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Michael Jansen: Different factors
February 19, 2016
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The 2011 Arab Spring took different forms in countries where protests erupted and morphed into political action. In Tunisia, protests dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution,” drew in all levels of society and lasted 28 days. The uprising ended in the resignation of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his exile.

In Egypt, a demonstration on Jan.25 was attended by 50,000 rather than the expected 150 people, launching an 18 day, largely peaceful uprising that, as in Tunisia, embraced the entire society. Thirty-year President Hosni Mubarak was compelled to step down by the military high command, which used the protests as an opportunity to remove him because he had been grooming as his successor businessman son, Gamal, who was rejected by the armed forces. In both these countries, protesters did not bear guns. 

In Syria, demonstrations began in mid-March calling for reform rather than regime change but they were soon infiltrated by armed men. In both Egypt and Syria the security forces cracked down hard on demonstrators but in Egypt they did not fire back. This factor differentiated the Syrian experience from developments in Tunisia and Egypt. The second factor was the army’s loyalty to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Instead of removing him, following the example of the Egyptian military, the Syrian army command rallied to his side and remains loyal four years later.

The protests in all three countries had common causes: overpopulation, lack of education, unemployment, poor public services and actual hunger. In Syria the population soared from 4.6 million in 1960 to 6.3 million in 1970, 8.7 million in 1980, 12.1 million in 1990, doubling to 23 million in 2011.

Before the war, Syria had countrywide health care for all and free education through university. While Syrians went to hospitals and clinics, millions in the countryside and urban slums did not enrol their children in school, particularly at secondary level. As a result, there is a huge pool of semi-literate Syrians capable only of performing manual work. Tens of thousands went to Lebanon, men as agricultural and construction labourers, girls as maids.

My own stone-built house in the village of Chemlan in the mountains above Beirut was built primarily by Syrians who mixed and poured the cement, chipped the stones to fit into the puzzles of the walls, and laid the floor and roof tiles. Wages in Lebanon were higher than in Syria which is still the case.

Syrians risked their lives for jobs during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90) when cruel Maronite militiamen used to kill Syrian labourers and pile their bodies like cordwood under the Charles Helou flyover near the port.  After the civil war ended, the building boom could not absorb Syria’s unemployed congregated in slums around the country’s main cities.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, many disaffected from conservative backgrounds joined the banned Muslim Brotherhood which from 1976-82 rebelled until the Baathist government crushed the movement in the battle of Hama in February 1982, leaving a great deal of resentment among Brotherhood supporters. Those inside and outside Syria were eager to bring down the government and either joined demonstrations or took part in expatriate opposition groups.

Four more recent developments created tension between the government and members of the public. First, during the 2001 “Damascus Spring,” President Bashar al-Assad — who had succeeded his father — attempted to introduce economic reforms along with a limited political relaxation. For some months, economic and political debate flourished but Assad was compelled by Baath party hardliners to retreat on both fronts and activists were detained or fled the country. This prompted educated reformists who remained in the country to take the lead in the 2011 protests.

Second, in response to the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, Syrian youths crossed the border and joined the anti-US forces eventually absorbed by al-Qaeda in Iraq which, after unrest began in Syria, was transformed into Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh. These men were radicalised, trained, and ready to use weapons against the government.

Third, in 2005, Damascus introduced a “social market economy” designed to boost foreign investment and reduce subsidies keeping the farming and working classes in food and fuel. The free market swamped Syria with cheap foreign goods from China and Turkey. Syrian plants were forced to close and unemployment increased while the “social” safety net never materialised, angering the poor and deprived sectors of the society.

Those living in poverty in the suburbs of Damascus could travel ten or fifteen minutes by minibus to malls where shops displayed latest fashions from Paris and to streets lined with cafes charging $5.00 (Dhs18) for a latte, deepening resentment and alienation.

Finally, drought from 2006-09, drove millions of farm families off the land and into city slums, swelling the numbers of frustrated, unemployed young men and led to the involvement in early demonstrations of armed men who had been recruited by neighbourhood gang bosses. 

The Syrian uprising also differed from the risings in Tunisia and Egypt because Tunis and Cairo were left on their own to deal with their protesting people. By mid-2011 Turkey had taken up the Syrian rebel cause and formed the Free Syrian Army and the expatriate Syrian National Council which, as the uprising became a civil war, attracted other external backers that had issues with Damascus. The uprising was transformed into a proxy war pitting the US and its European and regional allies against Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hizbollah, and the Syrian government.

The task of US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov is to convince these actors to go along with the Munich plan for “cessation of hostilities” and for the launch of negotiations on the formation of a national government which will draft a new constitution and hold fresh elections by August 2017, changing the regime by political rather than military means.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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