What the Syrian Crackdown Means

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Anthony Shadid, New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, and Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, associate professor at the University of Oklahoma and writer of the Syria Comment newsletter, discuss the latest on the uprising and crackdown in Syria.

director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor at the 
University of Oklahoma. He writes the Syria Comment newsletter.discusses the latest on the uprising and crackdown in Syria.

The Syrian government is waging a ferocious crackdown on protesters calling for political change as it tries to intimidate people into staying at home.  An estimated 9,000 people have been detained in the two month long uprising, with some people detained multiple times by different security forces. Shadid says that the intense crackdown is actually the Bashar al-Assad government's idea of an exit strategy from the crisis they consider the protests.

Crackdown as exit-strategy

The crackdown is the exit. How he is going to end this crisis is a crackdown. He'll kill as many people and arrest as many people as his government needs to stop these protests from happening on successive Fridays. And there are some indications at this point that he'll be able to do that...We're talking about one of the, if not the most, remarkable bout of repression that the region has witnessed in months or even years.

Shadid says the repression campaign is being carried out in such a random fashion that he gathers its purpose is to restore the sense of fear in the country that's helped keep the government in place. al-Assad is betting that a crackdown will actually sustain support for his government from the business elite, the middle class and minority groups who are afraid of chaosand scapegoating. The economy, which depends largely on tourism and foreign investment, has already begun to reel drastically from the instability, and Shadid thinks that in itself might be more dangerous for al-Assad's regime than the protests.

We're dealing with the arithmetic of fear. Fear of the unknown, recreating fear inside the country which helped the government justify its rule, and fear of countries abroad, namely the U.S. and Europe, of what might follow President Assad.

Army's ties are deeply woven into Syrian government

In Egypt and Tunisia, where protesters succeeded in overthrowing their dictators, there was a real fissure between the government and security forces. Because this is not the case in Syria, Shadid said it might be more difficult for the uprising to succeed.

At least with the elite units when we talk about the Republican guard or the 4th Division and more importantly I think the intelligence services, those are tightly knit into the structure of the government, and that's a government that operates along lines of clan and family loyalty.

Landis agreed, adding that its Syria's deep tribal and sectarian divisions that make it harder for soldiers to join the protest movement. The military establishment is dominated by the Alawi tribe--that of al-Assad--that makes up about twelve percent of the country.

If these people turn on their President and they divide amongst themselves, they're all going to lose their jobs. The Egyptian army could turn on their president and they knew that whoever came next would hire them all back, maybe five or six would be prosecuted. But the Syrian army would crumble. The Baath party, a million and a half people is going to be eliminated. This could mean two million people lose their jobs.

Will the U.S. get involved?

The protests have gained legitimacy internationally because of the immensity of the crackdown, and because the opposition has dominated the media flow out of Syria. Shadid said there is no question the country is experiencing a revolutionary change.

There are people who are joining these protests who would have never joined them in the first place. There is absolutely a new dynamic in Syria that did not exist there before, an earth shattering dynamic in the Syrian context. But the government is not thinking about that long term though, it's thinking about the short term, it's in survival mode.

However, Landis thinks it's doubtful that western powers will step in and call Assad's government illegitimate.

The fear here is that should Syria fall into civil war like Iraq or Lebanon there is no alternative, military structure to step in. Nobody wants another failed state, particularly in the center of the Middle East. If there were four million refugees as there were in Iraq, where are they going to go? They're going to go stampeding into Lebanon and particularly Turkey where there is no Visa requirement anymore, and they're going to go to Europe.

Where does bin Laden fit in?

Bin Laden and the Islamist movements have had minimal roles in the uprisings raging across north Africa and the Middle East. Shadid said the Arab Spring is the new dominant narrative.

The Arab Spring is the climatic, almost definitive epitaph to any role or any influence bin Laden might have had inside the Arab world itself. I'm not trying to dismiss bin Laden's phenomenon by any means but the Arab world is gripped by a dynamic here that is revolutionary, unprecedented perhaps one of the most remarkable movements in modern Arab history and that dynamic has absolutely overwhelmed anything that bin Laden represented.