Empowering Syrian Civil Society

Submitted as part of a panel on Syria at the BRISMES 2011 Conference.

When I initially started writing this paper things in Syria were relatively calm, with President Bashar Al Assad stating that an uprising in Syria, as had been witnessed in numerous Arab countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, was unlikely to transpire in the same way. There was an overwhelming silence on the Syrian streets which was explained, at least in part and to varying degrees, on two main levels, socio-economic or internal factors and political and ideological or external factors.  If we are to first consider the latter, which would include such things as the government’s cool relations with the West, the subsequent sanctions placed upon it, its lack of a relationship with Israel and its unwillingness to submit to foreign demands – we would find that most are perceived as a strength of the Syrian government which gained significant support of the Syrian people. The socio-economic issues that were attributed to the silence on the streets were the recent introductions of subsidies to public workers, aid to the poorest families, and certain changes, reforms and concessions which opened up the country to a number of products and services that had previously been completely inaccessible, most notably the internet and foreign investment and trade – which were perceived to at least temporarily ease the needs of the people.

In addition to these factors, Assad appeared to be aware of the need for political and social reform while being perceptive of the particularities of Syrian society. He was fast learning that times had changed and that immediate action was needed, showing himself to be up to the learning curve that a number of other Arab leaders had failed to embark upon. According to Assad, those governments which only attempt to make changes and bring in reforms as a result of these recent events taking place across the Arab world, are already too far behind and are unlikely to be impervious to the expression of discontent by their own people. In this way, his initial reactions to the events taking place in neighbouring Arab countries seemed to present a unique opportunity for real change to occur. Assad’s articulation of a reformist agenda and the steps already taken towards implementing a number of these reforms, resulted in, as Sadiki highlights, many of us giving him the benefit of the doubt, in contrast to Gaddafi or Mubarak. However it seemed that the dissatisfaction of the Syrian people was greater than perceived, and their desire for opportunities, representation, equality and empowerment was far greater than anticipated. These minor concessions that had been made by the Syrian government were clearly not enough to hold back the infectious[1] feelings and desires for freedom. Unfortunately, our perception of the moderate position of Assad was also erroneous, with the responses of the Syrian government towards peaceful protestors being extreme, violent and indiscriminate.


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~ by Tamara Al-Om on May 31, 2011.

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