Syria unrest background

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Anti-government demonstrations in Syria would have been unthinkable a few months ago. But that was before popular protests forced out the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Now the wave of Arab revolutionary sentiment is crashing onto Syria. Demonstrators there are calling for more political freedom. Today reports from Syria say security forces in the southern city of Dara fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters. Joshua Landis is an associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. So more violence today in Dara. What are the chances of Syria going the same way as Egypt or Tunisia, Joshua?

Joshua Landis: Well frankly, I think that the winds of change that have been blowing across the Middle East are going to stall in Syria. I don't see these demonstrations spreading out of the Dara region in the south of the country into the cities.

Werman: And why not? What is it about Dara that we should know?

Landis: There was a local incident that sparked this off. Some kids getting arrested. But the pressures are poverty, 32% of Syrians live below the poverty line. Syria has been undergoing a very bad drought for the last four years and this agricultural district has been hit. But the cities I don't think want revolution. Syria is an ethnically divided country, a religiously divided country. The operative comparison is not Egypt or Tunisia, which were united politically against their dictator. It's really Iraq or Lebanon. And there is still popularity for the president. There are certain communities of Syria that support him. And many Syrians that support him. So the country is quite divided and I think it would take a civil war to dislodge this regime.

Werman: Do you not see a civil war in the offing for Syria then?

Landis: I don't, I don't. There are a million Iraqi refugees in Syria. And they serve as a cautionary tale to regime change gone wrong.

Werman: I mean, Syria is led by a Shia minority and the Shia rule over a Sunni majority in the country.

Landis: Yes, they do.

Werman: Maybe you can get into how this ethnic and religious make up of Syria plays a part in any possible outcome.

Landis: Well, the stability of this regime has been predicated on this Alawite 10%, 12% of the country who . . .

Werman: Right. And the Alawites are a Shia sect, they essentially run the country, right?

Landis: They do. The president is an Alawite. The top military and security chiefs are Alawite. But the Sunni elite dominates the economy, the cultural sphere and so forth. There's an alliance. Now, should that alliance split, the state would crumble. But it hasn't split. What we've seen is widespread disaffection amongst the people. We have seen these demonstrations break out in the countryside. But they haven't spread to the cities. They want change. They want freedoms. They want a lot of things that everybody else in the Middle East wants. But in order to get them, they're going to have to push out this regime. And I don't think they want to go down that road because the military is not going to abandon the president the way it did in Egypt.

Werman: We always think in the United States that there's this appetite for democracy everywhere in the world. But it sounds like in Syria, there are some conditions that temper that.

Landis: This regime, the Baathist regime is run, and the Assad regime that's run Syria for so long, has stood on security and stability. That is their mantra. And they have provided it. Syria has not gone the way of Lebanon which went through a massive civil war for 15 years where hundreds of thousands of people were killed. It hasn't become like Iraq, which also slipped into civil war and is still being convulsed by violence. So Syria has offered stability at the price of authoritarianism, at the price of freedoms and of a stagnant economy. But they don't want civil war. They're trapped. They're trapped.

Werman: If there is a petering-out of these demonstrations in Syria, what do you think that's going to do to the spread of this activism generally in the Middle East? Will it take the wind out of its sails?

Landis: I think so. I think the wind is going out. We've seen this beat up beat up against the reefs in the Arabian Gulf. And the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf have enough money to throw at the problem. Saudi Arabia supported the monarchy in Bahrain to put down their Shiite majority population. The United States does not want to see the Gulf rocked by revolution. That is the real interest for the United States.

Werman: And why not?

Landis: Because it's oil. It's oil, it's the monarchy we know. It's the stability we have. Our position in the globe depends in a sense on our dominant position in this oil rich region of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

Werman: Joshua Landis is an associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He also writes regularly on Syrian affairs. Joshua, good to speak with you, thanks.

Landis: It's a pleasure.