“Why Syria is Unlikely to be Next…. for Now,” by Bassam Haddad

Bassam Haddad, who is in Beirut, will respond to comments in the “comment section” today. A good chance to discuss the likelihood of change in Syria and limits of stability. I thank Bassam in advanc

Why Syria Is Unlikely to be Next . . . for Now
Bassam Haddad March 9, 2011 for Arab Reform Bullitin

As millions of Arabs stir their respective countries with demonstrations and slogans of change and transition, certain Arab states have been generally spared, including some oil rich countries and Syria. Syria stands out as a powerful regional player without the benefit of economic prosperity and with a domestic political climate that leaves a lot to be desired. Some say it combines the heavy-handedness of the Tunisian regime, the economic woes of Egypt, the hereditary rule aspects of Morocco and Jordan, and a narrower leadership base than any other country across the Arab world. Why, then, is all relatively quiet on the Syrian front?

We can delude ourselves by resorting to facile explanations related to the threat of severe coercion facing a potential uprising in Syria—which certainly does exist. But the reality of the matter is more complex. To begin with, one must account for the unexpected: a clumsy incident involving a disproportionately brutal reaction against civilians, even in Syria, will spin structural variables out of control.

“Syria is not Egypt”

Any cursory review of the Syrian press, or the press on Syria, reveals that many Syrians empathize with the grievances of their rebellious Arab brethren and share many of them. This includes those who actually protested in small numbers and were harassed and/or beaten on Friday, February 4th, the planned “Day of Anger” in Syria, and during the few days prior. Other sporadic incidents took place in the past few weeks, but none rose to the level of an explicit anti-regime demonstration, as happened in Egypt and elsewhere. This puts Syria in stark contrast with Egypt.

Egyptian protesters grew in courage gradually as civil society snatched gains such as degrees of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of organization and contestation by truly independent political parties, not least among whom is the Muslim Brotherhood, even if by proxy. On the other hand, Syrian civil society does not enjoy nearly the same measures of liberty. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was correct in saying that Syria is not Egypt in a January 31 Wall Street Journal interview. The reverse is equally true.

As repressive as the government of former President Hosni Mubarak might have been, Egypt’s public space was much more open than that of Syria. Independent papers, parties, and political activists have proliferated in Egypt for the better part of the past decade, gaining adherents and mobilizing supporters via various forms of networking. With time, the components of, and room for, collective action have broadened considerably. Between 2004 and 2010 more than 6,000 small- and medium-sized protests took place throughout Egypt, most of them labor protests. Over the past decade in Egypt, these led to a level of individual and group empowerment—as well as re-politicization of the society—from which Syrians are quite removed.

In addition, while social polarization and poverty are increasing in Syria and social safety nets are deteriorating, the overall socioeconomic conditions are nowhere near those endured in Egypt. Furthermore, the heterogeneity of Syrian society (in terms of politics, region, community, sect, and ethnicity) exacerbates divisions among those affected and discourages cohesion among the opposition. Snowballing demonstrations that would dramatically raise the cost of brutal reaction in Syria are thus unlikely for the time being. As matters stand today, the calculus of the ordinary Syrian does not favor going to the streets – absent an unexpected incident of regime brutality, of course.

…Nor is it Tunisia or Libya

Individual and group decisions are not motivated solely by social connectivity, legal permissiveness, and collective action. Otherwise, Tunisia’s revolt would have not seen the light of day, as Tunisians dwelled in a security atmosphere intolerant of independent organization and collective action, much like Syria’s today. But Tunisia’s state, regime, and government did not overlap nearly as much as those of Syria do, and certainly the Tunisian coercive apparatuses and army were not as closely knit around the heights of power as they are in Syria. As a result, expecting the Syrian army/security services to jettison al-Assad as their Tunisian counterparts did to Ben Ali is simply a non-starter.

At the same time, despite the existence within both the Libyan and Syrian regimes of a will and rationale to fight for survival, state-society relationships in Syria are much thicker than those of Libya, where detachment at the top has reached delusional levels. For instance, the Syrian regime has promoted a new cross-sectarian business class often with considerable roots in traditional city quarters. If something is afoot in Syria, however, it is likely to come from the northern cities.

The “Resistance” Factor

Discussions of Syria’s vulnerability to internal protests often posit Damascus’s resistance status to explain why Syria will be spared: i.e., that because of Syria’s confrontational stance toward Israel and the United States’ brutal policies in the region, the regime enjoys a form of Arab nationalist legitimacy. In particular, Syria’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas is considered a unique and legitimate tool for manifesting such confrontation to imperialism. After all, President Bashar al-Assad polls quite well throughout the region compared to other Arab leaders, and enjoys significant popularity among various segments of Syrian society.

Still, overemphasizing the regime “resistance legitimacy” is problematic on two counts: first, even in Egypt, where Mubarak was viewed as a U.S. protégé and Israel’s accomplice, the demonstrators did not make that point a major issue. Second, the region is entering a new era in which Syria’s confrontational stance might become less unique, as Egypt and other Arab governments take more independent positions and withdraw from the strong U.S. orbit.

It is difficult to make blanket predictions due to the constant dynamism of the factors involved. While Syria’s confrontational positions regarding Israel and the United States might be increasingly popular in the region, the citizens of democratizing Arab states will want governments that are more responsive to them regarding domestic as well as foreign policies. The Syrian government will face this growing demand in due time. For now many factors weigh against revolution in Syria, barring an extraordinary event such as an excessively violent regime reaction to a demonstration or other incident. Observers would be wise not to hold their breath.

Bassam Haddad is Director of the Middle East Studies Program and teaches in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University. He served as founding editor of the Arab Studies Journal and is co-founder of Jadaliyya e-zine.

Also see Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders
: “Resilient Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from Syria and Iran & Implications for Democracy Promotion,” Policy paper Hivos/UvA, March 2011.

….Promoting and assisting judicial reform, pertaining to, for example, Syria’s administrative courts may underpin reformists and help bend authoritarian politics in directions compatible with greater respect for political rights and civil liberties. What is critical to such efforts, however, is to ensure that they do not become regime reinforcing, but create meaningful constraints on the arbitrary exercise of authoritarian power.

Other strategies that exploit or foster cracks within ruling coalitions, strengthen the position of reformists within regimes, and foster the emergence of interest groups able to imagine that their interests are no longer entirely dependent on the persistence of an existing authoritarian regime could well prove to be a potent addition to existing strategies of democratic reform…..

….Work with civil society organizations should not be abandoned, …. addressing the obstacles to civic collective action, improving democratic practices within CSOs, and targeting regime regulation of civic sectors as a factor that Western governments take into account in their relationships with authoritarian regimes would all be positive steps in this direction.

Regime legitimacy, fed by nationalist agendas, needs to be taken seriously in foreign-led democracy promotion. ….it may be appropriate to designate third parties who, from a nationalist perspective, are less circumspect or who may enjoy credentials congruent with the Iranian and Syrian regimes’ nationalist platforms. In turn, pro-democracy activists in both countries stand a better chance to succeed if they challenge the authoritarian regimes’ virtual monopoly on nationalist appeals by incorporating in their programs their own nationalist alternatives. In such attempts it is essential that nationalist themes are reconciled with values and convictions compatible with greater pluralism, political rights and civil liberties. ….

A rejoinder:

Jerusalem Post: Shalom predicts collapse of Iranian, Syrian regimes

The protests in Syria and Iran, and intensified sanctions against the latter, will succeed in bringing down the regimes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom told The Jerusalem Post

Ibrahim Hamidi traveled with President Assad to the Jazirah to inaugurate plans for bring water 1258 million cubic meters from the Tigris to irrigate northeastern Syria. He explains how it is to work.

عناية بالشأنين الاجتماعي والاقتصادي لتثبيت الاستقرار في شرق سورية
الخميس, 10 مارس 2011

الأسد ومساعدوه في منطقة الحسكة.jpg
الحسكة (شمال شرقي سورية) – إبراهيم حميدي
الأسد ومساعدوه في منطقة الحسكة.jpg

أكدت زيارة الرئيس بشار الأسد الى محافظة الحسكة قبل أيام لوضع حجر الأساس لإطلاق مشروع استراتيجي وتنموي على أساس جر مياه نهر دجلة وتوفير مياه الري والشرب الى الأهالي، أن المنطقة الشرقية، التي تعتبر السلة الغذائية والمخزون الاقتصادي لسورية، ستحظى بـ «عناية كبيرة» في الفترة المقبلة.

المشروع الاستراتيجي، الذي أطلق بعد دراسات معمقة، يوازي في أهميته «سد الثورة» على نهر الفرات الذي دشن قبل ثلاثة عقود، من حيث قدرته على تحقيق «الاستقرار الاقتصادي والاجتماعي» لأهالي محافظة الحسكة، كما كان الحال مع الفرات في محافظتي الرقة ودير الزور في شرق البلاد.

وبحسب المعلومات، فان المشروع الجديد يقوم على جر 1250 مليون متر مكعب سنوياً من مياه نهر دجلة الى الأراضي المجاورة بحيث يؤدي الى ري أكثر من 200 ألف هكتار من الأراضي وتوفير 125 مليون متر مكعب من مياه الشرب، تماماً كما حصل مع سد الفرات في سبعينات القرن الماضي. يضاف الى ذلك، أن إنتاج القمح سيرتفع من 50 ألف طن الى نصف مليون طن سنويا، علماً أن الإنتاج السوري من القمح كان بحدود 2.7 مليون طن. كما تقدم المنطقة الشرقية نسبة كبيرة من إنتاج سورية من النفط البالغ نحو 400 ألف برميل يومياً ومن الغاز حيث ينتج نحو 30 مليون متر مكعب يومياً…….

Comments (72)

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51. Bassam Haddad said:

Dear Revlon and Ibrahim Almasry, (i copied both of your comments below for easy access)

I’m happy to respond to your queries below.

i am not in a position to tell Syrians what they can do, but there is clearly no alternative to organizing. Given the difficulty of organizing publicly in Syria, especially with a political intent, the task is that much more onerous. But i am confident that much organizing is taking place as we write/speak. The wall of fear is slowly crumbling, even if slower/faster in some cases. One important route that has been followed in other countries under similar circumstances is “Generic Networking,” which is the act of connecting with each other without an explicit purpose, though it is not a mystery why folks would connect at a time like this. Such networks can then play a productive role under changing circumstances. The networking can be cyber-based or direct.

you rightly point point out that one cannot predict the occurrence of a revolution. That is correct from the social-scientific point of view, and no one actually predicted the Tunisian or Egyptian revolutions of late

but you collapse issues and differences between countries when you also attack “likelihoods.” If you re-read the piece, I was not predicting. The first part of your statement below is true. But the second is disputable not because one CAN predict, but because it is very problematic to say you can’t talk about likelihood. Of course you can. And those people/experts who said Egypt is not Tunisia or it is unlikely to follow suit were wrong. And i might be wrong too in the case of Syria. I guess we’ll wait and see. But but the nature of the concept of “likelihood,” it is not predictive, you see? Canada is not likely to have a revolution soon, nor is Germany or Brazil, or South Africa. Note, I’m not saying Syria is not likely to have a revolution “soon.” I’m saying, in response to some analysts, it’ not likely to be next after Egypt or, maybe, Libya, and i stated the reasons why, with one caveat.

It would serve us all better if we just analyze existing conditions. but, when you have people saying Syria WILL BE NEXT, and someone like me says that’s not likely, and here’s why, it does not go against logic and is not impermissible ever, as you suggest. it’s a way to engage in a conversation without descending to the level of prediction. In that sense, you are on point to criticize “predictions.”

As to your other comments about poverty, the army, and the middle class, i’m not sure who your addressing, because i am not making those arguments. And those who did, are uninformed about the wold history of revolutions, which, if you look closely, we still don’t have in Tunisia and Egypt.

The closest we MIGHT come to revolution at THIS point is if Qaddafi is defeated. The infrastructure of the previous regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, is still in tact, but softer and less repressive. We have to wait and see. Another reason why your comments on the permissibility of “likelihoods” ought to be tempered a bit.

Salam to everyone. I enjoyed conversing with you. feel free to email me at Bassamhaddad@mac.com or read our e-zine at http://www.jadaliyya.com for more on the Arab revolutions/revolts/protests/struggles.

Ibrahim Wrote:

“The fact remains, you can never predict a revolution or state it unlikely to happen ’soon’ as a fact”


26. REVLON said:

Dear Mr. Haddad,
Thank you for sharing your perspective on Syria comment, on the subject of why Syria is unlikely to be next, for now?

. . .

My question to you mr. Haddad is the following: in the abscence of a real opportunity for ground networking to evolve, what should virtual groups change in order to be more effective.


Egypt is not Tunisia
Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia..Yemen is not…

If I link you to ‘expert’ links and analysis that predicted that it was unlikely Egypt will follow Tunisia and how unlikely for Both Libya and Yemen to follow suit..this post will take an entire page. in fact one American expert on middle east issues declared that both Libya and Yemen will never revolt..bet he’s eating his hat soon.

The fact remains, you can never predict a revolution or state it unlikely to happen ’soon’ as a fact

The fact is neither country that has rebelled has much similarities with the other, every one is a case of its own.. so saying Syria is unlikely to follow is at best an wishful assumption regardless of the situations on the ground.

Unlike classic European revolutions dire economics played a very meek role as in all 4 countries it was the middle class, the well-off and the educated who have took the lead role and pushed the masses. Basing your assumption on poverty is naiive, on freedom of press is absurd(as there were no press freedoms whatosever in both the Libya and Tunisia case). Thinking that people can only revolt if they hope the army will side with them is absurd.. so is Syria unlikely to follow suit?no it isn’t..you can never know and any prediction of a revolution or none is very simplistic thinking.

Hope you have your hat ready mr.expert

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March 13th, 2011, 6:08 pm


52. melt said:

It is very clear that a bloodbath will occur should there be a popular uprising in Syria. The Nusairis know that any successful revolt will be Sunni-led and supported. The Syrian army is top-heavy with Nusairis, Druze, Christians and pliant ‘Sunnis’. Whatever ones opinion is, there WILL be a mass slaughter of Nusairis once Syria is liberated.

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March 14th, 2011, 5:44 am


53. Aziz said:

It is very clear that a bloodbath will occur should there be a popular uprising in Syria. The Nusairis know that any successful revolt will be Sunni-led and supported. The Syrian armed forces are top-heavy with Nusairis, Druze, Christians and ‘pliant Sunnis’. Whatever ones opinion is, there WILL be a mass slaughter of primarily Nusairis once Syria is liberated.

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March 14th, 2011, 5:46 am


54. Shami said:

Aziz ,it should not happen as you predict ,the aim is not to repeat the behavior of Asad against innocent people but to build a liberal democracy in which the alawites as any other syrians are protected by the law.One of the most respectable arab is an alawite ,his name is Aref Dalila.Anyone who attack an innocent alawite is as evil than Rifaat and Hafez and only such people deserve jail.
Of course ,there will be no place for people like Ben Laden in Syria.

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March 14th, 2011, 8:00 pm


55. MONTAGNARD said:

It looks like MELT #51 and AZIZ #52 are “nom de guerre” for the Mossad officer that is fanning the FITNA flames on SC, don’t you agree?

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March 14th, 2011, 9:48 pm


56. Shami said:

Fort probablement,montagnard.

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March 14th, 2011, 11:58 pm


57. Jad said:

Dear friend Shami,
Thank you very much for replying to #51-52.
Have a nice day 🙂

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March 15th, 2011, 12:27 am


58. micho said:

oh please shami stop talking nonsense we both know that if bashar falls it will be on the hand of sunnis that will go on an persecute everyone who isn’t sunni and you can call for a revolution all you want until arabs get out of this sectarian mentality we are going nowhere just look at egypt they are still in that mentality muslims are still being disrespectful to christians , and please do you even know what was before hafez alassad? it was decades of coups after coups there was a time where presidents would last less than 24hrs so please stop heralding nosense that will take back syria 50 years back if not more , and you can hate bashar all you want but you cant denie that his has taken steps in the right direction

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March 15th, 2011, 1:38 am


59. MONTAGNARD said:

The only nonsense is coming from you. Shami reflects Syrian tolerance, and he cares for fellow Syrians. Go find another site to spread your nonsense.

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March 15th, 2011, 11:55 am


60. micho said:

good job on reading selectively where did i say he didn’t care about his fellow syrians ? but his thinking is very naive if he thinks that extremist sunnis wont persecute Christians and Shiites if they get remotely close to power which can easily happen

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March 15th, 2011, 12:29 pm


61. norman said:

That is a valid question , the history of the MB is not encouraging but they can tell us what they think about who can qualify to be Syrian with all the obligations and the rights, they are still mute in this regard .

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March 15th, 2011, 12:34 pm


62. micho said:

while i agree that we need a democracy like any other country it is not as people claim it is the revolution has to start in our heads before it goes to the streets

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March 15th, 2011, 12:40 pm


63. MONTAGNARD said:

Extremists will never take over power in Syria. Syria is not Afghanistan. Syria is civilized and the sunnis in Syria are civilized like all Syrians are and there is no tolerance for extremism. You are talking non sense. Go spread your hatred and sectarian extremism somewhere else. You will be wasting your time and our time on this site.

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March 15th, 2011, 2:10 pm


64. norman said:

As you know , I agree with you on almost everything , I do not agree with you that MICHO is a hater, he is just concern on the intention of what SHAMI calls Majority rule toward the minority in Syria, They can set that concern to rest by calling for equal rights to all Syrians and the right for any Syrian to be president, i doubt that you hear that officially from them .

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March 15th, 2011, 2:44 pm


65. LeoLeoni said:

It’s despicable to hear minorities again and again perpetrate delusions that if the dictator is gone then the masses will exterminate the minorities. Instead, minorities should stand hand in hand with their fellow Syrians in seeking what is right, that is, a liberal democratic state where all Syrians are treated equally.


“Nuseireys” is an offensive slur and I ask you to please refrain from using that. They are called Alawites. The majority of Sunnis in Syria are not blood thirsty or radical. Most are normal citizens and are just affiliated with their sect by name, that is, religion is not their primary identity.

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March 15th, 2011, 4:05 pm


66. MONTAGNARD said:

Having red Shami’s posts over a period of time, I noticed a shift in his use of words and a shift in his thinking. People evolve and interact and he certainly has convinced me that he believes in including all Syrians both the sunni majority and all minorities in shaping the future of Syria and I am sure he can tell you that he considers them equal. He stated before in one of his posts, that there is no place in Syria for Ben Ladens.
My reply to Micho was in line with my belief that the Syrians in both the sunni majority and all minority groups are civilized and tolerant and care for each other and love Syria.
The extremist nuts are not tolerated in Syria. I repeat Syria is not Afghanistan. I don’t know if Micho is a hater or not, that was not my point. I just can’t see any circumstance were the extremists can take over in Syria and start butchering and killing people based on disagreement. Micho if he is for real, he needs to be more responsible with his words, as they are hateful words that I totally reject.
As for your concerns regarding equal rights, my sense is that the majority and I mean everybody, including the sunnis agree with you. We just need to make sure that we the majority, and I mean everybody, articulate and support the respect of equal rights under law for all Syrians.
I think we are still in agreement Norman.

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March 15th, 2011, 5:16 pm


67. jad said:

I agree with Montagnard, Mr. Shami’s comment deserve our support, he showed that he developed a more moderate speech and it’s very unfair for anybody not to encourage him for his effort.
I’m thankful for Shami’s comments and honesty on SC.

Thank you again Shami 🙂

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March 15th, 2011, 5:35 pm


68. micho said:

how about before you jump on my throat and start claiming that i’m a “hater” reread my posts where did i say that sunnis are not civilised but in the chaos of the revolution different dangerous groups ( muslim brothehood who is know for its history of violence in syria) might be up to grab the power

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March 15th, 2011, 6:10 pm


69. Ibrahim AlMasry said:

hey Norman, I bought you a fedora and some condiments..you can collect them tomorrow and enjoy your meal

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March 15th, 2011, 7:28 pm


70. Shami said:

Many thanks,Montagnard and Jad for your supportive words.
What micho has said is sad but not definitely horrible and nowadays,many honnest people in Syria share his fear,he will get a response from me in the next few days,because i have to meet a project deadline soon and the matter deserves an elaborated answer.

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March 15th, 2011, 8:33 pm


71. micho said:

thank you for understanding me 🙂

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March 15th, 2011, 11:43 pm


72. Ihab said:

Another rubbish analysis form one of the ‘experts’ that belongs to the dustbin of history.
BBC had a similar one like couple of months ago. “why Egypt is unlikely to follow Tunisia” why don’t you experts do something more useful with your lives. suggestion: anything that doesn’t require an educated opinion.

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April 22nd, 2011, 11:08 am


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