Syrian Liberation or Civil War?

Men throw stones at riot police during clashes in the Mediterranean coastal town of Banias, on May 27, 2011, as Syria braced for more anti-government protests, called for by pro-reform activists.

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, Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma, and author of the Syria Comment newsletter, discussed the latest news from Syria, a meeting in Turkey of the opposition groups, and the Syrian government's response.

The uprising in Syria shows no sign of dissipating despite intense firepower and repression from the government. Human rights groups put the death toll at 1,000 and the recent death of a 13 year old boy and allegations that he had been tortured reignited the opposition's call for President Bashar Al-Assad to step down. (The government maintains the boy was not tortured--either way, he has become a symbol for the opposition).

The Syrians are left with a terrible choice, a Hobbesian choice between dictatorship, the lack of freedom on the one hand, and what looks like could become a much more difficult civil war on the other hand. And it's hard to see how a middle ground—a constitutional convention, the president resigning and leaving the country—can happen. We're watching Yemen descend into what looks like a civil war, Libya already has, so the Syrians have a terrible choice on their hands.

Civil war vs. Tahrir (Liberation)

The Syrian government says if they are overthrown the country will devolve into civil war like Iraq and Lebanon, and they won't allow it. The protesters are calling for democracy and the end of tyranny. Landis said it's very hard to tell which of the conflicting narratives is true.

The opposition and much of the international media has presented this as Syrian people: Democrats, against Tyrant. The Syrian government is presenting this as these are fundamentalists, trouble makers who are trying to destroy our country and our being stimulated by outside powers, and they're trying to ruin Syria and turn it into Iraq.  None of those version are true--they're partly true.

The Syrian population is extremely diverse and doesn't have a great history of getting along. That's a very different scenario than in Egypt or Tunisia where the vast majority is Sunni Arab. Most of the minorities in Syria—Christians and Alawites (the Shiite Muslim sect to which Al-Assad belongs) which make up about a quarter of the population, are backing the regime.

By and large the minorities are clinging to this government because they see it as secular, as protecting them, it's privileged them in the past. They don't want Sunni fundamentalists that they fear. Whether that fear is legitimate, who knows.

It's about the economy, stupid

A staggering forty eight percent of the population in Syria is 19 years old or younger, and the Syrian economy has basically failed them. Though Al-Assad has opened up the economy more than his father, it's achieved only a five percent growth rate.

That means that there's this rapid population growth, giant youth bubble, no employment, no prospects for the future. Forty years of failed policies, forty years of dictatorship. They want a change. There are plenty of good democrats--but will it turn into a democracy? That's the big question--what is the likely scenario for the future?

The two-tiered opposition movement

On Wednesday, about 200 opposition leaders got together in Turkey to discuss how to get Assad out of power. It was a mix of established opposition movement leaders who have been long excluded in Syria—Kurds, Muslim Brotherhood—and the young people in their 20s and 30s who are working with social media to lead the movement on the ground.

Down the line there's going to be a tussle between these different generations, with different mentalities, different outlooks. They're trying to avoid that tussle.

Landis said that the U.S. and European strategy seems to be to isolate Syria internationally. Britain is alleging that Syria is breaking their nuclear non-proliferation agreement, the E.U. has cut off all aid to Syria, ad the U.S. has place Assad and the top ten people in the Syrian government under personal sanctions.

Increasingly the west is beginning to think, how can we get the Assad regime out. They don't want to send army, the best way to do it then is to use international organizations like the UN sanctions to squeeze the Syrians and the Syrian economy until it busts, and then hope that something else comes out of it besides civil war.