What Do the Syrians Want? Interview with Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis: Well, this [speech delivered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on 30 March 2011] was a classic hard-line speech.  It was a nationalist speech.  It was an us-against-them speech.  And he rallied the nation.  And that’s what he sought to do.  He was fairly relaxed.  He made some jokes.  But he said this is our true test as a Syrian nation.  He said we have faced many challenges from the outside: 2003, Bush going into Iraq, trying to topple us with his freedom agenda and democracy stuff.  And he laughed at this.  And he said: Then of course there was a Hariri affair, when they accused us of killing Hariri and took us to the International Court.  Then there was the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon.  And he went through, spelling out the challenges that Syria has faced and how the country has stood together against this outside conspiracy and plots.  And he said: We’ve had to change our priorities and put off some of the reforms, the reforms to the political party law, lifting emergency law, things that we have been studying and that we have talked about before.  We need to do them quickly.  But we cannot do them more quickly than we should or than the country is ready for, given this environment.

Paul Jay: Now, it’s a little soon after the speech, but do you get any sense of what reaction to it is or what do you expect?

Joshua Landis: My inbox in email was deluged with angry commentary, particularly from Syrians living outside of the country, who were furious.  They said: How can he not be giving us the reforms?  ‘Cause he didn’t spell out reforms.  He didn’t lay out a new cabinet.  He didn’t say the emergency law was lifted.  All this is under study.  And they were furious.  They said: Oh, the image of Bashar last night as the reformer is completely gone; the mask has been ripped away; the West isn’t going to put up with this; there’s going to be a storm; the opposition is going to be furious.  So I think there was a great deal of distress, particularly from outside the country.

Paul Jay: Now, what about inside the country?  Now, obviously, the protests had gotten quite large.  That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have popular support in Syria.  The media, Western media, portrays him as like an equivalent to Gaddafi, very isolated, as we assume Gaddafi is, from his own population.  Is that in fact the case in Syria?

Joshua Landis: Well, you know, Libya is not the metaphor here.  You know, the untold story in the last two weeks is the fact the demonstrations have not really moved out of this poor agricultural region around Deraa, where things went terribly wrong, where most of these killings have taken place.  There have been sprinkled demonstrations in Damascus and other cities across the country, but people have turned out in the hundreds.  They’ve been broken up quickly.  What we saw yesterday before the speech were massive demonstrations in Damascus, with over a million people coming out into the streets.  Now, we can say, as many people do, that these are sort of rent-a-demonstrations —

Paul Jay: Let’s just be clear.  Those are a million people coming out proclaiming support for the president.

Joshua Landis: Yes, carrying banners and, you know, all of the slogans.  Now, a lot of this is ginned up, there’s no doubt about it.  Schools were closed, government offices were closed, the stock market was closed.  People were encouraged to go out and given signs.  But these were the biggest pro-government demonstrations we’ve seen in the life of this president.  Even the pro-government demonstrations that broke out after the Hariri killing and after the withdrawal from Lebanon were not as big as this.  Syrians have been scared.  Syrians were terrified that they were going to face civil war in Syria.  They’re coming out to show loyalty to the state and, really, for الأمن والاستقرار, which has been the slogan of the regime: stability and security.  And they do not want to be Iraq.  And in a sense that is the choice: the choice that this regime has put in front of them is either you go for security and supporting the state or you choose civil war.  The Syrians do not want civil war.

Paul Jay: So the point here is that this is a very specific situation, as I suppose each one of these countries is, that this is not a simple, isolated dictator.  But in terms of his actual popular support and the desire for reforms, is that widespread?

Joshua Landis: There is widespread desire for reform.  Everybody in Syria wants reform.  There is not enough job creation.  There is a big youth bulge.  32 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line — that means on $2 a day or less.  There has been a terrible drought for four years in the east of the country, which has hammered agricultural districts in Deir ez-Zor that’s in northeast.  And in the south, where we’re seeing all these demonstrations, in Deraa, the wheat crop has failed.  Commodity prices have shot up in Syria.  Inflation.  Wheat prices have doubled in the last two years.  The average basket of food goods for Syrians has gone up 20 percent.  Now the average Syrian is spending half his salary on food alone.  We don’t understand this in the West.  This has hammered them.  They’ve been squeezed.  So this is very bad.  And we have seen this right across the Third World.  And we’re seeing this is powering the demonstrations throughout the Middle East.  Now, of course, the other half of that is dictatorship.  The Middle East does not have liberty.  Now, Syria is specific.  It’s not like Egypt and Tunisia.  The operative simile here is Iraq and Lebanon, multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies that can break into civil war and endless factionalism, as we’ve seen in Iraq.

Paul Jay: In terms of the economics of Syria, the issue of oil, Syria used to have some significant oil revenue, if I understand it correctly, but that’s been waning over the years.

Joshua Landis: Yeah, right.  And this is another problem leading to this crisis, which is that oil revenues for Syria have been declining.  The oil reserves are declining.  So Syrian government is getting less and less money, which it has used for subsidies, shoring up a socialist state.  And Bashar al-Assad in the last ten years has led a move away from the socialist state that his father Hafez al-Assad constructed and towards a free-market system.  And this is causing a major income gap.  It’s very good for the top 5, 6, 7 percent of Syrians who are getting wealthy; banks have come into Syria, insurance companies, foreign goods of all kinds have flooded in with the agencies.  And the people who are competitive on an international level and who can work in these new jobs are living a good life.  Damascus is fun if you’re rich.

Paul Jay: And you can see that in terms of some of the language of the US State Department.  Hillary Clinton, when she was asked on television recently whether Syria’s next for intervention, said: Well, most of our people that go and look at it say he’s actually a reformer.  That’s actually what she means by “reformer,” isn’t it, that the markets are opening up?  It’s not the political side they actually care all that much about.  They don’t care whether China has political democracy.  They just want capital to be able to move in freely.

Joshua Landis: Well, I don’t think that’s all they care about.  This is certainly what Bashar al-Assad has been saying.  He’s saying: Look it, I’m going to try to emulate the China model.  I am not going to offer you deep political reforms.  There is going to be some reform, but it is not deep.  On the economic level, I’m going to offer you reforms.  I’m going to try to put a chicken in every pot.  Now so far he has failed to put a chicken in every pot.  Per capita GDP in Syria is about $2,300, $2,400 a year.  Twenty years ago it was about $2,000.  It’s gone up, but only crept up, and that’s because of major runaway population growth, this youth bulge, and inflation.  So, Syria is not Turkey, which is growing at 8 or 9 percent a year; it’s not China, growing at 10 or 11 or 12 percent a year.  They’re the lucky few, these nations, India, China, Brazil, Turkey, who have been able to produce extraordinary growth, which is mopping up poverty, mopping up the unemployed.  Syria is in a middle group of nations that has not been so lucky, and it’s very difficult to provide that kind of growth.

Paul Jay: So in short, then, over the next few days, if I’m reading you correctly, there’s great support for some kind of more stable transition.  People are demanding the transition.  But are we likely to see a return to big protests and more suppression?

Joshua Landis: That is the million-dollar question.  The opposition, which is angry and fired up by this speech, this hard-line speech given by Bashar, is calling for big demonstrations on Friday.  They, in order to show some success, will have to animate large demonstrations in the serious major urban centers: Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, so forth.  If they cannot do that, if Bashar in fact is correct that people have sided with him against civil war and against this opposition, then the opposition’s going to have to go back to the training rooms and figure out how they’re going to get parties on the ground, how they’re going to get more support in Syria, and how they’re going to lead another charge against this government.

Paul Jay: And just one more final question.  Bashar has accused foreign agitators, organizers, conspirators of some kind or another.  Is there anything to this?

Joshua Landis: Of course there’s something to it.  In Tunisia we saw a grassroots movement that overthrew the regime.  In Egypt there was a grassroots movement, but there was also a very significant Facebook, Twitter movement that galvanized international support and that helped to organize demonstrations against the army and against the state, and the army stood aside.  In Syria this has been driven to a large extent by people in Washington, in London, using Facebook, Twitter, and so forth.  A lot of the Twitterers have been from Egypt.  And they are driving this agenda and trying to keep the winds of change moving across the Middle East into Syria.  They have been unable to animate the major demonstrations that we saw in both Tunisia and Egypt.  The state has not abandoned the president.  This is not Libya.  We have seen no resignations by any government figure.  The army has stood by the president.  The cities, the urban Sunni elite, have stood by the president.  The imams, the Sunni imams, have come out, the major ones, and said, asked the people for calm and to give the president more time.

Paul Jay: Which is significant, because the president to a large extent has considered himself a sort of bastion of secularism against Islam extremism.

Joshua Landis: Yes, he has.  He’s painted it very much that this is against the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda and extremism and foreign plots.  And so far he has won this fight for the loyalty of Syrians.  There are many people upset.  There are many people who want to see more reform.  But that has not prevailed.

Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.  Read his blog Syria Comment at <www.joshualandis.com/blog/>.  This interview was broadcast by The Real News on 31 March 2011.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.  Cf. Syrian Economic Society: <www.syrianeconomy.org>; and Cercle des Economistes Arabes: <www.economistes-arabes.org>.

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