The Sturdy House That Assad Built: Why Damascus Is Not Cairo
The Arab Spring has not reached Syria. Bashar Assad has dug in his heels and has made clear he won’t go away quietly and will do whatever he needs to do to maintain power. To date, that has yielded well over 50,000 dead, an untold number injured, a half million UN registered refugees (an unknown number of refugees who have not registered) and over 3 million Syrians have been displaced.
What is being played out behind the scenes is hard to decipher. It seems as if the world is immobilized. There is a lack of a coherent policy and half measures taken as a smorgasbord of competing rebel interests vie for power.
Add a failed economy, religious tensions and a domestic population which reviles devil they don’t versus the devil they do and the makings of an improv revolution.
Only instead of comics there are well armed and competing factions, all vying for the microphone.
As revolutions rocked authoritarian regimes from Tunis to Manama, pundits were quick to identify Syria’s leadership as the next to fall. Like other countries in the region, Syria is deeply impoverished. And on the face of it, the similarities between Damascus’ authoritarian system and those of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are striking. Just as in Tunisia and Egypt, a single-party regime has ruled Syria with an iron fist for years. For the past five decades, it has kept the country under permanent emergency law, which, like in its North African counterparts, has been used to suppress calls for greater political participation. Yet despite various parallels, a closer look at Syria reveals that the Assad regime — led for the past decade by Bashar al-Assad — is unlikely to fall. Paradoxically, Syria’s grave economic situation and its Alawi minority rule, which has been safeguarded by repressive mechanisms, will prevent oppositional forces from gaining critical mass in the near future.
Syria has recently experienced annual economic growth rates of around four percent, but the country is still plagued by staggering unemployment, increasing costs of living, stagnating wages, and widespread poverty. Although official data from Damascus (which is notorious for its overly optimistic calculations) lists unemployment in the first quarter of 2010 at eight percent, independent estimates hover around 20 percent, with even higher rates among the younger generation. Because underemployed and disillusioned youth comprised one of the driving forces of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, observers have enthusiastically noted Syria’s youth unemployment rate as a signal of potential revolt.
Syrian youth certainly share the economic grievances of young people in Tunisia and Egypt, but widespread poverty and unemployment are unlikely to catalyze sudden regime change now. Despite the policy of cautious economic liberalization that Assad initiated after taking office in 2000, Syrian society continues to be defined by its high degree of egalitarianism. True, Western luxury goods are increasingly available to elites, and some members of Assad’s extended family have been accused of nepotism and profiteering. However, the accumulation of excessive wealth in the hands of an oligarchic political elite has been more an exception than a rule. Political isolation and domestic authoritarianism have severely restricted the development of a politically conscious and economically empowered middle class. As such, the situation in Damascus differs significantly from pre-revolutionary Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In all three countries, public fury was fueled by a highly visible and ever-increasing status gap between a large elite class and a marginalized majority. Unlike Syrians, protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya perceived their poverty to be relative rather than absolute — and thus as an injustice caused by the regime.