Joshua Landis: People want deep political and economic reform but fear ethnic civil war
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Syria on Wednesday, Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, spoke to the nation. And here’s a little bit of what he had to say.
BASHAR AL-ASSAD (VOICEOVER TRANSLATION): I will talk about the conspiracy first, and then I’ll come back to our domestic crisis, because I don’t want people to believe that everything–that the Syrian president believes that everything happens to us is a conspiracy from the outside. No, it is not. I will have to link both. The maintaining the role with our principles has always made the enemies to try and weaken us as much as they can. I’ve always warned that success makes us feel assured, but you also–in the battlefield, you know who is your enemy. And after the battle and after every success, we have to work harder to maintain that success and protect it from outside conspiracies.
JAY: Now joining us to talk about the significance and effect of the speech is Joshua Landis. He’s director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He writes SyriaComment.com, a daily blog on Syrian politics. His upcoming book is called Syria’s Democratic Experiment. And he joins us from Oklahoma. Thanks for joining us, Joshua.
JOSHUA LANDIS: My pleasure.
JAY: So, first of all, just to give some quick context for people why you’re so involved in Syria, you grew up in the Middle East mostly. Is that right?
LANDIS: I did. I grew up in the ’60s in Beirut, a little bit in Saudi Arabia. I went back after graduating from Swarthmore College to teach in Beirut during the civil war, ’79 to ’81, then went to the University of Damascus as a Fulbright fellow during the time of Hama and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. And I’ve been going back and forth ever since. I’m married to a Syrian, and we spend summers, as many as we can, in Syria.
JAY: Okay. So there’s been dozens of killings of protesters over the last week or two. People were expecting that the Syrian president would come out and offer some concessions and reforms. What in fact did he do?
LANDIS: Well, this was a classic hard-line speech. It was a nationalist speech. It was an us-against-them speech. And he rallied the nation. And that’s what he sought to do. He was fairly relaxed. He made some jokes. But he said this is our true test as a Syrian nation. He said we have faced many challenges from the outside, 2003, Bush going into Iraq, trying to topple us with his freedom agenda and democracy stuff. And he laughed at this. And he said then of course there was a Hariri affair, when they accused us of killing Hariri and took us to the International Court. Then there was the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon. And he went through, spelling out the challenges that Syria has faced and how the country has stood together against this outside conspiracy and plots. And he said, you know, we’ve had to change our priorities and put off some of the reforms, the reforms to the political party law, lifting emergency law, things that we have been studying that we have talked about before, he said. But we need to do them quickly. But we cannot do them more quickly than we should or than the country is ready for, given this environment.
JAY: Now, it’s a little soon after the speech, but do you get any sense of what reaction to it is or what you expect?
LANDIS: My inbox in email was deluged with angry commentary, particularly from Syrians living outside of the country, who were furious. They said, how can he not be giving us the reforms? ‘Cause he didn’t spell out reforms. He didn’t lay out a new cabinet. He didn’t say the emergency law [inaudible] All this is under study. And they were furious. They said, oh, the image of Bashar last night as the reformer is completely gone; the mask has been ripped away; the West isn’t going to put up with this; there’s going to be a storm; the opposition is going to be furious. So I think there was a great deal of distress, particularly from outside the country.
JAY: Now, what about inside the country? Now, while certain–obviously, the protests had gotten quite large. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have popular support in Syria. The media, Western media, portrays him as like an equivalent to Gaddafi, very isolated, as we assume Gaddafi is, from his own population. Is that in fact the case in Syria?
LANDIS: Well, you know, Libya is not the metaphor here. You know, the untold story in the last two weeks is the fact the demonstrations have not really moved out of this poor agricultural region around Daraa, where things went terribly wrong, where most of these killings have taken place. There have been sprinkled demonstrations in Damascus and other cities across the country, but they’ve been–people have turned out in the hundreds. They’ve been broken up quickly. What we saw yesterday before the speech were massive demonstrations in Damascus, with over a million people coming out into the streets. Now, we can say, as many people do, that these are sort of rent-a-demonstration [inaudible]
JAY: Yeah, let’s just be clear. Those are a million people coming out proclaiming support for the president.
LANDIS: Yes, carrying banners and, you know, all of the slogans. Now, a lot of this is ginned up, there’s no doubt about it. Schools were closed, government offices were closed, the stock market was closed. People were encouraged to go out and given signs. But these were the biggest pro-government demonstrations we’ve seen in the life of this president. Even the pro-government demonstrations that broke out after the Hariri killing and after the tension of these–this international–the withdrawal from Lebanon were not as big as this. Syrians have been scared. Syrians were terrified that they were going to face civil war in Syria. And in a sense the relief–they’re coming out to show loyalty to the state and to–and, really, for stability and [inaudible] which has been the slogan of the regime: stability and security. And they do not want to be Iraq. And in a sense that is the choice, the choice that this regime has put in front of them, is either you go for security and supporting the state or you choose civil war. The Syrians do not want civil war.
JAY: So the point here is that this is a very specific situation, as I suppose each one of these countries are, that this is not a simple, isolated dictator. But in terms of his actual popular support and the desire for reforms, is that widespread?
LANDIS: There is widespread desire for reform. Everybody in Syria wants reform. There is not enough job creation. There is a big youth bulge. Thirty-two percent of Syrians live below the poverty line–that means on $2 a day or less. There has been a terrible drought for four years in the east of the country, which has hammered agricultural districts in the Jazira that’s in northeast. And in the south, where we’re seeing all these demonstrations, in Daraa, the wheat crop has failed. Commodity prices have shot up in Syria. Inflation. Wheat prices have doubled in the last two years. The average basket of food goods for Syrians has gone up 20 percent. Now the average Syrian is spending half his salary on food alone. We don’t understand this in the West. This has hammered them. They’ve been squeezed. So this is very bad. And we have seen this right across the Third World. And we’re seeing this is powering the demonstrations throughout the Middle East. Now, of course, the other half of that is dictatorship. The Middle East does not have liberty. Now, Syria is specific. It’s not like Egypt and Tunisia. The operative simile here is Iraq and Lebanon, multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies that can break into civil war and endless factionalism, as we’ve seen in Iraq.
JAY: In terms of the economics of Syria, the issue of oil, that Syria used to have some significant oil revenue, if I understand it correctly, but that’s been waning over the years.
LANDIS: Yeah, right. And this is another problem leading to this crisis, which is that oil revenues for Syria have been declining. The oil reserves are declining. So Syrian government is getting less and less money, which it has used for subsidies and as shoring up a socialist state. And Bashar al-Assad in the last ten years has led a move away from the socialist state that his father Hafez al-Assad constructed and towards a free-market system. And this is causing a major income gap. It’s very good for the top 5, 6, 7 percent of Syrians who are getting wealthy, beginning to–you know, banks have come into Syria, insurance companies, foreign goods of all kinds have flooded in with the agencies. And the people who are competitive on an international level and who can work in these new jobs are living a good life. Damascus is fun if you’re rich.
JAY: And you can see that in terms of some of the language of the US State Department. Hillary Clinton, when she was asked on television recently whether Syria’s next for intervention, she said, well, most of our people that go and look at it say he’s actually a reformer. That’s actually what she means by “reformer”, isn’t it, that the markets are opening up? It’s not on the political side they’re all that–actually care all that much about–. They don’t care whether China has political democracy. They just want capital to be able to move in freely.
LANDIS: Well, I don’t think that’s all they care about. This is certainly what Bashar al-Assad has been saying. He’s saying, look it, I’m going to try to emulate the China model. I am not going to offer you deep political reforms. There is going to be some reform, but it is not deep. On the economic level, I’m going to offer you reforms. I’m going to try to put a chicken in every pot. Now so far he has failed to put a chicken in every pot. Per capita GDP in Syria is about $2,300, $2,400 a year. Twenty years ago it was about $2,000. It’s gone up, but only creeped up, and that’s because major runaway population growth, this youth bulge, and inflation. So this–you know, Syria is not Turkey, which is growing at 8 or 9 percent a year; it’s not China, growing at 10 or 11 or 12 percent a year. They’re the lucky few, these nations, India, China, Brazil, Turkey, who have been able to produce extraordinary growth, which is mopping up poverty, [inaudible] up the unemployed. Syria is in a middle group of nations that has not been so lucky, and it’s very difficult to provide that kind of growth.
JAY: So in short, then, over the next few days people are–if I’m reading you correctly, there’s great support for some kind of more stable transition. People are demanding the transition. But are we likely to see a return to big protests and more suppression?
LANDIS: That is the million-dollar question. The opposition, which is angry and fired up by this speech, this hardline speech given by Bashar, is calling for big demonstrations on Friday. They in order to show some success will have to animate large demonstrations in the serious major urban centers Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, so forth. If they cannot do that, if Bashar in fact is correct that people have sided with him against civil war and against this opposition, then the opposition’s going to have to go back to the training rooms and figure out how they’re going to get parties on the ground, how they’re going to get more support in Syria, and how they’re going to lead another charge against this government.
JAY: And just one more final question. Bashar has accused foreign agitators, organizers, conspirators of some kind or another. Is there anything to this?
LANDIS: Of course there’s something to it. You know, there is–in Tunisia we saw a grassroots movement that overthrew the regime. In Egypt there was a grassroots movement, but there was also a very significant Facebook, Twitter movement that galvanized international support and that helped to organize demonstrations against the army and against the state, and the army stood aside. In Syria this has been driven to a large extent by people in Washington, in London, using Facebook, Twitter, so forth. A lot of the Twitterers have been from Egypt. And they are driving this agenda and trying to keep the winds of change moving across the Middle East into Syria. They have been unable to animate the major demonstrations that we saw in both Tunisia and Egypt. The state has not abandoned the president. This is not Libya. We have seen no resignations by any government figure. The army has stood by the president. The cities, the urban Sunni elite have stood by the president. The imams, the Sunni imams have come out, the major ones, and said, asked the people for calm and to give the president more time.
JAY: Which is significant, because the president to a large extent has been considered himself a sort of bastion of secularism against Islam extremism.
LANDIS: Yes, he has. He’s painted it very much that this is against the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda and extremism and foreign plots. And so far he has won this fight for the loyalty of Syrians. There are many people upset. There are many people who want to see more reform. But that has not prevailed.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Josh.
LANDIS: It’s always a pleasure. Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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