The “Arab Spring” Arrives in Syria

By Etan Schwartz
Staff Writer
April 4, 2011

In 2001, Thomas Friedman authored a column in the New York Times titled “Hama Rules.” Hama refers to Syria’s fourth largest city, best known for its uprising against the Syrian Baathist state which lasted from 1976 to 1982. In February of 1982, that insurgency reached its peak with the killing of over 70 Baathist officials. Friedman’s “Hama Rules” refers to the brutal Syrian response to that uprising. The Syrian regime used artillery to pound the rebel neighborhoods in the city before using bulldozers to flatten the entire area, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians according to Amnesty International. Friedman states that the response was meant to illustrate the rules that repressive dictatorships such as Syria follow. These “Hama Rules” demonstrated by example that any serious challenge to the regime would be met with brutal violence. The Syrian regime had not faced a serious challenge to its rule since – until this past month.

The Syrian response to Hama had led some analysts to question whether the “Arab Spring” would arrive in Syria or whether “Hama Rules” had been sufficiently seared into the collective consciousness of the Syrian public. If so, they would be deterred from emulating their fellow Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt. The sight of thousands of Syrians in the streets last month, however, laid this question to rest. Protestors took to the streets in the cities of of Dara’a, Banias, and Homs to call for greater freedoms and dozens of dead protestors did not deter further demonstrations. Mourners cried out for justice at the funerals of their comrades who were gunned down by the security services.

In response to the democratic uprisings in the Arab world, President Assad declared that Syria was immune from such unrest because unlike Egypt, the Syrian state’s foreign policy was in tune with the mood of the people – which is the codeword for Syrian opposition to Israel. However, the Egyptian uprising was focused less on Israel and more on the everyday frustrations of the average Egyptian in the face of stagnant economic opportunities and a repressive police state – circumstances which characterize the Syrian state as well. In a speech on March 30th, Assad offered no significant concessions to the protestors and blamed the unrest on a “foreign conspiracy.” President Assad’s dismissal of the protestor’s demands make evident that the largely peaceful revolution the world witnessed in Egypt is unlikely to replicate itself in Syria.

Regime change in Syria presents enormous opportunities and risks to the United States. The Syrian regime has long served a destabilizing role in Lebanon, assassinating politicians and assisting militarized non-state actors in the country such as Hizballah. It has also had a strategic alliance with Iran, giving the Shiite state a foothold in the Levant. With Iran, Syria has also played a role in trying to undermine the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and disrupt any progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process by providing assistance to the most uncompromising elements of terrorist groups such as Hamas. The Syrian regime has long hosted in Damascus the hardline Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, who is known for ordering terror attacks and vetoing any Israeli prisoner exchanges considered by the more pragmatic Hamas leadership in Gaza. A new government in Syria more focused on domestic concerns could portend an end to Syrian actions that run contrary to US interests and could further isolate Iran.

On the other hand, despite the Syrian support of destabilizing elements in other countries, the Syrian regime has also proven able to enforce stability within its own borders – sometimes by using “Hama rules.” The Syrian-Israeli border has been quiet for over 40 years as the Assads sought to avoid Israeli retaliation, which would have undermined their own hold on the country. In addition, many foreign policy analysts believe Assad could enforce a peace treaty the same way that Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak did for over 30 years. It was this calculation that led multiple US presidents and Israeli Prime Ministers to support Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. The sudden fall of the Assad regime is likely to create a power vacuum in a country lacking basic democratic infrastructure. Such a scenario could lead to chaos and violence in a country that borders strategically important US allies such as Israel, Iraq, and Jordan.

The situation poses a fine balancing act for the United States. America should respond by developing a new diplomatic paradigm that is able to balance support for the democratic aspirations of Syrians while still guaranteeing US interests in the region.

This image is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be foundhere.

Original published of this story is the first appear at

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