Monday, 6 May 2013

How Syria Ruined Marc Lynch’s Spring

Last week’s Marc Lynch column for Foreign Policy carried the curious headline How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring. In it, he seemed to argue that the idealism of the Arab uprisings had been cut short by the escalation of the Syrian conflict into a massive slaughter, and that by turning to armed violence Syrian revolutionaries and their supporters had cut short the spread of protest to other Arab countries.

The perceived implication of blame was naturally met with some hostility, no doubt enhanced by Marc Lynch’s long-standing opposition to any military intervention in Syria.

In Marc Lynch’s view, “the Syrian nightmare has destroyed the spirit of fun, hope, and positive change of the early Arab uprisings. The promise of the Arab Spring has given way to Syria’s highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare.”

He writes that “the most obvious way in which Syria has eaten the Arab Spring is the ongoing violence,” and that “Jordanians who might otherwise have joined in a growing protest movement may have held back when contemplating the horrors in Syria. Such a lesson is probably not unwelcome in the palaces of the Gulf, or other Arab countries that have thus far avoided uprisings.”

Dan Drezner has written a response, also on the Foreign Policy site. He takes issue on three points:

1 - “Syria was hardly the only Middle Eastern country to experience a violent blowback to the uprisings.”

2 - “Lynch argues that ‘the Syrian war has also created an opening for al Qaeda and jihadist trends, which earlier Arab uprisings did not.’ This is likely true with respect to Tunisia and Egypt ... but it is less true with respect to Libya. And if the counterfactual is a world in which Syria doesn’t descend into civil war, one could envision a scenario where al Qaeda elements simply decided to target the next-weakest state in the region instead. That likely would have simply meant a larger AQ presence in Libya.”

3 - “Absent Syria, the leading narrative in the region would likely be the myriad ways in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has morphed into the very Arab dictator that he replaced. And I’m not sure that narrative would be any more upbeat.”

There’s a bit more to what he said, so read the complete post here. The first and third seem to me to be strong points, though I’m not so convinced by the second. I think however that the flaws in Marc Lynch’s argument are more fundamental.

At one point he reminisces that “during the early days of the so-called Arab Spring, the international media rushed to cover half a dozen rapidly moving storylines - Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen - while anxiously checking in on almost every other Arab country to see if it might be joining the wave.” Tunisia’s protests started with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on 17 December 2010 and Ben Ali fled on 14 January 2011. Egypt’s protests began on the 25th of January 2011. Yemen 29th January. Bahrain 14th of February. Libya’s began on the 17th of February 2011. In Syria, the Deraa schoolboys were arrested on the 6th of March 2011, and on the 15th and 18th of March Syria saw widespread protests. Thus the wave reached its high water mark in terms of regional spread in the space of three months.

Where through early 2011 new countries were joining within days or at most weeks of each other, after March 2011 no new countries were added to the list in the following three months, or six months, or even two years. If the populace of other countries were dissuaded from joining the rush at a similar rate to the list above, then they were dissuaded in early 2011, when the chief negatives being reported were not so much the early beginnings of Assad’s murderous response in Syria, but more prominently the overwhelming crackdown in Bahrain and the bloody war in Libya.

But one shouldn’t necessarily presume that the reason some countries didn’t see similar levels of protest was because they were dissuaded by events abroad. The populace in all of the Arab Spring countries had the recent example of Iran’s crushing of protest in 2009-10 to look to and it didn’t dissuade them, just as in 1989 China’s killing of protesters didn’t dissuade protesters in East Germany in the same year. People are more likely to be dissuaded by how they perceive the balance of likely risk and reward based on their experience in their own country, their experience of their own country’s leaders and security forces, the degree to which they sense a common purpose with their friends and neighbours, the degree to which they are dissatisfied or desperate. Therefore the most likely place to find an explanation for a lack of protest in a country is within that country’s borders.

In thinking of what is likely, we shouldn’t forget how unlikely, or at least unusual, the events of 2011 were. It would be wrong to think of cascading revolutions as a new normal that was interrupted by an abnormal war in Syria. It’s easier to point to regional precedents for Syria’s war than precedents for 2011’s multiplicity of revolutions.

The revolutions were the exception, and while the post-revolutionary normal will hopefully be better than the pre-revolutionary normal, it is to be expected that it will in a fundamental respect resemble it more than it will resemble the revolutionary period, namely that after the revolutions daily politics will mostly be the business of an elite of practised politicians and not the populace. Most people don’t want to spend their lives on political struggle. They will only take part in exceptional circumstances, and if they do take part, most hope to finish their part as soon as possible, as this Tahrir Square protester made clear in January 2011:


The common failure of foresight pre-2011 was in not appreciating the vulnerability of long-established regimes to disruption by loosely organised popular movements. Nonetheless, common to all the 2011 Arab revolutions has been the further lesson that established well-organised and disciplined political groups are still more effective over the long term than less experienced loosely organised political groups. None of this is new, but we get to learn the old lessons again.

In none of the revolutions were all the old practitioners of politics and centres of power wholly overwhelmed by the populace. As Marc Lynch recognises, the army played a decisive role in deciding the outcome in both Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, an intervention led by three permanent members of the UN Security Council was decisive. In Bahrain, the ruling elite prevailed with the aid of the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s power-transfer deal has kept power in the hands of established elites. In Syria the ruling elite remains in place with the aid of two permanent UNSC members. In post-revolution elections, experience in political organisation has unsurprisingly been shown to be an advantage.

Syria is not an exception in this; instead it’s just the most dreadful example of the strength and resilience of established national and international political organisations, seen both in the regime and its state and non-state allies, and in the revolutionaries’ need to rely on established foreign powers for aid as well as their vulnerability to the intrusion of Al Qaeda.

So far where 2011 revolutions have to some degree succeeded it’s been either with the acquiescence of established centres of political power, particularly the army, or it’s been with some degree of foreign military intervention. All cases in the former category have been in countries aligned to some degree with the US. Syria joins Libya in the latter category. Again, Syria is not an exception, just the more dreadful example: limited military intervention matched by limited success, but with greater slaughter than Libya.

The wonder is that a smart person like Marc Lynch once thought that Syria could be an exception, and that even after people already had been killed in hundreds and in thousands he continued to argue that a brutal dictator in Damascus backed by thuggish leaders in Moscow and Tehran could be overcome purely through peaceful protest and diplomatic pressure.

Syria’s war is the Arab Spring in its full reality, its bravery, its horror, its sorrow and loss. Every country of the 2011 revolutions suffered bereavements and injuries. Syria is not an exception in this, it just suffers more.

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