Syria: a primer

The uprising in Bashar al-Assad's Syria, now over seven weeks old, reached a turning point on Monday, April 25 when Syrian army units including tanks entered the rebellious town of Dera'a in the country's south. The operation, which New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid writes "seemed to mark a decisive turn," marked the start of a determined nation-wide crackdown on protests that have seen deaths numbering over 500, with many hundreds more arrested and detained. [1]

With most journalists barred from the country, reliable information is extremely hard to come by. That said, it appears that the crackdown is having the desired effect, with smaller numbers braving the repression this past Friday (May 6). Yet it is surely too early to predict where the protest movement is headed. With the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood now supporting the protests, outcomes are far from certain. ("You were born free so don't let a tyrant enslave you," read the Brotherood's statement.) [2] In what follows, I will try to sketch some of the relevant discussion, beginning with some background on Syria's history.


Syria's patchwork of often-conflicting religious communities has its roots in antiquity. It was the early Christian sects which introduced bitter religious sectarianism to the area. This dynamic persisted, so that when the Muslims founded their first dynasty in Damascus, the Umayyids soon found their Syrian domain cleaving into opposing sects. This Sunni-Shia rift was never healed and followed the faith to its next headquarters in Baghdad and indeed famously continues to the present. [3]

In the wake of the Umayyid presence, the bulk of Syria's population including its landed elite adhered to the Sunni faith though other faiths coexisted there. Christianity had retained a toehold among Arabs and was augmented by Armenian immigrants who mostly congregated in the multi-ethnic northern city of Aleppo.

The Sunni-dominated status quo was disrupted by the French Mandate in the inter-war years during which the Alawites, members of a minority Shia sect and generally the most repressed Syrians, were heavily recruited into the army. The Alawites, along with the Druze, are the only religious minority groups which form the majority of the population in any region of Syria. The latter are concentrated in the mountains of the south near the Jordanian border while the former generally hail from the mountainous northwest coast.

Alongside these religious divisions is an ethnic split. Syria's Kurdish population suffers from harsh repression, with some 200,000 of them denied citizenship status following a 1962 census which classified about 20% of Kurds as Turkish refugees. They have thus faced decades of dispossession as well as tremendous barriers to land ownership, health care, education and more.

In 1963, the nominally secular, socialist Arab nationalist Ba'ath party took power in Damascus. The party was popular among the Alawites and other minorities since it preached a secular line. In 1970, the father of the current president headed a military coup and proceeded to welcome many of his fellow Alawites into the governing elite. Thus the current ethno-religious mosaic was formed: about three quarters of the population is Sunni, including the economic elite; Shia Muslims make up 15% and include the Alawites (10%), Druze (3%) and Ismailis; Christians (10%) are to be found in western central Syria and in cities where many traders are Christian; the majority of the country's people are Arab (85%), save for the Kurds (10%) who are mostly Sunni and are concentrated in the north-eastern border region, and small populations of Turkmen, Circassians, Jews and Greeks.

Finding itself with such a mixed population amid regionally powerful neighbours, it is perhaps not surprising that Syria’s foreign policy seems on first glance to be erratic or even to work at cross-purposes. On the one hand, Syria provided crucial early support for Yasser Arafat's Fateh and mounted an invasion (repulsed by Israel) of Jordan during Black September (1970) to rescue the Palestinians there. This support occurred at the same time that Syria was repressing Palestinian refugees domestically. In 1976, Syria invaded Lebanon in support of right-wing Christian forces fighting Palestinians and leftists – an invasion which had the support of both Israel and the US. Having taken a dislike to Arafat, Syria continues to support the PLO’s rivals including Hamas. And the tacit alliance with Israel is long gone as Syria has teamed up with Iran in sponsoring Hezbollah — Israel's arch enemy in Lebanon. Similarly, Syria has in the past provided support for Turkey's enemies the Kurdish PKK while simultaneously repressing Syria's Kurds. Currently, however, the regime is united with Turkey over the Kurdish issue concerning neighbouring Iraq. [4]

The rebellion

Syria’s wave of protests began on March 15, sparked by the arrests of several teenagers for writing anti-regime graffiti in Dera'a, a largely Sunni town surrounded by a Druze countryside which has seen long-standing tension between these communities. [5] There is also a burgeoning smuggling industry in the area, with Druze tribesmen coordinating with their brethren across the border. [6] The area is thus deemed a special security zone and, consequently, there is a thick layer of bureaucracy, which is thought to be a major grievance for the protestors. [7] Beyond this, the general economic malaise of recent years, exacerbated by the demographic bulge of young people, has certainly inspired anger easily directed toward the government. This may explain why the protests have not been taken up in the two large cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

With a paucity of journalists reporting from the country, many questions have gone without adequate answers. Even the Facebook page of the Syrian Revolution (130,000 followers) has its Syrian sceptics. Respected Montreal-based blogger Camille Otrakji points to the early messaging on the page which was highly sectarian, and suggests that public relations specialists have since cleansed the site's messaging by doing away with blatant religiously-based attacks. (The moderator of the page is now known to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.) In his view, the protests are more sectarian than nationalist. [8]

One of the main mysteries surrounds the size and spread of the protests. While there are conflicting reports, it seems clear that the demos have not spread much beyond the south and have yet to draw in urbanites and the middle class. The initial protests there were answered by demonstrations in support of the Assad government which dwarfed the opposition demonstrations. Though these are induced (perhaps coerced) by the government, they were bigger than pro-government demos in 2005 when the regime was an international pariah under suspicion for involvement in the assassination of Rafic Hariri in Lebanon. This suggests there may be considerable genuine government support among the population. [9] Indeed, many observers feel that members of the religious and ethnic minorities are generally supporters of the regime against what they see as a Pandora's Box of conflict which threatens should the protesters succeed in regime change.

Another big question mark surrounds the issue of violence on the part of demonstrators. The regime claims that over 60 members of the security forces have been killed in protests. Some incidents of this type have been reported by independent observers, muddying the claims that the regime is murdering peaceful protesters. [10]

Joshua Landis, a leading academic specialist on Syria at the University of Oklahoma, notes the use of violence by demonstrators and suggests that the movement may take up arms. On the heels of the April 25 assault on Deraa, he wrote:

I do not believe that the regime will be able to shut down the opposition… It is more determined and revolutionary than was the Iranian Green movement that Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei successfully suppressed…

Some of the leadership of the opposition is dedicated to peaceful means, but this pacifism is not universal. Already we have witness the resort to arms by the opposition… [11]

The repression

Responsibility for putting down the protests has largely been handed to the informal sector in the form of gangs, many of whose leaders are related to the Assad family. The heavy lifting is provided by the 4th Armoured Division, also connected to the family, in this case the president's brother. Further, there are religious connections, i.e. the Alawite, Christian, Druze and Ismaili officers which Assad, Sr. recruited into the officer corps: "The minority networks dominate the command structure," explains Syria expert Andrew Tabler. "They see it as an us-versus-them situation." [12]

Minorities in the officer corps are not the only ones thought to oppose the protests. Most observers report general distaste for the demonstrations among middle class Sunnis as well as Alawites, Christians and Druze generally. In addition, it is noteworthy that the Kurdish population has not come out in nearly as great the numbers as during past protests called by Kurdish political groups.  

As a proportion of the total population, Syria's death toll is about half of that in Bahrain; twice that of the Egyptian revolt; slightly more than Tunisia; over four times Yemen's toll. [13]

Comparisons and outcomes

Apart from the grisly comparison of death tolls, it is useful to compare Syria to other sites of the Arab Spring. The situation is somewhat different than what transpired in Egypt and Tunisia in that there have been few government resignations (save for in Deraa) and also few defections from the military. [14] Most commentators also point to fundamental differences between those two deposed regimes and the one in Damascus in that those regimes were not synonymous with the dictator. That is, the military elite recognized the necessity of ditching the despot in order to preserve their own wealth and privileges. That is widely thought to be impossible in Syria, where the status of virtually all ruling elites is closely tied to the Assad family.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Robert Kaplan foresees potential for tremendous upheaval should the Asad regime fall. Syria borders two rather weak states — Jordan and Lebanon — which could erupt. A united Sunni population across Syria and Lebanon could spell disaster for Shia and Christians in the area. [15]

Sectarian violence within Syria isn't the only risk. The disruption of the "Tehran – Damascus – Hezbollah axis" which would accompany Assad's fall could lead the US – Israel -Saudi axis to strike to take advantage of the vacuum or to desperate acts by Iran or Hezbollah in defense or anticipation of such acts by their enemies. [16]

It is unclear if even Assad's enemies want to see his downfall, fearing that what may follow would be worse. Israel has maintained a careful silence during the crisis, fearing that any announced Israeli position could be used in unpredictable ways to harm their interests, which in general appear to favour stability in Syria. [17] Turkey fears a reigniting of the Kurdish separatist movement there should Syria's Kurds seek independence from a post-Assad Syria. [18]

On the big question, that of whether the protests will succeed in bringing down the Bashar al-Assad regime, there is no consensus. However, it seems to me that the majority of informed, independent observers are doubtful that regime change is imminent. Sections of the opposition may be bought off by piecemeal moves toward reform such as a recent announcement to examine the status of those Kurds denied citizenship. Kurds have not come out full-force for the protests; yet the attempt to placate them may not have the desired effect, since Syria has a history of promising to rectify the Kurdish situation but not following through. [19]

To sum up the situation currently, I'll leave it to Patrick Seale:

At the time of writing, Bashar still seems to have a chance, if a slim one, of stabilising the situation and perhaps earning a further spell in power — but only if he calls a halt to the killing of protesters and takes the lead of the reform movement, and in effect carries out a silent coup against the hardliners.

But it may well be too late for that. Indeed, Bashar may already have lost authority to men like his brother, Maher al-Assad, commander of the regime’s Republican Guard, who seems to advocate crushing the protests by force. If the army and the security services remain loyal, it will be difficult for the opposition to unseat the regime. But there have been ominous rumours of army defections as well as reports that some members of the Ba’ath Party have resigned… [20]


1.Anthony Shadid, "Syria Broadens Deadly Crackdown on Protesters," NYT, May 8, 2011.

2. Bassem Mroue, "Islamist group urges Syrians to take to the streets," AP, Apr 29, 2011.

3. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (Random House 1986), Ch. 2; Charles Glass, Tribes with Flags (Atlantic Monthly Press 1990), Ch. 11 – 12.

4. On Syria and the Palestinians, see Helena Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (CUP 1984), pp. 21-24; Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation (Nation Books 2002), passim. On Syria's Kurds, see Kerim Yildiz and Mark Muller, The European Union and Turkish Accession: Human Rights and the Kurds (Pluto Press 2008), pp. 137-140. See also, Gerard Chaliand, ed., A People without a Country (Zed 1986), Ch. 6. For an overview of Syria's foreign policy, see Raymond Hinnebusch, Syria: Revolution from Above (Routledge 2001), Ch. 7.

5. Robert Kaplan, "Syriana," Foreign Policy, April 21

6. Nir Rosen, "Prospects for the Syrian Terrain (PartII)," Jadaliyya, April 15, 2011.

7. Patrick Seale, "The Syria Time Bomb," Foreign Policy, March 28, 2011.

8. Anthony Shadid, "Exiles Shaping World’s Image of Syria Revolt," NYT, April 23, 2011.

9. See, Joshua Landis, "As Protests Mount, Is There a Soft Landing for Syria?" Time, March 25, 2011.

10. See, e.g., Joshua Landis, "Western Press Misled – Who Shot the Nine Soldiers in Banyas? Not Syrian Security Forces," Syria Comment, April 13, 2011.

11. Joshua Landis, "Quelling the Revolt: Will the Syrian Opposition take up arms?" Syria Comment, April 26, 2011.

12. Borzou Daragahi, "Loyal, secretive security forces keep Syria leader in power," Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2011.

13. Figures from: Joshua Landis, "Day 53 of the Syrian Uprising; over Six Killed; Fewer Demonstrators; Clinton Says Reform Still Possible," Syria Comment, May 6, 2011.

14. Borzou Daragahi, op. cit.

15. Robert Kaplan, "Syriana," Foreign Policy, April 21.

16.  Patrick Seale, "The Syria Time Bomb," Foreign Policy, March 28, 2011.

17. Joshua Mitnick, "Amid Syria's turmoil, Israel sees Assad as the lesser evil," Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 2011.

18. Karen Young and Scott Wilson, "Growing unrest in Syria puts U.S. officials in a bind," Washington Post, Apr 22, 2011.

19. Refugees International, "Syria: Follow Through on Commitment to Grant Citizenship to Stateless Kurds," Nov 10, 2005.

20. Seale, "Is This the End of the Assad Dynasty?" Middle East Online, May 6, 2011.

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