Last week, Syria Chronicle spoke with Prof. James Gelvin, an expert on the Middle East at the University of California Los Angeles. His books include Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire (1998), The Modern Middle East: A History (2004) and The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (2012).
[Editor’s Note: The transcript of this interview has been edited for content and clarity.]
How did the current conflict begin?
James Gelvin: When people commemorate the start of the current conflict, they say it began on the 14th of March 2011 with a demonstration in Damascus by a group of social networking, middle-class young people.
However, that demonstration attracted only about 200 or 300 people and was quickly broken up.
The Syrian rebellion really began on the 18th of March in Daraa [about 56 miles south of Damascus] after the secret police arrested a number of kids who had picked up the slogan “Down with the Regime” from the Egyptian revolution and spray-painted it on a wall.
These youngsters were butchered, and the next day there were 20,000 people on the streets in a city of 70,000.
At the same time, there was a protest in Baniyas advocating the right of schoolteachers to wear a headscarf. These two events were what really sparked the rebellion.
What are the historical roots of this conflict?
JG: Before the 1970 takeover by Hafez Al-Assad (Bashar Al-Assad’s father), Syria was the most unstable nation in the Arab world, undergoing 10 coup d’états after gaining independence in 1949.
Hafez hit on a formula that ensured his regime would be stable. RAND analysts call it ‘coup-proofing’.
He created structures that are highly dependent on kinship. You have brothers-in-law, brothers, and other relatives in positions of power and you build an inner core based on sects and kinship.
Syria, like Bahrain and Iraq, is ruled by minorities (Alawites rule Syria, while Sunni Muslims rule Bahrain and Iraq). Minorities by nature have to stick together. And if push comes to shove, they will circle their wagons around the regime.
Through outreach to the majority community, you bring in members of that community (mostly traders and merchants), with patronage and contracts that allows them to “share in the goodies.”
In the military, you have multiple chains of command, all of which lead to a single leader – in Syria’s case, the president. As a result, we no longer see the phenomenon of coup after coup that we saw in the ‘50’s and the ‘60’s. When the uprising arose, the regime did not crack.
How does the Syrian conflict compare with other recent uprisings in the region?
JG: In Egypt, one component of the regime rose against the other. The structures and institutions of the old regime like the military, judiciary and security services remained intact. The same happened in Tunisia, but not as violently.
In the cases of Libya and Yemen, the regime simply fragmented. There were no institutions built in these countries.
Muammar Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the leaders of the respective nations [Libya and Yemen], didn’t want institutions. They broke down institutions and bound people to the state through ties of patronage.
In the case of Syria, the regime cannot turn on itself and cannot fragment itself.
Hillary Clinton said last year that they are worried about a military coup in Syria. I don’t think that can happen.
The opposition was not able to take advantage of the cleavages within the community. Unlike what took place in Egypt, Syria was spontaneous. There were no leaders that could articulate a program, resulting in a rebellion that is amorphous.
Where does the United States stand?
JG: Things are happening too rapidly for us to come up with a central doctrine. We have different policies for each state. And we can’t make a policy until things begin to settle down a bit and we can see where they’re going.
The Assad regime has actually been great for the U.S. and Israel (the Syria-Israel border has been peaceful since 1973) and the U.S .is not entirely anti-Assad.
There are some elements in the opposition that we don’t like – jihadi elements and groups with ties to Al Qaeda. We fear a protracted stalemate that would allow for jihadi groups within the borders of Syria, affecting other parts of the region like Lebanon and Iran.
George W. Bush came up with the Bush Doctrine, which was a one-size-fits-all policy for the Middle East. We should be thankful that Barack Obama has not done something similar.
What should we expect next?
JG: The only other conflict in which the United States was directly involved (through NATO) was Libya, where we had what is called a “hard landing.” Gaddafi’s regime was ousted, institutions were broken down, and there was anarchy.
With Syria, what the U.S. is hoping to achieve is a “soft landing,” where we get rid of Assad but maintain important elements of government structure.
The goal now is sitting down at Geneva and negotiating for a settlement that allows for a soft landing.
Two problems arise:
1) The Assad regime will not negotiate its own demise;
2) The opposition forces (The Free Syria Army and the Syrian National Coalition) refuse to negotiate with anyone with blood on his hands – who does that leave?
Right now the Assad regime is winning, and has succeeded in pushing rebellions out of Damascus and Aleppo. The only way both parties (Assad and the opposition) would come to the table is if there’s a stalemate.
So now you degrade the government’s capability, and create a stalemate where the government is winning.
The U.S. has decided it’s not going to play chess in Syria; it’s going to play three-dimensional chess in Syria. We’re not going to focus on Syria alone, we’re going to bring in the Iranian nuclear issue and the Iranian influence in Lebanon.
All these issues are being seen as part of the same problem.
The U.S. will play a role in terms of attempting to get this conference [in Geneva] underway, but we do not have much leverage.
In general, the US is going to have to figure out what the contours of a new Middle East look like. It’s a place in which there’s going to be a lot of ambiguity in terms of governance for a while, a place where states are not going to have control of the territories that the US would like them to have, and where the Israel-Palestine conflict is not as important to US foreign policy as it once was.