The Syria puzzle

With news in Libya quickly unfolding, I figured I would shoot this out as quickly as possible (I wrote it yesterday).  I think it’s likely that the Assad regime in Syria will take advantage of the upcoming chaos and coverage of Libya to crackdown even harder on dissent while the world is distracted.

In many ways, Syria has defied common wisdom and the expectations of scholars.  Much of my graduate school work involved working with researchers at Yale and the World Bank on projects designed to help understand the conditions under which civil conflicts were likely to take place across the world.  During the upcoming semester, my students and I will look at proposed causes of civil conflict in my class, International Conflict and Cooperation.  Here are some quick thoughts based on my earlier background on some ways to think of the Syrian conflict.

Certainly, amidst all the surprising developments in the Middle East this year, none has been more surprising to me than Syria’s uprising.  While Tunisia and Egypt erupted in protest and, ultimately, revolution, early attempts by Syrian dissidents to mobilize the population abjectly failed to gain any traction in February.  Given the past willingness and ability of the Syrian government to crush any challenges to the rule of the Assad family and Baath party rule, I would have given the likelihood of a mass movement breaking out as almost zero.  And I would have been wrong…

In the area of “civil conflict studies,” many different variables have been investigated for their connection to the outbreak of civil conflict, but a few particular ones stand out. First and foremost, civil conflicts tend to occur in poorer countries. Syria would seem to fit this description, with average income (about 4800 dollars per person per year) ranking in the lower half of the world.

However, the reasons for the the connection between poverty and civil conflict are poorly understood.  One theory by researchers Fearon and Laitin connects lower income and conflict with poor “state capacity” — meaning that a poor country would have a hard time maintaining the competent, well-armed security forces needed to maintain civil order.  Syria’s security apparatus has been notoriously oppressive, however, and its recent inability to repress local protests attests despite killing and jailing thousands of civilians speaks more to the resilience of the protestors than the impotency of the security forces.

Another variable studied in civil conflict literature involves the “level of democracy” in a country.  Findings show that countries that are somewhere in-between democratic and autocratic tend to witness more violent conflict.  The most likely reason for this is that very democratic countries allow for alternate channels to express discontent short of mass protest and armed conflict, while very repressive governments are able to intimidate or break up any opposition before it becomes a threat to stability.

The most unstable countries are, thus, those that permit enough freedom for opposition to arise, but not enough freedom for such groups to feel like they can operate through political channels.  Egypt and Tunisia seemed to be classic examples of a countries in which this was the case and why each was ripe for revolution.

Syria, however, has never permitted the type of speech and organization that the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes tolerated.  Unlike in those cases, social media and outside news outlets were quickly banned when protests began.  Although there was some liberalization in the early years of President Bashir al-Assad’s tenure, Syria remains one of the most repressive places in the Middle East.  Countries with repressive security forces and a government willing to use them tend not to experience a lot of conflict.

What, then, does explain events in Syria?  The factor from “civil war” studies that sticks out in my mind as best accounting for the Syrian uprising considers whether or not a country is “ethnically polarized.”  Ethnic polarization suggests a certain degree of political tension will exist in any country with more than one large ethnic group.  Places like Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, and Kenya have witnessed conflict involving ethnic polarization in recent years, while even peaceful little Belgium may breakup into separate ethnic enclaves.

No grievance motivates would-be revolutionaries across the world as much as the feeling that their “in-group” is being repressed by someone else’s “out-group.”  As many news reports have appropriately pointed out, Syria’s “out-group” is the 12% of the population of Alawites (an offshoot of Shi’ism, as I pointed out last week) that control public life and are perceived as governing “over” the country’s majority Sunni population.  In this sense, the causes of the Syrian uprising are probably more comparable to the causes of earlier protests in Bahrain (where majority Shi’ites were fed up with Sunni domination) than the causes of the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions.

While civil conflict research is somewhat inadequate to the task of explaining how the Syrian uprising started, it has even less to say about which factors determine whether mass movements are successful or not.

Earlier this year at a discussion panel that was occurring just as the Libyan civil war broke out, I asserted the obvious truth that the winning side is usually the one with bigger guns and more of them.  The Libyan conflict seems to be coming to an end, as the “big guns” of NATO air power pave the road to Tripoli for that country’s rebels.

Unfortunately, no such aid will be forthcoming to Syrian dissidents, who have been amazingly resolute in pursuing mostly peaceful protests.  With most of the guns and an increasing willingness to ignore the pleas of the international community, it would only seem a matter of time until the Assad regime murders its way back to stability.  On the other hand, the bravery of the Syrian opposition has done nothing but surprise me this year.

Posted on August 21, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Gerburg Garmann

    Worthwhile analysis, Doug!


  2. I agree with what you have written, based on what I understand about the situation in Syria. I’m curious what you think about Iran’s role. I do think that they hold the trump card in the story.

    Politics does make for strange bedfellows, but I’ve been curious about how the avowedly secularist Ba’athists in Syria have become allies with the theocrats in Iran. Does the fact that the Shi’ites in Iran and the Alawites in Syria are both outsiders in the larger Islamic world make a critical difference, as Iran looks at its regional enemy, Saudi Arabia, home of the holy sites?

    Is it all realpolitik, of the sort that would seem to be beyond the grasp of that rube, Ahmadinejad? Who is really pulling the strings there?

    Does Iran just want an ally with a border with Israel?

    One other issue, but I have to ask. I am only a bachelor of political science, not a master or doctor, but something you wrote reminded me of cricisim I have heard about the social sciences, about a lack of rigor and specificity.

    You wrote “During the upcoming semester, my students and I will look at proposed causes of civil conflict in my class, International Conflict and Cooperation.”

    That sentence contains a direct contradiction of itself. If you had said that you would be looking at the international results of civil confict, that would be a completely different subject.

    Civil conflicts are by definition within national boudaries. They are not international. There is almost no topic on earth that you could choose that would be less technically a part of a class called International Conflict and Cooperation. Movies. Cuisine. Sexual norms. Most anything is international, except for something that is not international, by definition.

    It is a small, but a critical distinction. Words and categories do matter. I’m sure that you will teach a good class and that your students will learn there, but until we are more precise the social sciences will always be seen as inexacting and mushy-headed.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for checking out the blog. As for Iran’s role in the region, I think the idea that they are a “trump card” is taking things a little too far. Iran’s not a trump card there any more than Syria was a “trump card” in suppressing Iranian protests a couple years ago. As for their cozy relations in general — I don’t think you can just view it through just one lens. Identity, power, and domestic institutions all play a role, no doubt. I do think you are on to something in referring to both regimes as “outsiders” in the region. That’s even more true now than before.

      As for “words and categories” mattering — well, yeah, but you can take it too far. I’ll never forget the grad student grader I once worked with who insisted on docking students points on their test if they wrote “Russian” instead of “Soviet.” (The professor gently impressed on him that the exercise of common sense can sometimes outweigh the need for precision).

      Inter”national” relations is itself a bit misleading as a term, as the field is really inter”state” relations. My methodology class begins with a long discussion of the connotations of “political science.”

      In any case, I had no voice in actually naming the class — it was named as such before I received my position. I’m kind of interested, though, in what you would name a class that examines theories and examples of interstate conflict during the first half of the semester and civil conflict during the second half. Would you feel better about something like “global conflict and cooperation,” or would that be too imprecise because it implies the study of global conflicts like the World Wars? Thoughts?

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