Is Smooth Transition Really An Option?

I have been to Syria three time during the last 10 years. A few weeks they refused to let me him without giving any reason – maybe lucky me! So at least I do know the country a little and I have a feeling about its people. I never felt unsafe – even when I was travelling with my friend Bea Gschwend: two girls crossing the country on local transportation. Even though I don’t speak the language, getting in contact was never an issue. People were curious what brought me here, they wanted to know more about my home country and they were always very proud of Syria. The region I liked best were the mountains in the northwest, bordering Turkey, and the lively villages along the Euphrat river. A green stripe in the desert. So maybe this is why my attention is drwan into the current situation in Syria.

By all means the uprsings in Syria wouldn’t have started NOW without the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The situation is different though – as we are trying to explain later. The Syrian regime and its security apparatus is known for its brutal and non-human activities. 30 years ago, 1980, they’ve killed 30.000 people or more in Hama massacre in order to quell a revolt by the Sunni Muslim community against the regime of al-Assad. Today – as reports – more than 2000 were killed in the recent unrests and many are tortured in the nations prisons. To follow the events – besides the twitter hashtag #syria – global voices and all4syria (mostly in arabic) – are good and very reliable sources. Online political science courses also give valuable insights on how political competition has evolved in Syria.

In preparation for an article on I initiated a “virtual” conversation between Seth Kaplan, a business consultant to companies in developing countries as well as a foreign policy analyst, and Ayman Abdul Nour, founder and editor in chief of Ayman is native Syrian. While Seth’s approach is more analytic and scientific (he has written various papers on state building in fragile countries), Ayman is confronted on a daily basis with the events in Syria. He had to leave his home country a few years ago and just immigrated 2 days ago to Canada after living 4 years in Dubai.

The goal of this virtual conversation is – besides bringing these two gentlemen together – to start a discussion on how a transition in Syria could look like. Is there anything like a smooth transition possible or is radical change needed? Based on Seth Kaplan’s 3 statement below (excerpts from his article: A New U.S. Policy For Syria: Fostering Political Change in a Divided State), I conducted the following interview with Ayman last week in Duabi. After a short intro on the current situation in Syria, Ayman is responding to Seth’s statements.

Seth Kaplan – Statements

Statement 1
Social political dynamics of Syria can’t be compared with Egypt and Tunisia!

Whereas Egypt and Tunisia are states based on relatively cohesive populations and geographically recognizable units, Syria is a divided polity with weak formal institutions that have little history behind them and that are stable only to the degree that they are backed by a formidable security apparatus. The country has inherited a unique blend of geographical, ethnic, religious and ideological heterogeneity that complicates all efforts to construct a cohesive whole from its disparate parts. The state’s very diversity dominates its political dynamics, limiting policy options, inhibiting risk-taking, and making any government highly defensive.

Statement 2
For all its flaws, Syria’s autocratic regime has been more inclusive than Libya’s and Egypt’s!

In the last 40 years Syria has made some progress towards building a more cohesive state, and reducing sectarianism. Before the Asads rose to power in 1970, the country was among the most unstable in the whole Middle East. The regime has done better than Mubarak in Egypt, Gadaffi in Libya or Saleh in Yemen in reducing poverty and co-opting important sections of society. One of Hafez’s greatest political achievements was the construction of a quasi-corporatist system that aligned the interests of most social groups with his government, effectively buying their loyalty with state employment, education, and various social benefits in a “containment system”. That network gradually expanded to encompass almost all of Syrian economic life. Still there is more than enough space for improvement and the country’s economy has been struggling for some time. Recent reforms may have been necessary but they have incited anger at the government because the equity of the socialist era is being replaced by an inequity that is perceived to favor insiders. In this respect, Bashir’s attempts to improve the economy may only be showing how hard it is to change Syria given its myriad social divisions and weak institutions. The recent history of Iraq and Lebanon are clear warnings.

Statement 3
Gradual inclusive transition instead of radical change!

What we are now seeing in Libya should be a wake-up call for anyone seeking rapid change in Syria. The West should be aware of the fact that Syria – and other weakly cohesive Arab countries such as Libya and Yemen – may not have strong enough institutions to make fast transitions to Western style democracy. (Egypt and especially Tunisia may have much better chances.) The goal should be a gradual transition through a slow process of step-by-step moves over many years – not dramatic change overnight. This may not be what the protestors want, but it is more likely to create an outcome that will benefit the population – and avoid chaos. Fast change won’t be sustainable – and may instead destroy the glue that is holding Syrian society together today.

There is no easy solution to how to reform Syria. One idea is to create a National Security Council encompassing leading members of each of the major ethnic, religious, and social groups to oversee a gradual transition. It would operate with a clear set of principles regarding the introduction of reforms and the conduct of political parties, the media, schools and religious bodies to prevent these from playing the sectarian card. A larger group of leaders, possibly gathered through a national conference or through the existing parliament, could formulate a set of guidelines to guide the NSC in order to give its mandate wide acceptance. Elections and other changes would be controlled by this oversight body to ensure that change promoted inclusiveness, cohesion, and institution building, and was not carried out in a way that led to conflict. While change might be gradual at first, it would gain momentum as both elites and the general population acquired a greater stake in, and a greater comfort level with, an increasingly open system.