Unrest in Syria

April 1, 2011 | 10:00am - 11:00am
U.S. Capitol Building - Congressional Staff Only

Dr. Joshua Landis joined us by video conference from his office in Oklahoma to discuss the current unrest in Syria.  Dr. Landis is the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.  He writes SyriaComment.com, a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that is widely consulted by officials in Washington, Europe, and Syria.

Dr. Landis's initial remarks provided a historical review of Syrian society.  He explained how Syria is vastly different from Egypt and Tunisia, two other countries that recently experienced popular uprisings.  Syria is religiously and ethnically heterogeneous, and remains in a post-colonial state after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Roughly 65% of the population is Sunni, 12% Alawite, 10% Kurdish, 10% Christian, and the remaining consists of Druze and Shiite.  Society is strongly bound by tribal loyalties established during the reign of Bashar Assad's father, Hafiz Assad.  In the current state, the Sunni majority asserts its control over the economy while Assad's Ba'athist party, which is Alawite, maintains stability and control of the country.  Dr. Landis explained how this relationship between the Sunni majority and Alawite regime is at the base of the unrest.  The opposition movement is demanding Assad and his Alawite regime step down and transfer power to the Sunni majority. 

The conversation then transitioned towards current events in Syria, including President Bashar Assad's recent address to the Syrian people.  Dr. Landis explained how many Syrians were left disappointed by Assad's speech as he recognized the demands of the opposition as legitimate but failed to offer means of reform.  Instead, as Landis argued, the speech possessed an air of triumph, designed to galvanize Assad's Alawite base. 

Dr. Landis followed these remarks by addressing several questions, including the origins of the current opposition.  He explained how economic downturn and the desire for increased political freedom are the key prevailing grievances.  Over the years, the agriculture and wheat sectors have significantly diminished, in part due to droughts in East Syria. Nearly one third of the population now lives below the poverty level, and food prices and inflation have increased.  One result of such conditions is a wider gap between the rich and the poor.  The top 5% of Syrians are becoming wealthier as those below the poverty line slip further into hardship.

Iran's relations with Syria were also discussed.  Dr. Landis explained how Syria looks to Iran for moral, political, and military support.  He also described past attempts by Syria to court its neighbors into an anti-Israeli alliance.  One such example was a proposed alliance between Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria incorporating a free trade block in an effort to encircle Israel.   

Finally, Dr. Landis commented on potential outcomes of the current Syrian opposition movement.  It is his belief that the stability of the regime is based on economic growth resulting from various reforms.  However, if the necessary reforms are not implemented to promote a high level of growth, the potential for continued unrest and a change in regime will persist.  Mitigating the immediate chances of regime change is a split within the Sunni majority.  Those who represent the wealthiest of the Sunni population do not wish for the regime to fall because they receive lucrative economic advantages from the regimes existence, while Sunnis at the lower end desperately seek regime change as a means of escaping poverty.   

Security for a New Century is a nonpartisan discussion group for Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security environment. All discussions are OFF-THE-RECORD. It is not an advocacy venue. For more information please contact Mark Yarnell at [email protected] or (202) 224-7560.