I have avoided trying to explain what has happened over the last five or six months in Syria. It is the Middle Eastern country I know best and Damascus is my favorite city in the world. Altogether, I lived in Syria for a little over three years, 1986-88 and 1993, and have visited many times since. Still, I and most, if not all, outside (and inside) observers had no idea that the Arab Spring was going to happen. I was ready to take students from my university (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) to Damascus for the first time in May. Even in March before the first signs of public protest against the Asad regime, very few expected that the Syria would go the way of Tunisia and Egypt before it.
This is not to say that the explosions of popular unrest came out of nowhere. It demonstrates the limitations of the human sciences, not to mention “intelligence”. Youth, labor, and other sectors outside the power elites had been thinking and organizing for change for many years. The historical lesson is that people not elites initiate change. This is why a book like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005) is so important even if professional historians dismiss it. I don’t know of an exact counterpart for the Middle East region but there are comparable books like Joel Beinin’s Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), Ilan Pappe’s The Modern Middle East (London: Routledge, 2010), and Asef Bayat’s Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).
Despotic regimes throughout the Arab world have been shaken by the wave of popular unrest unleashed this spring. Regimes in Tunisia and Egypt were toppled through non-violent popular resistance. In the Arabian Peninsula, the king of Bahrain has been rattled by protests which have ebbed and flowed since February and the president of Yemen was burned (literally; he is convalescing in Saudi Arabia after an attack on his residence in June) but not yet deposed by popular protests. In the most violent case yet, Libyan strongman Qadhafi is on the run in the midst of what is mostly revolution and part civil war.
There are obvious parallels between all these cases: these are Arab majority populations (though there is the interesting case of massive on-going protests in Israel which began this July) in countries run by despots (Qadhafi ruled Libya for more than 40 years; Mubarak, Egypt for 30); these regimes failed their populations economically; the people are young (the median age in Egypt is 24; in the US it is 37) and educated (Bahrain has a literacy level of 87 %; for men in Libya, it’s 92%, both not far behind the US at 99%); and more and more people are connected and can organize through social media.
But, there are obvious differences, too. Egypt has a population of 82 million; Libya less than seven million strong. Libya’s population is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim while the majority Shi’a population of Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni minority. It is easy (and misguided) to overemphasize sectarian and ethnic factors, but these facts are evidence of some of the important differences between these Arab countries. In fact, no “Arab country” is exclusively Arab. Kurds, speakers of an Indo-European rather than a Semitic language (as is Arabic), make up about 20% of the population of Iraq.
So, what of Syria? Syria has a population of roughly 22 million. (Many of these facts come from the CIA Factbook. The CIA’s claim to “intelligence” is doubtful– remember the WMDs in Iraq?– but the Factbook provides a baseline for comparisons). Thirty-five percent of the population is 14 or under (in the US, it’s 20%). Unlike Libya or Egypt, which are predominantly Sunni Muslim and unlike Iraq and Bahrain where the Shi’a form a plurality if not a majority, Syria has a majority Sunni Muslim population (74% of the total) with significant non-Sunni, Muslim populations, including Alawis (12%), Druze (3%), and Isma’ili Shi’a (1%), and Christians of various denominations (10%). Even though the official name of the state is the “Syrian Arab Republic”, about 10% of Syrians are Kurdish and a percentage or so are Armenian. Syria follows only Jordan as home to Palestinian refugees and their descendants. More than half the population lives in cities; the two largest, Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the south, account for almost a quarter of the total population. A country which was predominantly agricultural as recently as a generation ago is now mired in the economic and social dislocations caused by transformations in the regional and global economic systems and by mismanaged growth at the national level.
The popular uprising that is shaking Syria to its core is part and parcel of the wider movement in the Arab world. However, the course it takes is a function of conditions peculiar to the country. The Ba’thist state under Bashar al-Asad and his cronies is responsible for the murder of at least 2,000 innocent and mostly non-violent protesters. That said, Bashar al-Asad is not evil (I’m agnostic on the concept itself), nor are all the protesters blameless. Many Syrians are justly anxious about what might follow the collapse of a regime that, for all its brutality, has kept the country relatively stable for most of the last 40 years.
In the wake of the fall of the Qadhafi regime, the specter of outside intervention is raising its head. More and more Syrian protesters are considering taking up arms. If we consider the heterogeneous protest movement a unit (which it isn’t), both sides are hardening their positions. In the days and weeks and months and years (however long it takes and however long I can keep this up), I will try to shed whatever light I can, based on the insights of Syrians I know and on my scholar-colleagues who are much better informed about current events than I. Ultimately, I hope to relay what a diverse and diversely creative people Syrians are. Even though I am not Syrian by nationality, I identify with cartoonist Ali Farzat’s love of country; may the weight of love for one’s fellow citizens overwhelm those who deal in death and destruction. Please help me with your comments, suggestions, corrections, and questions.