As protest movements sweep through the Middle East, few countries exemplify the opportunities and potential pitfalls of political change as well as Syria. Beginning on March 15, Syrians took to the streets in large numbers, demanding a more responsive and democratic government. After an initial promise of reform, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has cracked down on protestors with increasingly brutal force. The continued unrest in Syria has serious implications for Iran’s role in the region, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the stability of Lebanon, and organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. 

Carnegie and the Brookings Institution co-hosted a panel of experts to discuss the prospects for democratic change in Syria and the implications for the region. Speakers included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tamara Wittes, National Defense University Professor Murhaf Jouejati, Syrian human rights activist Ammar Abdulhamid, former Israeli ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, and Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher moderated.

The Opposition Movement

Syrian protesters have faced down tanks and risked death and arrest to call for the downfall of the Assad regime, but they still face a long road ahead.

  • Sources of discontent: Syria is experiencing a bulge in its youth population and the current regime is unable to meet the expectations of these young people in terms of employment and social mobility, Abdulhamid said. Assad had previously blamed Syria’s economic problems on the country’s international isolation, but as the international environment has improved, the regime has faced pressure to deliver on promises of reform, Abdulhamid added.
  • Roots of activism: The opposition movement did not begin in 2011, said Abdulhamid, but rather is the culmination of many years of groundwork laid by Syrian activists to raise awareness of and build opposition to the regime.
  • Social base: Protests have been strongest in rural areas and poor suburbs where economic deprivation is highest, said Salem, but if Damascus and Aleppo rise up against the regime, that would be a major tipping point in favor of the opposition. In general, the bureaucracy and the merchant class mostly support the regime, said Jouejati, but many of their children have joined protests. 
  • Organization: The revolt is happening in 30 different places at once and is controlled locally, Abdulhamid explained. This is an advantage, Jouejati noted, because it makes the opposition more resilient and weakens the army’s ability to respond. Yet more organization will be needed to create a credible alternative to Assad. The opposition should try to form a transitional council and call for Assad’s ouster, argued Abdulhamid.
  • Ideology: There is no sign that the Syrian opposition is led by Islamists. On the contrary, people have started chanting anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah statements, said Abdulhamid. People are hoping the West will take their side against Assad.

Possible Scenarios for Change

The panelists agreed that a return to the status quo in Syria is no longer possible. Yet the country could still take one of several different paths forward:

  • Short-term regime survival: The Assad regime could still survive for many months through repression, said Salem. The Iranian regime cracked down hard two years ago and is still around. But eventually the economic situation will become unsustainable, Jouejati argued. Oil production, tourism, and business are all down and the Syrian government is spending money it doesn’t have to create jobs and increase subsidies, he added.
  • Top-down reform: There is still a small window of opportunity for Assad to lead a democratic reform process, said Salem. President Obama called for this and Turkey is hoping for it, but such a solution is unlikely.
  • Internal coup: For the moment, Assad appears to enjoy the support of both the military leadership and the Alawite community. Yet either of these two groups could decide that Assad has become too dangerous and try to push him aside to preserve the regime, said Salem and Rabinovich.
  • Civil war: If the regime doesn’t back down, Syria could see a destructive civil war, explained Salem. The regime has used the threat of civil war to scare minorities into supporting the regime, Jouejati said, and is deliberately stoking sectarianism to increase fears. But if an actual civil war breaks out, the regime will lose because it represents a minority of Syrians, Salem predicted.
  • Revolution: If more Syrians join the protests, the opposition could see a quick victory of the Sunni majority and the establishment of a new regime, said Salem. But there is still a wall of fear preventing many people from demonstrating, he added.

Implications for the Region

Syria occupies one of the most volatile parts of the Middle East, and any scenario will have far-reaching implications for its neighbors and allies.

  • Israel: Israel has an ambivalent attitude toward the Assad regime, said Rabinovich. Syria opposes Israel and supports its enemies but Israel doesn’t see a clear alternative to Assad and is worried about chaos on its border. The Syrian regime is deliberately trying to stoke Israeli fears, he added, such as encouraging Palestinians to cross the border fence on May 15 in remembrance of the Palestinian displacement following the creation of Israel.
  • Hezbollah: The fall of the Assad regime would remove an important source of support for Hezbollah, said Salem. If Hezbollah feels cornered, it could either become more aggressive or lie low, though it appears to be doing the former, he added. Syria may also try to use Hezbollah to provoke Israel and create a distraction from popular unrest at home, said Jouejati. 
  • Lebanon: Lebanon has lived in Syria’s shadow since the late 1960s, said Salem, and the uncertainty in Syria has suspended any progress on government formation because political parties do not know how this will affect them. The biggest fear in Lebanon is a sectarian civil war in Syria, which could create instability at home.
  • Iran: If the Assad regime falls, it will likely mean Iran will lose access to Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Israeli border, which would decrease its regional influence significantly, said Salem. Thus, Iran is very worried about Syria and is doing everything it can to support the regime.

The Role of International Actors

  • The United States: President Obama’s speech on the Middle East was an important step forward, said Abdulhamid, but he should more explicitly call for Assad to leave. This would convince Syrian regime officials that Assad no longer has any international legitimacy, he argued. Wittes said that the United States has communicated clearly to the Syrian regime that it must stop violence, respect human rights, and lead a transition to democracy. The United States is working to expand international pressure against the regime, she added.
  • Turkey: Turkey has built close relations with Syria over the past few years, said Salem, and it has pushed the Assad regime to reform. It is very worried about possible chaos, but if it is clear the Assad regime will not survive, then Turkey will take the side of the people, he added. 
  • Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia has provided strong support to the Syrian regime both because it opposes any spread of popular revolutions and because it is grateful for Assad’s support of its intervention in Bahrain, said Salem. Yet if it becomes clear that the Assad regime will not survive, Saudi Arabia will have to withdraw its support, he added.