marriage of convenience, like the one it has just annulled with Mr Mubarak, America might begin to see the case for a divorce, or at least some separation.

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But, of course, America’s attachment to Israel is not a marriage of convenience. It looks a lot more like true love. Listen to all the sweet talk, for a start. Even Barack Obama, who in his desire to mend America’s relations with Islam has been tougher on Israel than many presidents, goes misty-eyed when he harps on the “special relationship”. It is founded, he says, on “shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests”. And the billing and cooing is the least of the evidence. The strongest proof of America’s feelings for Israel is all the inconvenience America puts up with for the relationship’s sake.

Some American friends of Israel argue gamely that Israel is a strategic asset to the superpower, a doughty democracy that provides intelligence, high technology, storage for American weapons and so forth. But that was an easier argument to make during the cold war. More recently, the benefits have been eclipsed by the costs. These range from the billions American taxpayers give Israel and Egypt to underwrite the 1979 peace, to all the resentment America’s Muslim allies harbour towards the superpower for being soft on the oppressor of the Palestinians. Its help to Israel may not be al-Qaeda’s main grievance against America, but in the war on terror this past decade Israel has surely been more of a liability than an asset in the contest for hearts and minds.

Far from being a marriage of convenience, in other words, it is a marriage of inconvenience. So is it a case of true love? Some Americans, refusing to accept this explanation, argue that although Israel is not linked to America by history, like Britain, or by geography, like Canada and Mexico, its relations with the Jewish state are entangled to an unusual degree in domestic politics. Harry Truman decided to support Israel’s founding after relentless lobbying. “I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism,” he grumbled. “I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

Since then, the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington has grown stronger, assuming epic proportions in some imaginations. Two American academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, made the claim in a book in 2007 that without the Israel lobby George Bush would not have invaded Iraq. That is an exaggeration, to say the least. But the powerful congressional resistance Mr Obama bumped into last year when he tried to enforce a settlement freeze in Jerusalem and the West Bank almost certainly played some part in the failure of America’s latest peacemaking initiative in Palestine.

Still, to explain America’s intimacy with Israel through the political power of America’s Jews is to miss half the story. In recent decades a far broader range of Americans, including evangelical Christians but not only them, have joined the love affair.

Trust in old faithful

No matter how desperate the lot of the Palestinians, polls show that Americans feel greater sympathy for Israel, a country they can identify with. And if some Democrats have lately become somewhat readier to criticise Israel, the Republicans have more than compensated in the other direction. Most conservatives, especially since the 2001 attacks, see Israel as a beleaguered democracy that shares America’s Judeo-Christian values. For some this article of faith has become a subtle line of attack against Mr Obama, whom they deem too hard on Israel and (nudge, nudge) insufficiently Judeo-Christian himself. Republicans want to slash foreign aid, but not the aid to Israel. And while demonstrators thronged Cairo last week, Mike Huckabee, who may seek the Republican presidential nomination again, was declaring from Israel that it was “racist” to stop Jews settling in the West Bank.

Against this backdrop, with a Republican House and a presidential election less than two years away, Israeli fears of abandonment look unwarranted. America will be faithful. But it will have to pay a higher price for its fidelity in an Arab world whose leaders no longer dare to ignore the preferences of their people. The best way to escape this trap would be for America to win the Palestinians their state. In that event, Arabs in general might be willing to make a people’s peace with Israel. But it was hard enough to negotiate a compromise when the autocrats were in charge. Finding one the masses accept will be harder still.

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February 11th, 2011, 7:33 pm


153. Shami said:

Averroes ,i really did not mean it in the pejorative way in the comment above.
Also,you remind me that i labeled the extremist shias as rafida in the past on this forum ,but i renounced to use it since then,after remarks from my friend Jad.
As for your fear ,i believe that once the people enjoy freedom,they become more open minded to other cultures and religions and get bored of bigotery and extremism,as it was the case in Egypt and Syria before totalitarian regimes take over .

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February 11th, 2011, 7:54 pm


154. Averroes said:


I am happy to hear that. I did not know that you renounced it. I really salute you for that.

My view is that the revolution in Egypt will have fallout that will benefit the people in the entire region, maybe even the entire world. And in this this statement, I am not excluding Syria, even though I support the regime overall and the president in particular. (I do not support the Baath party, sorry again, Jad 🙂

A good shake and a reality check every now and then is a good thing. People should never ever be taken for granted. I hope and pray that Syria will start to see meaningful and sincere reforms soon.

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February 11th, 2011, 9:13 pm


155. Souri said:

This is an example from the Syrian media:


الفقراء المدسوسون في عقل اقتصاد السوق هم عبءٌ قليل المنفعة وفائضٌ حسابيٌّ بلا طائل خاصةً في الاقتصاديات المتخلّفة ما دون الصناعية حال تُدرج ذاتها في خيارات السوق ولا تحتكم سوى لقانون العرض والطلب. تلك نتيجة يمكن تذوّقها على نحوٍ جليٍّ في خيار السوق للاقتصاد السوري منذ أن حسم هذا التحوّل وناصر هذه العقيدة الاقتصادية. وفعلياً اتسم الأداء الحكومي السوري بالسلبية تجاه الفقراء غير المتفق على عددهم بعد سوى أن 420 ألف أسرة باتت مشمولة بفضائل المعونات الاجتماعية، التي تأخرت مفاعيلها وكأنها تنتظر أفول هذا الشتاء الغريب، وذلك بالتوازي مع تهتّك القوة الشرائية لذوي الدخل المحدود منذ موجة التضخم والغلاء الحادة التي بدأت منذ العام 2006 ولم تنحسر بعد، وشاء قطاع الصحة أيضاً عندما قرر بيع خدماته على ثلث طاقته الاستيعابية أن يزجّ بنفسه ويضيف على بؤسهم مرثيةً جديدة علّها تجهز عليهم بلا رجعة، أليسوا الفائض الحسابي غير المرغوب والمناكد لنتائج التحول الاقتصادي الأثير والبعيدين عن الحظوة بأيٍّ من ثماره.

I read frequently in Syrian websites, and this site “syriasteps.com” seems to be popular (or perhaps مدعوم) since it has many ads, and I can say that the people who write in this website are, frankly, unqualified to write in a website on economics. I don’t know any website in Arabic that deals with Syrian economy and which I can call a good website. All Syrian websites seem as if they are run by amateurs with below-average knowledge and experience.

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February 11th, 2011, 9:58 pm


156. jad said:

Dear friend Shami,
I’m touched by your nice comment, however, it has nothing to do with me or my remarks, it’s you who decided to do the change, which is great.

Dear Rafiq Averroes,
I’m very disappointed of you, I’ll report your comments in the next Ijtma3 7zbi!

If may I joke with you: your use of “Sormai” read in a very cute Homsi accent 🙂

Did anybody notice that in the picture of this post a minor is ‘SMOKING’? I just noticed the cigarette, that is bad!

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February 11th, 2011, 10:00 pm


157. Akbar Palace said:

Dangerous Groups: A SC Primer

America will be faithful. But it will have to pay a higher price for its fidelity in an Arab world whose leaders no longer dare to ignore the preferences of their people. The best way to escape this trap would be for America to win the Palestinians their state. In that event, Arabs in general might be willing to make a people’s peace with Israel.

I disagree. And frankly, I don’t even understand the mindset of the author.

America can’t “win the Palestinians their state”.

All America can do is facilitate.

American can’t “win” the leadership of any country, bring democracy, force a peace agreement, or “win the Palestinians their state”. As with Egypt, it is up to the people themselves to create their societies and their leaders.

And I added to them the lunatics who think they are Christians .. the Zionist Christians and some other evangelical Christians in the US.

GWB was a product of this dangerous group.

Sure Alex,

This “dangerous group” is “dangerous” because they accept Israel and they aren’t intolerant. They’re “dangerous” because they believe Israel has a right to defend herself.

They’re “dangerous” because they don’t defend anti-semitic (as written in their charters) terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and despotic regimes like Syria and the Iranian theocracy, and they’re “dangerous” because they don’t fly commercial airliners into skyscrapers or bury their own people in mass graves.

Anyway, this brillant woman, Wafa Sultan seems to disagree with you…


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February 11th, 2011, 10:29 pm


158. NK said:


Despite a wave of protests spreading across the Middle East, so far the revolutionary spirit has failed to reach Syria.

Authoritarian rule, corruption and economic hardship are characteristics Syria share with both Egypt and Tunisia. However, analysts say that in addition to the repressive state apparatus, factors such as a relatively popular president and religious diversity make an uprising in the country unlikely.

Online activists have been urging Syrians to take to the streets but the calls for a “Syrian revolution” last weekend only resulted in some unconfirmed reports of small demonstrations in the mainly Kurdish northeast.

“First of all, I’d argue that people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt,” Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, says.

“The groups who have mobilised in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price – Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in Hama.”

The so-called Hama massacre, in which the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in 1982 in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, is believed to have killed about 20,000 people.

“I think that in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something [protests] would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”

Demonstrations are unlawful under the country’s emergency law, and political activists are regularly detained. There are an estimated 4,500 “prisoners of opinion” in Syrian jails, according to the Haitham Maleh Foundation, a Brussels-based Syrian rights organisation.

‘Kingdom of silence’

As pages on Facebook called for demonstrations to be held in cities across Syria in early February, more than 10 activists told Human Rights Watch they were contacted by security services who warned them not to try and mobilise.

“Syria has for many years been a ‘kingdom of silence’,” Suhair Atassi, an activist in Damascus, says, when asked why no anti-government protests were held.

“Fear is dominating peoples’ lives, despite poverty, starvation and humiliation … When I was on my way to attend a sit-in against [the monopoly of] Syria’s only mobile phone operators, I explained to the taxi driver where I was going and why.

“He told me: ‘Please organise a demonstration against the high cost of diesel prices. The cold is killing us’. I asked him: ‘Are you ready to demonstrate with us against the high diesel price?” He replied ‘I’m afraid of being arrested because I’m the only breadwinner for my family!”

Fawas Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says Syria is one of the Middle Eastern countries least likely to be hit by popular protests, because of its power structure.

He says the allegiance of the army in Syria is different than in both Tunisia, where the military quickly became one of the main backers of the president’s ouster, and in Egypt, where the army still has not taken sides.

“The army in Syria is the power structure,” he says. “The armed forces would fight to an end. It would be a bloodbath, literally, because the army would fight to protect not only the institution of the army but the regime itself, because the army and the regime is one and the same.”

Popular president

But even if people dared to challenge the army and the dreaded mukhabarat intelligence service, analysts say the appetite for change of the country’s leadership is not that big.

Many Syrians tend to support Bashar al-Assad, the president who came to power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled the country for 30 years.

“An important factor is that he’s popular among young people,” Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of Syria Comment, says.

“Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who’s 83, Bashar al-Assad is young. Young people are quite proud of him. They may not like the regime, they don’t like corruption and a lot of things, but they tend to blame this on the people around him, the ‘old guard’.”

A Syrian student echoes these comments. “The president knows that reform is needed and he is working on it”, she says.

“As for me, I don’t have anything against our president. The main issues which need to be addressed are freedom of speech and expression as well as human rights. I believe that the president and his wife are working on that. New NGOs have started to emerge.

“Also, many things have changed since Bashar came to power, whether it has to do with road construction, salary raises, etc. Even when it comes to corruption, he is trying hard to stop that and limit the use of ‘connections’ by the powerful figures in Syria. However, he won’t be able to dramatically change the country with the blink of an eye.”

Al-Assad’s tough stance towards Israel, with which Syria is technically at war, has also contributed to his popularity, both domestically and in the region.

Multi-religious society

Analysts stress that Syria’s mix of religious communities and ethnic groups differentiates Syria from Egypt and Tunisia, countries which both have largely homogeneous populations. Fearing religious tensions, many Syrians believe that the ruling Baath party’s emphasis on secularism is the best option.

“The regime in Syria presents itself as a buffer for various communities, essentially saying ‘if we go, you will be left to the wolves’,” Houry says. “That gives it ability to mobilise large segments of the population.”

Sunni Muslims make up about 70 per cent of the 22 million population, but the Alawites, the Shia sect which President al-Assad belongs to, play a powerful role despite being a minority of 10 per cent. Christians and Kurds are other sizable minorities.

Landis says Alawites and Christians tend to be al-Assad’s main supporters.

“If his regime were to fall, many of the Alawites would lose their jobs. And they look back at the times when the Muslim Brotherhood targeted them as nonbelievers and even non-Arabs.

“Then of course the Christians, who are about 10 per cent of the population, are the biggest supporters of al-Assad and the Baath party because it’s secular. They hear horror stories of what has happened in Iraq, about Christians being killed and kidnapped.”

The proximity to Iraq, another ethnically and religiously diverse country, is believed to play a major role in Syria’s scepticism towards democracy and limited hunger for political change. About a million Iraqi refugees have come to Syria since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“The Iraqi refugees are a cautionary tale for Syrians,” Landis says. “They have seen what happens when regime change goes wrong. This has made Syrians very conservative. They don’t trust democracy.”

Parties banned

Syria is essentially a one-party state, ruled by the Baath Party since 1963. Many political groups are banned. But Landis says the lack of political freedom does not appear to be a major concern among the people.

“I’m always astounded how the average guy in the street, the taxi driver, the person you talk to in a restaurant or wherever, they don’t talk about democracy. They complain about corruption, they want justice and equality, but they’ll look at elections in Lebanon and laugh, saying ‘who needs that kind of democracy’?”

“The younger generation has been depoliticised. They don’t belong to parties. They see politics as a danger and they have been taught by their parents to see it as a danger. They look at the violence out there, in places like Iraq.”

Tunisia and Egypt both have a longer tradition of civil society and political parties than Syria and Landis describes the Syrian opposition as “notoriously mute”.

“In some ways, being pro-American has forced Egypt to allow for greater civil society, while Syria has been quite shut off from the West,” he says. “The opposition in Syria is very fragmented. The Kurds can usually get together in the biggest numbers but there are 14 Kurdish parties … And the human rights leaders – half of them are in jail and others have been in jail for a long time.”

Facebook sites calling for protests to be held in Syria on February 4 and 5 got about 15,000 fans but failed to mobilise demonstrators for a “day of anger”. In fact, countercampaigns set up online in favour of the government garnered as much support.

Ribal al-Assad, an exiled cousin of President al-Assad and the director of the London-based Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, said the people calling for protests were all based abroad and he is not surprised that nothing happened inside Syria.

“The campaign was a bit outrageous. First, they’ve chosen a date that reminds people of the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood [the 29th anniversary of the Hama massacre],” he says.

“People don’t want to be reminded of the past. They want change, they want freedom, but they want it peacefully. And the picture they used on Facebook, a clenched fist and red colour like blood behind, it was like people calling for civil war and who in his right mind wants that?

“But of course people want change, because there is poverty, corruption, people get arrested without warrants, the government refuses to disclose their whereabouts for months. They are sentenced following unfair trials, a lot of times with stupid sentences such as ‘weakening the nation’s morale’ for saying ‘we want freedom and democracy’. But the only one weakening the nations moral is the government itself.”

‘Not holding hands with Israel’

One Syrian who became a “fan” of a Facebook page opposed to protesting says he cannot imagine, and does not want, Egyptian-style anti-government rallies to spread to Syria.

“I love my country and I don’t want to see people fighting. I can’t imagine the events occurring in Egypt to happen in Syria because we really like our president, not because they teach us to like him,” he says.

“In the formation of ministries, he’s made use of 100 per cent talent with the multiplicity of religions. There are not Alawites only. There are also Sunnis and Kurds and Christians. The president is married to Asma and she is Sunni. He shows the people we are brothers.

“And he is the only president in the Arab region that did not accept any offers from Israel, like other presidents. I, and most Syrians, if not all, can’t accept a president who will hold hands with Israel.”

As in Egypt and Tunisia, unemployment in Syria is high. The official jobless rate is about 10 per cent, but analysts say the double is a more realistic estimate. According to a Silatech report based on a Gallup survey last year, 32 per cent of young Syrians said they were neither in the workforce nor students.

Since the current president took office, the Syrian economic system has slowly moved away from socialism towards capitalism. Markets have opened up to foreign companies and the GDP growth rate is expected to reach 5.5 per cent by 2011.

Last year, the average Syrian monthly salary was 13,500SP ($290), an increase of six per cent over the previous year, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

But like in some other countries in the region, state subsidies have been slashed on various staples, including heating oil, and analysts say the poor are feeling the pinch.

“The bottom half of Syrians spend half of their income on food. Now, wheat and sugar prices have gone up in the last two years by almost 50 per cent,” Landis says.

“Syria is moving towards capitalism. This has resulted in a greater growth rate but it’s expanding income gaps. It’s attracting foreign investment and the top 10 per cent are beginning to earn real salaries on an international scale because they’re working for these new banks and in new industries. But the bottom 50 per cent are falling because they’re on fixed incomes and they get hit by inflation, reduced subsidies on goods, coupled with the fact that Syria’s water scarcity is going through the roof.”

However, Forward Magazine recently quoted Shafek Arbach, director of the Syrian Bureau of Statistics, as saying there is nothing in new data to suggest a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Syria.

‘Reforms needed’

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal late January, President al-Assad acknowledged the need for Syria to reform and but also said his country is “immune” from the kind of unrest seen in Tunisia and Egypt.

“We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance,” he said.

But Ribal al-Assad says it is obvious that the government is worried in the light of the discontent and anger spreading in the Middle East.

“Right after the Tunisian uprising they reduced the price for ‘mazot’ for the heating. They were supposed to bring up the price of medicines but then they didn’t. They distributed some aid to over 450,000 families. And, today we’re hearing that Facebook has been unblocked. They should have started this process a long time ago but better late than never.”

Houry says the lesson from Tunisia, which has been hailed as an economic role model in North Africa, is that economic reform on its own does not work.

“It will be interesting to watch how things are going to unfold over the coming few months,” he says. “The Syrians, like any other Arab household today, have their TVs turned on to Al Jazeera. They’re seeing what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt. Freedom is an infectious feeling and I think people will want more freedom.”

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February 11th, 2011, 10:38 pm


159. Yossi said:

Shai at comment #117,

Wow what a paternalistic and oriental view of the Arabs and a fatalistic view of human struggle for freedom. Nice. Remember that most democracies in the world are less than a 100 year old, including many European countries. A millennia of authoritarian rule is predictive of nothing.

You’ll note I didn’t say anything about democracy, though, although I don’t think it’s an unattainable goal for Syria. Some constitutional monarchies have been fairly enlightened, for example. It’s very simple: if somebody oppresses you, revolt. Start from there, and repeat until satisfied. It may not make the situation better the first time around, but you must start somewhere. Oppressive elites very rarely voluntarily give up power.

Alex ya Habibi,

Well, I guess we’ll just have to see whether the pace of promised reforms catches up with the rate of dispossession and disaffection of the people. I agree with what Why-Discuss said, the rate of change is now much faster with satellite media and social networks, I really don’t think that the regime stands a chance at reacting fast enough, even if it wanted to be exceedingly accommodating (in its own perception) especially that it would be endangering itself by doing so. 4 out of your 7-to-14 years have passed with not a lot to show for Assad in the economic or political arena. I think that for the same reasons you were right about Egypt and KSA, you may be wrong about Syria (but I do admit it’s scary playing date-chicken with you, with your phenomenal memory and your attention to the details of arcane ME politics…) Nobody likes bloody revolutions, but blind submission like cattle isn’t fun either, you know. Young people are loath to living like sheep, without hope or a clear path to a brighter future (since even if a ten year plan exists—which I doubt—it’s completely opaque), and even without the means to live a minimally respectful life. And Syria has a lot of those young man. Anyway, your people will decide what works best for them. I really wish them all the best, Assad too, I do believe he’s well intentioned, but too weak. He’s somewhat of a tragi-comic character, with his unintended inheritance of the faltering “family business”. I guess at some point he’d come to regret not pursuing a career as an Ophthalmologist.

Dear Avi,

Thanks for sharing your fears of the ascent of the MB in Egypt. However it’s not our (Jews) business what regime they choose. So just try to relax because there’s nothing you can or should do about it, so it’s a waste of energy to stress over it.

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February 11th, 2011, 10:44 pm


160. majedkhaldoon said:

Dear Norman
Comment 151
I agree with you,and I do not belong to any party in Syria,I dislike extremism,and believe Baath,MB,SNP Communist,,they all say something,but when it comes to power they will not allow freedom of people who do not belong to their party

As for the other comments, I still believe Syria is not immune to revolution, I think such revolution may start outside Damascus,and will spread all over quickly, I doubt very much that the regime will resort to violent crack down, like what they did in Hama,that time is gone with the new technology and AlJazeera news,and american troops are just next door.
With other dictators are gone,what left will feel isolated,and will be weaker,No regime will stay forever,change is nature law

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February 12th, 2011, 8:32 am


161. Ghat Albird said:

. Dr. Landis. Your comments on the CBS evening news ( Feb. 11, 2011) were much appreciated. Thanks.

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February 12th, 2011, 9:06 am


162. Norman said:

Ghat, Good pick up , i saw that,

Single party system , no matter how good the platform attract opportunists who seek their membership for material self interest,
as i said , Syria should ease into multi party system starting with local responsibilities.that is the only way for any party to clean it’s act ,

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February 12th, 2011, 9:34 am


163. majedkhaldoon said:

Is it a trick,every indication tell me it is a trick,Mubarak is in Sharam AlSheikh,not out of Egypt,the head of military forces are the same people Mubarak trusted and depended on for three decades,third the election will not be held till september,fourth the military appoint the same previous PM,Ahmad Shafiq.
What is going on the only difference is Mubarak officially he is not president,how do know he is not running the goverment from Sharam AlSheikh, I do not know if the Egyptians will accept this,who are they fooling?this is American trick.

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February 12th, 2011, 2:16 pm


164. G.Saghir said:

It is interesting to note that Syria’s health minister has made the following remarks today which are consistent with the theme of the post:

واعتبر الوزير تسارع النمو السكاني مشكلة كبيرة، وسيتم التعامل معها بجدية في هذه المرحلة، من خلال التعاون مع هيئة تنظيم الأسرة للعمل على تخفيض نسبة الولادات، مشيراً إلى أن هذه المشكلة لا تؤثر على القطاع الصحي فحسب بل على كافة القطاعات، ولذا فإن معالجتها لا تنحصر بوزارة الصحة بل هي قائمة على تعاون جميع الوزارات مع بعضها البعض، ولا يكفي تحديد النسل بل يجب نشر الثقافة والتوعية من خلال السلطات الدينية

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February 12th, 2011, 2:55 pm


165. Syrian Nationalist Party said:

Family Planning schemes and population control genocidal programs were introduced in the Seventies by the New World Order genociders. The ultimate goal is reduce the population of the earth to mere 500 million slaves that will serve an elite ruling family of super rich and global dictatorial in nature.

Over the past 40 years, hundreds of reports have been prepared by the Defense Department, the Department of State, the CIA and others about population control and U.S. national security. Many of them remain partially or entirely classified. To give just one example, a February 1984 CIA report called “Middle East-South Asia: Population Problems and Political Stability” warns that “one-fourth to one-third of the populations of all Middle Eastern and South Asian countries is in the politically-volatile 15 to 24 age group…..too long, but lets get to the bottom for your research:
Will introduce you to 3 source of direct evidence of this plot that as packaged, as usual, as a progressive and liberating for the benefit of mankind, and that is were this benign goal is so deceptive.
1- Search Utube for an interview between Jay Rockefeller and Aaron Russo. In that you will hear how Rockefeller said to Russo, “ You idiot, who do you think introduced the woman liberation and Planned Parenthood in America, and do you know why, to which Russo responded that it was to free women. You idiot, responded the Rockefeller, we did it, not to free women, but to send women to work and hence we can tax the whole population not just half of it, and the family planning, it is so we can control population and value of jobs, so kids to no longer be taught and raised by mothers but by us and the media institutions”. End quote.
2- Search Google for Population Control Agenda, although many has been removed and suppressed by now. Try to find the famous quote by Henry Kissinger who at one CFR meeting delivered a speech in which he stated that wars, famine, food resource control, revolutions and genocides by wars, plagues or biological warfare were all legitimate tools that can be used for population control in third world Countries. He declared that is was essential to carry on these programs because otherwise, third world populations will compete with the west for earth minerals, water and food and other resources that big corporation makes it earning from.
3- Google for Georgia Guidestones
What Syria needs is to increase its population to 80 millions and insure that they are free politically and economically so little peddling tribes in Israel don’t look so massively powerful.

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February 12th, 2011, 3:44 pm


166. Akbar Palace said:

“American Trick” NewZ

majedkhaldoon said:

this is American trick.


How so? The four points you mentioned in your post…

– “Mubarak is in Sharam AlSheikh”
– “the head of military forces are the same people Mubarak trusted and depended on for three decades”
– “third the election will not be held till september”
– “fourth the military appoint the same previous PM,Ahmad Shafiq”

…are all due to the actions of EGYPTIANS, not Americans.

It is time the arabs start blaming their leaders for their own actions, and not the madrassa inspired boogeymen of yore. The Egyptian people have finally figured this out.

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February 12th, 2011, 4:59 pm


167. Sami said:

Guess what sir. This ‘modernization’ model for economic recovery is outmoded and has always been prescribed by the North that wants to keep the deprived tame and nice . I have a better ‘liberation from dependency’ model for you. I am Syrian. Please accept my profuse apologies but we won’t adopt ‘your’ family planning plan for economic recovery. The structures that the North supports in my country with the aim of maintaining ‘your’ version of stability in the region has siphoned billions and billions of our money over 40 years. Our Golan that is under Israeli occupation ATTRACTS THREE MILLION TOURISTS A YEAR. Once this corrupt elite has been removed and replaced with a participatory model of democracy, Syria will be able to provide for her sons and daughters for eternity. More educated and productive people operating within an healthy framework will be a strategic asset to be reckoned with

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February 12th, 2011, 5:16 pm


168. Ziad said:

There is more to the Tahrir revolution than meets the eye. It seems to me as if scripted by a first rate PR firm. The revolution was well organized and coordinated all over the country. The protesters were very disciplined and cooperative, no one tried to highjack the revolution, and there was no internal fighting among different factions. The Islamists kept a law key. There was one message (Mubarak Out) and every one stayed on message. The message did not even change when it seemed that Umar Suleyman might take over. Signs against the US and Israel were suspiciously absent. The protesters refused to disperse until their demands are met, and now they are cleaning the square from the rubbish.
My hunch is that the Qatari Amir is behind it. I have no proof except that there is a personal enmity between him and Mubarak, and the AlJazeera’s incessant agitative coverage of the events.
Any one has a crystal ball I could borrow?

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February 12th, 2011, 8:44 pm


169. Norman said:


I think that you are giving the Amir of Qatar more credit than he deserves, The Revolution is made in Egypt, through and through.

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February 12th, 2011, 10:37 pm


170. Joshua said:

Sami, Samir Aita agrees with you and is writing a rejoinder to the Saghir article. It should be posted in a day or so.

best, Joshua

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February 13th, 2011, 1:01 pm


171. G.Saghir said:

Dear Sami,

In comment 50, I said the following:

“Westerns societies including Japan have the opposite problem to the one in the Arab world. In places like Italy and Japan, fertility is so low that the population is actually declining as birth rate is below that of replacement. A number of economists think that this will present a challenge to the growth of their economies.

A high population rate in the region can actually be conducive to higher GDP as more people, means more spending on food, housing and the like. The challenge as you say is to have a productive labor force. Potential growth of GDP is the growth of the labor force plus the growth of productivity. The formula ought to mean that the region’s potential GDP can be high if productivity growth does what you describe.

Turning high labor force growth into an opportunity for high potential growth hinges on the productivity question.”

Let me add this:

Achieving high economic growth is by far the most important goal. By definition, the higher the population the more GDP is. In no way, do I argue that lowering the population growth will lead to prosperity. Japan’ slow population growth has been at the center of that country’s economic challenges as budget deficits explode with the dwindling youth having to pay for the old.

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February 13th, 2011, 1:40 pm


172. Amer Husseini said:





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February 13th, 2011, 5:51 pm


173. Angelis Dania said:

If President Bashar Al-Assad were a fool, he would think as such:

“Hmmm, I see many agendas working both inside and outside of the country to cause instability, and destroy the security and safety of the country for the benefit of non-Syrian interests. This would be a fantastic environment in which to open up democratic elections both local and federal, and now would be a great time to do it.

It would give these non-Syrian agendas the perfect opportunity they need to gain support within the country and accomplish their task. I’m sure though that no-one’s vote can be bought with money, or through the use of religion and sectarianism, or with mass media propaganda in the region, or with any of the other underhanded methods normally used to divide and conquer.

This will certainly be a change for the better, because democracy always equals true freedom and better living standards for all. Israel and the U.S will love us and help us to become better people, and will stop trying to take our lands. The next group of people in power will be guaranteed to hold Syrian and Arab rights in general as priority, and not sell-out their country like Mubarak.

Well, that settles it. Here is my resignation.”

The situation in Syria is not perfect. There is no government in the world that does not contain corruption, democratic or otherwise. The progress is not as speedy as it needs to be, but plans and actions are being taken that are for the country and for the people. Mubarak cared not for his country or people. Syria is not Egypt. Bashar is not Mubarak. A new government now would be in the best interests of people who are not Syrian.

Sanctions have been placed against Syrians because they stood up for their rights. Thus support and trade from many countries has been off the table, and Syria has had to fend for itself. In light of the circumstances, you would be extremely hard-pressed to find anyone or any group of people that would have done for their country as President Bashar did and continues to do.

I watched a large group of Syrians yesterday fight over themselves (and security) just to get near the President or get a glimpse of him in the flesh, with adoration and love in their eyes and in their chanting, as though he were an international pop idol. It’s not for nothing that he is admired so.

The revolutions in the arab world will be turned to Syrian advantage. The position of the Syrian government will rise, and the President will continue to do what many people predict he won’t be able to do, and avoid what many people predict will befall him. Such is the Assad legacy.

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February 15th, 2011, 8:30 pm


174. Norman said:


Well said, thank you .

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February 15th, 2011, 8:51 pm


175. Syria Comment » Archives » George Saghir Responds to Samir Aita said:

[…] I would have loved to read in Mr. Aita’s critique of my article – What Does the Future Hold for Syria – is a road map for how Syria can achieve its objective of 7-8 percent economic growth. I was […]

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February 16th, 2011, 7:20 pm


176. Marwan said:

Mr Jihad,

Yes you are right.I did study in Canada and i know how more capable of understanding i was compared to my Canadians friends in university,not bacause we Arabs are smarter than them,but only because we are not that bad as this report puts us.

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February 27th, 2011, 2:52 am


177. الاقتصاد السوري… هل سينمو بقوة؟ وإلى متى؟ « مدونة هاني ديك said:

[…] مقال السيد جورج صغير يلفت النظر مجددا إلى مشكلة سورية القديمة المتجددة، والتي تتشارك فيها سورية مع كثير من البلدان العربية والنامية، ألا وهي التسارع في النمو السكاني وقوة العمل الذي يفوق معدل خلق الوظائف، وبالتالي تزايد معدل البطالة وما يستتبعه ذلك من ثورات شعبية كما حدث في تونس ومصر مؤخرا. […]

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March 1st, 2011, 5:51 am


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