Can Assad Hold Back The Arab Spring Tide In Syria?

More than a year since the start of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ it has become clear that the predicted collapse of the numerous dictatorships throughout North Africa and the Middle East will not be happening at the pace some had hoped. It certainly has not happened in the same way the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe changed in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. With hindsight, it is clear why this could not have been the case. Almost all (Yugoslavia excepted) of communist Europe relied heavily on the central authority of Moscow for military, security and financial support, as was shown by the responses to various popular uprisings in the 1950s and1960s, most notably Hungary in the Autumn of 1956. This created an atmosphere of mistrust among the citizens of the country, with the state feeling no need to curry popular support from any section of society. With the start of Perestroika in the USSR during the middle to late 1980s, the governments of Eastern Europe were left with an empowered populace determined to change the status quo and little state power to prevent them. This has not been the story in North Africa and the Middle East. There is no single dominant central power dictating and enforcing policy in the region, much of the income of the region is dependant on the export of natural resources to foreign markets (most notably crude oil) rather than heavy industry, tending to empower an autocratic despot still further by not relying on near full employment levels for economic stability. The history of European communism since the death of Stalin seems to suggest that ruling by committee without an unchallengeable tyrant was the government of choice (Yugoslavia & Romania excepted), this gives greater stability when the state is strong by spreading the strain or pooling resources and loyalties but once cracks appear under severe pressure, the lack of a central authority figure for those in power to gather around can lead to further rifts and fragmentation, possibly precipitating governmental collapse.

However, the overriding factors in the success or fall of governments under popular revolt seem to be:

  1. Does the current government accept there must be a change and will they go without being forced?
  2. Has the current government lost control of the military?
  3. Do the rebels have adequate resources to fight or do they have any outside (foreign) aid?

When we look at this list in this order and compare them with the list of states to have had successful rebellions in the ‘Arab Spring’ and the order in which they fell (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) we can see that as soon as a ‘no’ answer appeared to a question, the government fell. It may seem fairly obvious that if the government has no will or resources to hod on to power they will lose it but it is also quite unusual for those in power to relinquish it easily and not to have contingencies in place to support them, especially within the military.

Clearly, Syria has not reached any of these points yet. Assad will not go anywhere willingly and excepting a few deserters, the majority of the armed forces are still under his control. The international community is wary of supporting a dispersed and disorganised rebel army whose leadership, power and political polices are largely unknown. Currently, the situation appears to be unwinnable for both sides, the uprising is too powerful, numerous and widespread to be crushed by Assad and his government forces but without outside assistance the rebels have little chance against a trained, organised and well equipped army. The current trend in the international community is to look for a peaceful solution based on government reform and more popular representation. However, many of the diplomats pushing these ideas are from The ‘Arab League’, whose membership consists of states who are (in the most part) dictatorships. Clearly instability in the region is bad for all of them but the thought that another of their number could fall victim to a revolutionary movement that still threatens them must surely be a worry. It is stability and peace that concern them, not liberty and justice.

In Libya, the geography and demography of the country made rebel support fairly simple and almost risk free. Almost all the population centres and military installations are near the coast, using modern aircraft carriers and battleships to provide air support for the rebel fighters proved an effective way of removing a largely unpopular dictatorship without the use for ground troops. This could not happen in Syria. With many of the population centres far inland and at altitude, effective air support for untrained guerilla fighters would prove difficult and would be unlikely to succeed without providing active ground troops to support the rebel forces. Given the close political links between Syria and Iran and the incredible worldwide unpopularity of the war in Iraq, ground troops are really not a viable option.

Nor should they be. One of the major failures of Western foreign policy in recent years has been the underlying belief that governments in the developing world should be encouraged, coerced or cajoled into running their economies for the benefit of us rather than their own citizens. The conviction that what is good for them cannot be good for us and vice versa is a long-held misconception that is prevalent in the corridors of power throughout the Western world. The conservative short-termism implicit in this belief is undeniable. Flourishing, developed economies need partners to trade with, the more equal or near-equal trading partners you have the stronger you will all be. Imposing Western-dependant governments, even if those governments are democratically elected, in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan is not a long-term solution. Propping-up pro-Western despots like the Shah in Iran or Mubarak in Egypt may provide temporary stability but only at the expense of long-tem development. Allowing (Egypt) or enabling (Libya) the citizens of a country overthrow their own government and giving them the choice to run their state affairs for their own benefit is the only long-term solution. Much of the political and religious instability and fanaticism throughout the region could be tempered and moderated by fair and equitable development. Treating them as political equals rather than noisy, troublesome peasants who deserve to be tricked into selling their prized assets on unfair terms will only exacerbate the ill-feeling towards the West many of these people feel.

It’s not the decadent, modern lifestyle that we lead that leaves many Arabs feeling resentment towards us. You only have to look at the popularity of many aspects of Western culture and technology throughout the region to see that. Its our arrogant belief that only we deserve it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as I can.

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