What is Missing or Exaggerated in News of the Uprising? – Heydemann, Lawson, Lesch, Seale

Roundtable on Syria Today (Part 2):
Mar 31 2011 by Steven Heydemann, Fred Lawson, David Lesch, and Patrick Seale

This is Part 2 of our first Jadaliyya Roundtable on Syria, moderated by Bassam Haddad and Joshua Landis, of Syria Comment. It features Steven Heydemann, Fred Lawson, David Lesch, and Patrick Seale. This post will be published on both Jadaliyya and Syria Comment. See Part 1 here.

Roundtable Question #2

2. What do you consider to be missing or exaggerated in the discussion/writings/policy on the Syrian uprisings?

Heydemann (Q #2). Several elements of the current debate seem to reflect misperceptions or distortions, in my view. Within some policy circles in Washington, protests in Syria have revived the long-held dream of “flipping” Syria through regime change, and re-defining the regional balance of power in ways that would work decisively to America’s advantage. Seen from this perspective, support for the opposition is desirable because of the strategic opportunity it represents for America, rather than the possibilities it offers for Syrians to secure their own freedom.

What this analysis tends to overlook, however, are the gaps that would need to be bridged to get there from here—that is, to move Syria through a difficult, dangerous, and complex transition to a stable post-authoritarian political order—and the very low probability that a Syrian democracy would have the political complexion that advocates of “flipping” seem to take for granted. Misperceptions or distortions of how a process of regime change would play out, or what its likely trajectories might be, have the potential to lead the US down a dangerous and counterproductive path. Far more effective, in my view, would be put in place a long-term strategy to develop the capacity of the Syrian opposition, and exploit the current opening to create a sustained, incremental approach to democratization in Syria, recognizing that we need to be in this game for the long haul.

What has been missing entirely from recent coverage of Syria are references to Syria’s history of republican government and its experience of republican forms of democracy in the 1940s and 1950s. Syria enjoyed universal suffrage before Switzerland. It is the only country in the Arab world in which a Communist Party leader, Khalid Bakdash, was freely and fairly elected to parliament. While deeply if not fatally flawed, these historical moments nonetheless reflect elements of liberal democracy that should not be overlooked. The historical memory of democratic moments in Syria is a potential resource for the opposition. It has contemporary relevance. Yet it has not been touched on at all in the current media coverage of Syria’s uprising.

Lawson (Q #2). At first glance, it seems easy to explain why the initial outbreak of popular disorder occurred in the environs of Dir’a: the history of restiveness and resistance to outside authority that permeates this corner of Syria; long-standing friction between Sunnis based in the towns—particularly in the comparatively new administrative center of Dir’a itself–and Druze in the countryside; covert and perhaps illicit activities carried on by unlicensed traders along the Jordanian border; and so on. But what were the primary dynamics that set off the explosion? An article published in al-Watan newspaper shortly before the demonstrations noted that government officials posted to rural districts of Dir’a province are no longer going to be given automobiles and drivers, even though functionaries in the city will get to keep theirs. Might local grievances like this have provided the impetus for the protests?

Similarly around Latakia. Reports that shadowy groups of armed Sunnis helped to provoke the violence lead one to wonder what exactly precipitated the fighting along the western coast. Are poorer ‘Alawis rallying to the defense of the regime in the face of Sunni incursions from northern Lebanon? Or has dissatisfaction over changes in policy and spending priorities that accompanied the presidential succession alienated disadvantaged ‘Alawis in the provinces from their well-connected co-religionists in the capital?

And more important, what industrial, commercial and agricultural circumstances are present in these two parts of the country, which might have aggravated popular disaffection? Has the drought that is decimating the villages of Syria’s northeastern plains inflicted similar damage on the hard-scrabble grazing lands of the south? Are employment prospects around Latakia markedly dimmer than they are in Aleppo and Damascus?

Lesch (Q #2). There seems to be, as expected in this sound byte world, exclusive coverage of the extremes, either those who are against the Syrian government or those who support it. Each viewpoint has been manipulated by its own sets of supporters to fit political agendas. Ultimately, it will be this silent majority, including the business, religious, and tribal/clan elite who will determine whether or not Asad has done enough.

Seale (Q #3). I think what’s been missing from most of the writing about the crisis has been recognition of the way President Bashar’s mind-set has been shaped by the many crises he has had to deal with in his decade in power – and which he has managed to survive, clearly a source of pride for him. These crises include George W. Bush’s war on terror after 9/11; the Iraq war of 2003, and the knowledge that had America been successful in Iraq, Syria would have been next, as the neocons had planned; the 2005 crisis in Lebanon triggered by the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, and the “plot” (by the US and France) to unseat him at that time; the Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 2006 and of Gaza in 2008-2009.

What’s been missing in much of the comment is Syria’s sense of vulnerability to attack. Its allies, Iran and Hizballah, have faced Israeli attempts to demonize and destroy them. Repeated efforts have been made to disrupt the Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah axis, seen by many as the main challenge to Israeli and American hegemony.

In his rambling speech, Bashar’s argument was that he now faced a new “conspiracy” similar to that of 2005. This time the aim of the “plotters” was to ignite sectarian strife so as to fragment Syria’s national unity, weaken it and bring it down. In raising this question, he was putting his finger on an enduring concern of the Alawi minority, and indeed of their Christian allies, faced by a resurgence of Sunni Islam.

Regarding much-needed forms, Bashar said something to the effect that he had intended to introduce reforms from the moment he took office in 2000, but that confronting the various crises and dealing with the ravages of the four-year drought had somehow got in the way. It was a sort of apology. His priorities, he affirmed, were stability and seeing to the needs of the citizens.

Those who know President Bashar say that he has a stubborn streak in his character, no doubt inherited from his father. He doesn’t like to be pushed around or be seen to yield to pressure, whether internal or external. That may be why he has left to others the task of elaborating on the planned reforms.

[The third and final set of responses will be posted on Friday] See Part 1 here.

Comments (65)

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51. Australian -Syrian said:

Thanks for your comment! And it is true, millions of people also surrounded his car, trying to touch what ever bit that they could. They truly love him.

Akbar Palace,
Please do give me $5000 each YEAR , i will be honoured to live there, in any state, as long as Bashar is President. I will remain loyal to him for the rest of my life!

Actually, his 11 years of rule DID allow free elections! That’s why he won! Im pretty sure that why millions are rallying in SUPPORT of him, and ony a minority are agains him! And that minority are made up of outsiders, and parasites attempting to destroy Syria, and make it a corrupt country, like Iraq, infested with American soldiers!

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April 4th, 2011, 8:14 am


52. Shami said:

Australian,do you agree with me that the day will come when the same people who applauded bashar will spit at him.(especially the noisy opportunistics ,majles members,clerics ,ministers,ex ministers, and other well connected to the regime).
Most of the time unkind dictatorships are loved by the oppressed people,but this love is not rational ,it’s more like a psychological disease.
BTW,Ali Saleh the yemeni dictator ,despite the organized opposition he faces ,succeeded to bring more supporters in the streets than the mostly staged demons for the menhebak dictator ,Gaddhafi has enough people who are ready to die for him.
I’m not sure that the same number of syrians are ready to die for Bashar,even within his sect.I dont think that the syrian army will be able to suppress a massive uprising that include Aleppo and Damascus.

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April 4th, 2011, 12:09 pm


53. Australian- syrian said:

Shami, NO I DO NOT AGREE WITH YOU!!!!! How dare you even suggest a thing like that? Firstly, if our love for Bashar is a psychological disease, then i am happy with, and greatful for the disease, and may i never find a cure. And second, i think you have been blind for the past few weeks. Have you not seen all the millions of people supporting him, chanting ” with our souls with our blood we will protect you Bashar” ? And no, that is not an act, that is what you call real devotion and love! You speak of gaddafi, well bashar is nothing like him. Anyway i firmly believe that ppl will never spit at bashar, but they, including myself, will gladly spit on ALL his enemies!

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April 4th, 2011, 8:52 pm


54. NK said:

Yeah Syrians living in Syria will never spit on Bashar, this video is a collection of clips shot on Mars.

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April 4th, 2011, 10:05 pm


55. Norman said:


Not everybody liked Jesus, Moses, or Mohamed, why do you expect everybody to like president Assad, he just needs more than 50% of the people to like him and that i am sure of,

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April 4th, 2011, 10:21 pm


56. OFF THE WALL said:

Haven’t you learned to read history the way you are supposed to

Australian Syrian
There are news that the syrian-regime is establishing armed militia committees who are expected to attend prayers and use violence against anyone trying to initiate a protest after prayers in mosques or churches. While not yet verified, if true, would you be willing to join these militias and attend your local mosque or church service and use force against those minority of Australian-Syrians who dare start an anti bashar protest in your town down under. Or would you, then remember that you are Australian, whose love of country demands that you do not commit such terrorist act.

DO NOT Bother answer, for I am not expecting logic, nor common sense.

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April 4th, 2011, 10:22 pm


57. NK said:

Dear Norman

You read enough of my comments, you know I’m not against people loving Bashar or claiming that a lot of Syrians do. However I’m against the ALL, EVERY, NEVER, ALWAYS, FOREVER, ETERNITY, INFINITY & BEYOND remarks, they’re by definition illogical. Oppress your people long enough and they will take a dump on your grave.

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April 4th, 2011, 10:28 pm


58. OFF THE WALL said:

I beg to differ, these words, in the context you are describing are not only illogical, they are cultist, demeaning, and dehumanizing to the chanters themselves.

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April 4th, 2011, 10:41 pm


59. Norman said:


you and i have been in the US long enough to know that there is no absolute, the people in the Mideast and some on SC still believe that their way or the highway and that they are always right, our people need to accept defeat gracefully, One day, one day, May be!. Hope so,

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April 4th, 2011, 10:58 pm


60. why-discuss said:

What is freedom? I’ll like to ask some of these demonstrators what they mean. Can anyone help? Specific examples please.

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April 5th, 2011, 2:34 am


61. why-discuss said:

As reported by L’Orient- le Jour, curiously the US advise the US citizens not to travel to … Lebanon, due to insecurity concerns. They say that airports and borders could be shut down without notice.

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April 5th, 2011, 2:41 am


62. Australian- Syrian said:

I will not reply, because your remark shows you fear contradiction. Just one question, where do you get your information? Al Jazeera? If so, that explains a lot.


I dont deny that there are people who are against Bashar. But what you must know is, there are more people with him, than against him. Did you not see the videos i posted up. That was just people supporting him here in Melbourne. How do i know? I was there. In Sydney, there were 4 thousand people showing their love and support for the Syrian President. Not to mention the millions supporting him in Syria.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytO1wGvS5mY (take a guess where that is…it is in Damascus!)

i suggest you look at this also,
And stop only focusing on the negative things and open yourself to the positives.

I acknowlegde that there are people who are fiercely againt Bashar, but i can also see that there are more who fiercely love and support him. And NK, you misunderstood my remark about people never spitting at him. I was referring to the loyal ministers and citizens who Shami belives will turn agaist him. Like i said to him, and now to you, i belive THEY, will never do so. So you wont misunderstand me again, i will repeat… his LOYAL ministers and LOYAL people.

The minority of people are those who are against him. There are far more people, whether Syrian, Lebanese etc, who are for Bashar. If the minority want a democracy, they should begin by understanding that in a democracy, the majority rule. Not just here in Australia, but also in America and other democratic countries. So they should be aware that Bashar will remain in power, as long as those who are loyal to him remain so, and they are the majority.

Anyway, whatever happened to the US being the most democratic country in the world? The last thing i heared was that a minister or a senator in congress wants to get rid of mosques. (Correct me if i am wrong please, because i do want to know what is really happening at the moment). There’s your democracy for you. And America has been a democracy for at least 200 years. It still needs some work.At least in Syria, Bashar doesn’t want to get rid of churches. What ever happened to the freedom of religion, stated as one of your 27 ammendments? I think it was the first ammendment. Some people need Mosques to practice their religion freely. Even though this horrible suggestion may not take place, it still proves that a suggestion like that is very undemocratic, and too the least, discriminatory.

I am not saying that all Americans are the same or agree with that. As a matter of fact i know that the majority, including President Obama, are against it. So you should also consider that only the select minority are against Bashar al Assad.

I agree with you. And also, there are more, much more than 50% who are with him. so i think that proves another thing.

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April 5th, 2011, 4:38 am


63. syau said:


I would like to correct you, in Sydney Australia, the numbers were too large to hold 1 single Pro Bashar rally, so, there were 2 rallies held on 3rd April 2011. One had 4,000 supporters and the other held almost 3,000 supporters.


You seem to consistantly deny people’s support for Bashar, not only were there PRO BASHAR ASSAD rallies held in australia to hightlight there support for a great president of a beautiful country, but in the wake of conspiritors trying to destablize the
country, Syrians stood as one in many countries like Armenia, London, Greece, many states in America and the list goes on.

Your comments are actually off the wall. How else is a government supposed to gain stability if they do not go directly to the source? If you did not see the news broadcast, there have been illegal weapons found in some of the mosques. I also wonder if you saw the report on the UNARMED policemen sent to protest to keep the peace- as there job description requires, but were ambushed and attacked by these protesters. You question to Australian doesnt deserve to be dignified with an answer. Obviously idiocy is a trait that is aquired at birth by some. What do you think people do when they go to war – they knowingly risk there lives at the request of there government. How many soldiers died in the Gulf wars? What about in Afganistan? You say democracy – I dont believe Western democracy will work in the Arab world – the culture in the Arab world is too different.
Saudi Arabia for example still has in the 21st century be-heading as part of it’s capital punishment. They cut limbs and fingers off for minor theft crimes. Women are not to go outside to do day to day activities which we enjoy in the Western world, by themselves, they are to have a male relative with them such as a father, husband or brother. Wake up and take a look around. The Assad regime has done a substantial amount for Syrian citizens since his 11 years in power. He HAS revolutionalised Syria.

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April 5th, 2011, 6:18 am


64. Mr.President said:

The late president of Syria Hafiz Assad designed Syria’s political environment perfectly. He kept Sunnis in charge of Syria’s businesses. That was why the majority Sunnis refused to join against Hafiz in the 80’s and now again refused to join the demonstration against Bashar in 2011.
It seems that President Bashar has more than 50% supports. This is to include the minorities, people that belong to multi-sects marriages, and good portion of the majority Sunnis (non Islamists). If the minorities and mixed-marriages Syrians equal to 40% it will only take an additional 10% moderate Sunni’s to put him above the 50% mark. I am sure President Bashar did his math before his reform-only-my-style speech.

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April 5th, 2011, 6:33 am


65. freedom writer said:

Australian syrian

Have you ever heard of a tyrannical majority??? Minorities should not suffer at the power of a tyrannical majority. What happened to ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people'(Abraham Lincoln)? The majority!!!! Ultimately causing injustices to those individuals who are constantly in minorities.

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April 5th, 2011, 8:53 am


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