Saturday, March 3, 2012

Understanding the Syrian Conflict

A look at the rivalries and dynamics driving the continuing unrest in Syria

By Marie-Josée Ryan

Before the Arab Spring, most people in the West generally knew little about Syria. Today, as the conflict in Syria intensifies, it gets more exposure in the media.  Still, does the average Westerner have the background to understand the main issues causing the conflict?  Information about the current situation in Syria has frequently been used without its historical and local context.  Below is an attempt to reconcile the pieces of the puzzle with a native Syrian and economics professor, who more than a decade ago employed game theory models to narrate the civil conflict in Lebanon. Moreover, before the conflict in Syria began, he spent two years at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies preparing a book on the unmaking of the nation-states of the Near East. 
Before his departure to the United States in 2009, Mark Tomass was an economics professor at UNYP and the Director of its Graduate and Undergraduate Business Programs.

UNYPRESS: Could you briefly explain what is going on in Syria now?
Mark Tomass: There are two forces seeking the toppling the current government. One is a movement to construct a civil society that will transform Syria from a police state to a more open and pluralistic political system.

UNYPRESS: And the other force?
MT: The others are multiple groups that seek to transform Syria from the secular state that it is now to an Islamic state. These forces comprise the Sunni Muslim Brothers, whose uprising in 1979-1982 was quelled by the government. Today, the Muslim Brothers are supported by Turkey, who seeks to establish a government in Syria in its own image.

UNYPRESS: Can you explain the violence we are observing right now in Syria?
MT: This violence is a result of the regular Syrian army’s attempt to regain control of certain Sunni quarters in the city of Homs in central Syria, and in the countryside around Damascus. 

UNYPRESS: How do Syrians establish their identity?
President voting on constitutional referendum
MT: When I am in Syria, people would first want to identify me by my religion and then by my sectarian identity, so that they would know how to communicate with me. The groupings that exist, with the exception of the activists for civil society, are religious groups. They identify themselves in terms of their religious sects since pre-Islamic times. The Muslim Arab conquest of Syria reinforced that identification by recognizing Christian sects and Jews as independent communities governed by their own laws.  Soon after, the Muslim Arabs themselves splintered into religious sects that prevail to modern day. Therefore, the identities that exist at this time are sectarian identities. Muslims identify each other as Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Druze, Ismaelite.

UNYPRESS: Which of these prevailing groups is in control of Syria?
MT: The real power structures are dominated exclusively by the Alawites, who are also secular.  They endorse a Sufi, or moderate version of Sunni Islam as the official religion in Syria. Themselves, the Alawites are considered by Sunni clerics and laypeople as heretics because of their deification of Ali, the Prophet Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law, because of their belief in transmigration, and because they do not take Muslim religious obligations literally.

UNYPRESS: How were living conditions during the period of Alawite rule?
MT: In the past forty years, due to improved health conditions and a high birth rate, Syria’s population quadrupled. While absolute conditions improved, Syria’s relative standing in the world declined. It slipped on the World Bank’s classification scale from a Higher Middle Income Country to a Lower Middle Income Country.  Much of that is due to direct or indirect wars with Israel through Lebanon, low-intensity civil conflict, persistent Western embargoes, a puritanical religious culture that excludes women from the labor force, and indeed not in the least the failure of the institutions of the state to promote economic development.  Generally, Alawite rule was not able to transform Syrian society into a secular society, to the contrary because of them being perceived as heretics, there has been a reaction against their rule that drove more people towards religiosity. Nobody was allowed to publicly criticize government officials. Accordingly, the government attracted corrupt people of all kinds. However, for security considerations, many who were in highest echelons of power were not only Alawites, but members of the extended ruling family as well. Some of them misappropriated public assets and used the power of the state to create monopolies that benefited them. 

UNYPRESS: The Alawite regime is not going to give up power because, if I understand correctly, they will be persecuted? 
MT: Yes, they are afraid of being massacred.  And again, justifiably, because it happened many times in the past millennium.  Today’s Muslim Brothers took advantage of the “Arab Spring” to topple the government.  They want to turn the "Arab Spring" into their own revolution to depose the Alawites from power, and I think that is the source of the problem. A secular conflict mutated into a sectarian one. It is Lebanon revisited.

Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Akhras
UNYPRESS: And there is historical precedent for their fears?
MT: The Alawites would not want to relinquish power, because for a millennium, they have been persecuted by the Sunni orthodoxy, whose religious authorities issued fatwas, or religious decrees, against them for their alleged heresies. Those fatwas proclaimed that fighting them should be every Muslim’s priority before they fight the Christians and before they fight the Jews. They must fight them because they are presumed to pose the greatest danger to Islam. Therefore, these Alawites, who have practically been ruling Syria since 1966, are very much despised by the majority of Sunni Muslims in Syria.

UNYPRESS: Speaking of warfare, would you consider that Syria now is in a state of a civil war, or coming close to that state?
MT:  Technically, if you want to define a civil war, you would have to say there are two or more parties, where each is controlling a certain region that they use as a base to fight each other. The Turkish government and their Syrian Muslim Brothers allies wanted to establish a protected zone to the south of  Alexandretta, where the latter along with the army defectors could use as a base to launch attacks against the Syrian army. I suspect that the United States did not endorse that notion, and that is why it did not materialize. It is also possible that the Turkish army decided not to enter into a direct confrontation with the Syrian army, who had reportedly deployed tanks along the border to confront such possible Turkish advance into Syrian territories.

UNYPRESS: What was the extent of the “Free Syrian Army”?
MT: The armed groups, including the army defectors, who are referring to themselves as the “Free Syrian Army” did briefly control certain parts of cities, such as in the suburbs of Damascus and some parts of Homs. According to their leader, the defectors are exclusively Sunnis.  If their control would have been extended for a longer period, one could say that the situation would have entered into a civil war phase. But, the military campaign that the government launched two weeks ago, after the Security Council vote, have almost succeeded in regaining control. As a result, the rebel groups are not holding significant territories for me to say it is technically a civil war. However, that situation could change, and we may enter into a civil war phase. 

UNYPRESS: Why didn’t President Bashar al-Assad fight corruption earlier and move towards a more democratic rule?
MT: At the beginning when he took power, he suggested in his inaugural speech everything that he is suggesting now. He promised that he would move Syria to a more transparent society and a multi-party political system. But after he took power, there was the September 11, 2001, followed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the assassination of the former Prime Minister of Lebanon in 2005, and the subsequent ousting of Syria from Lebanon, and the 2006 war. All of these incidents made him feel that he should prioritize security over granting political freedoms.

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