Omar S. Dahi: A Syrian Dilemma

© Omar S. Dahi
© Omar S. Dahi

Omar S. Dahi is assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College. His research focuses on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa and on South-South economic cooperation. His publications include articles in the Journal of Development Economics and The Middle East Report.


Why has the Syrian uprising proven to be so bloody and intractable? What explains the causes and trajectory of the uprising? What has been the impact of internal and external factors on its evolution? In this essay I shed light on some of these issues and hopefully give a more comprehensive and accurate narrative of the uprising than the day-to-day coverage of the regional and international media.

At the political level, the Syrian uprisings were a militant civil rights movement against the Security-Party-Military nexus. As recently as a year ago, merely signing a petition that called for some more freedoms made Syrians vulnerable to punishment of several years in prisons under charges such as ‘weakening national morale’.  In the first scattered demonstrations that took place in Damascus, even before the incidents at Dar’aa, the main slogan chanted by the demonstrators was “the Syrian people cannot be humiliated”. Political debate was stifled and discussions in public were guarded and reserved. Syria’s authoritarian regime was not just a danger for political dissidents; navigating daily life in Syria was a struggle for most ordinary and lower-class Syrians.  The state-security apparatus had extended its tentacles to all aspects of Syria’s political economy.  However these grievances against the Syrian state have been well-documented; some aspects of the regime, including the more claustrophobic side of daily life in Syria – with ubiquitous security presence – have lessened or improved in the last decade. Many aspects of this corruption became worse, not better, under the rule of Bashar Al-Asad.  Socio-economically, the revolts were an expression of anger against economic deprivations, corruption and inequality, and poverty. Mohammed Jamal Barout (2011) found that according to some measures of poverty, the percentage of Syrians living under the poverty line rose from 11% in 2000 to 33% in 2010. That is to say, about 7 million Syrians (of a total of 22 million) live around the poverty line. Fundamentally, this means that the protests denounced the capture of the state by a few oligarchs. This can be best seen by the level of anger against Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the President. Makhlouf and his close associates, who turned Syria into their private fiefdom over the past decade. They did so by building a large economic empire through a mixture of coercion and intimidation, instrumental use of state power (including the judiciary) and outright fraud.

© AP, AP
© AP, AP

However internal and external factors have played a role in prolonging this crisis. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where a gradual transition seemed possible, the fact that in Syria this process will be more of a total collapse of governmental institutions has heightened the fear of many minorities or groups fearful of chaos. The destructive legacy of US foreign policy in the region must be mentioned here, as both undermining any credibility that it has genuine concern for human rights in Syria as well fears that it is manipulating the Syrian crisis for its own agenda. What has emerged has been more of a geo-political battle between the West and Russia rather than any concern for human rights in Syria. Further fueling these fears is that many segments of the external opposition have been seemingly positioning themselves to come to power after the collapse of the regime, which has further fueled the divisions among the internal and external opposition. Internally, sectarian divisions, as well as mutual sectarian kidnappings and killings and the increasingly violent nature of the crisis has put fear in the hearts of many Syrians. The regime is ultimately responsible for these developments by fueling sectarian tensions and its brutal response has caused anger and outrage. But the opposition, partly out of fear of confirming the regime’s narrative, has systematically minimized or failed to frankly condemn sectarian anti-Alawite (and to some extent anti- Christian) violence, which has caused it to also lose some credibility. Finally, the clear and constant sectarian agitation coming from the Gulf countries has further complicated the internal picture.

The situation in Syria is dire and getting worse, however the uprising must continue to be led by the Syrians themselves. There have been voices from within and outside Syria calling for external military intervention. Though the desperation of those suffering unrelenting brutality is understandable, armed military intervention is likely to have devastating results in both the short and long-run. However even this argument is a sort of a red-herring: the West has no interest in intervening in the first place, as has become clear over the course of the last year. The role of international civil society must be to support and aid the Syrian people while critiquing cynical attempts by both Russia and China on the one hand, but also the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf to manipulate the crisis for their own foreign policy agendas. (30.3.2012)

Article in pdf format

Further links and recommended literature

Jadaliyya is an independent online magazine produced by Arab Studies Institute (ASI), the umbrella organization that produces Arab Studies Journal and runs the Documentary Film Collective, Quilting Point. Jadaliyya provides a unique source of insight and critical analysis that combines local knowledge, scholarship, and advocacy with an eye to audiences in the United States, the Arab world, and beyond. The site currently publishes posts both in Arabic and in English.

Mohammed Jamal Baroud from the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Katar.

Carsten Wieland: Der syrische Scherbenhaufen, Juni 2011

Samar Yazbek (2012): Schrei nach Freiheit. Bericht aus dem Inneren der syrischen Revolution mit einem Vorwort von Rafik Schami, Nagel & Kimche.