Protests could be decisive moment for Syria and Middle East
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Kai Ryssdal: Human rights organizers in Syria say at least six people have been killed in protests there today. This is the eight straight week of unrest in one of the Middle East’s most tightly controlled societies.
Anthony Shadid is covering Syria for the New York Times. He’s in Beirut, Lebanon. Good to have you with us.
Anthony Shadid: My pleasure.
Ryssdal: First of all, today’s protests. What do we know about them, it certainly seems like they haven’t calmed down in the face of government crackdowns.
Shadid: I think that’s exactly right. There was a real test today on the part of the protestors, about whether they can turn out the numbers again in the streets. Now, at least anecdotally, the protests did seem smaller and in some cities like Banias on the Mediterranean coast and Dara, Southern Syria, the towns were relatively quiet; no protests happened there. And of course, those towns are the scenes of the biggest crackdown. But tellingly, in a city like Homs — Syria’s third largest city — you did see protests. And this is a city, we have to remember, that was assaulted by the Syrian military this past week. So it was a mixed message in a way. The government proved it could subdue some towns, at least by brute force; on the other hand, protestors proved that they’re resilient, that they can still turn out numbers in places that have been basically besieged.
Ryssdal: Who’s out there on the streets? Is it working-class folks or is the elites and doctors or some kind of nation?
Shadid: I think that’s a good question, and it illustrates a lot about this uprising. You haven’t seen the business elite in places in Damascus and Aleppo — Syria’s two largest cities — come out in the streets. You really haven’t seen the educated middle class. So what we’re looking at in some ways is an uprising of the dispossessed. And that may be overstating it, but it reflects a countryside that’s been neglected by the government for the sake of the big cities — Damascus and Aleppo — for years. And it’s also a reflection of a state that really hasn’t been able to meet the demands of its people: basic services; a social contract, if you will, that was in place for the last 40 years.
Ryssdal: Bashar al-Assad launched a bunch of economic reforms five, six years ago. I imagine those are all out the window now.
Shadid: It’s not necessarily that it’s out the window, but I think in some ways, these protests reflect the impact of those economic reforms. This was a country that had a very large public sector. The reforms that President Assad introduced dismantled that public sector in some degrees. Critics have called it a transition from crony socialism to crony capitalism. What you’ve seen is a small elite prosper and you’ve seen the poor get poorer, especially in the countryside. And that very much is in essence of this uprising, that disenchantment from these economic reforms that President Bashar al-Assad had put in place. His vision was always one of economic modernization before political modernization. In other words, we were going to have economic reform that would bring the China kind of model to Syria, and that might offset the demands for political change. That hasn’t been the case, obviously, given the protests going on right now.
Ryssdal: You know, you read a lot of reports saying that Syria is a lynchpin in the Middle East; it’s a key factor in stability there. Why? What’s the economic relationship and what’s the regional issue?
Shadid: I think you pointed it out well: there’s an economic relationship here, and there’s a political relationship. Syria, particularly under the rule of the Assad family for the past 40 years, has always played a key regional role, and it’s often relied on that leverage it plays in the region to try to balance its enemies and its allies. The economic side of the relationship is one that’s emerging but one that’s no less interesting. Syria and Turkey almost went to war more than a decade ago; today, at least until these protests began, there was a growing friendship there. Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey has repeatedly warned the Syrian government not to be excessive in its use of force. Syria officials themselves feel betrayed by this. So I think we’re seeing a shift in that relationship, and it could very much have implications on what a lot of people in the region had seen as a new vision for integration, for prosperity, for trade, for bilateral ties. So I think it’s a very decisive moment in some ways.
Ryssdal: Anthony Shadid from the New York Times, covering the protests in Syria from Beirut, Lebanon, which is pretty much the only way to do it these days. Anthony, thanks a lot.
Shadid: My pleasure.
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