An Ambiguous Future, An Unacceptable Present-An Interview with Professor Ellen Lust

Professor Ellen Lust currently works in Yale University’s Department of Political Science as an Associate Professor, with a focus on political structure and development. Having received an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan, she has written several books on the region, such as Political Participation in the Middle East.

The Politic: The recent revolutions in the Middle East have collectively been given the name The Arab Spring; how can Syria be placed in that context with regards to the grievances of protestors, the role of social media, and other significant features?

EL: If you look across the region there tend to be very similar grievances: marginalization, youth unemployment, the increasing gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and liberalization that has helped some sets of people and not others. Syria clearly fits into the same realm. However, it has a slight wrinkle that is an important one for Syria, the issue of sectarian divisions. The issue of the Alawi minority ruling and the Sunni majority adds an extra degree of tension that helps explain the sense of violent conflict. There is a much greater sense of it being an existentialist threat to the regime, Bashar al Assad and those closest to him, but more broadly to those who support him.

The Politic: Nearly seven months have passed since the Syrian revolution began. In recent weeks, members of the army have defected. What other progress have protestors made thus far?

EL: In Egypt there was a warm-up and collective action of groups and elites who knew each other. In Syria that hasn’t occurred. The tame and nascent organizations often have their leaders in Washington D.C. Dealing with the stresses of coordinating protestors on the inside with the leaders on the outside has been accompanied by internal struggles. Thus, the degree of tolerance for these groups is minimal.

Regarding military splits, they are not going to split vertically as we saw in Libya. We have Alawi officers in the lower ranks that are going to have a lot of sympathies with the people, so you can imagine horizontal splits. As violence spreads to more areas, soldiers will be less willing to shoot at sectarians, considering that the same is being done to their families. You cannot just throw the soldiers into areas that are not their own and assume that they will defend the state. This situation is unprecedented in Syria. We all know about 1982 and the protests and struggles leading up to it. But this sort of sustained pressure that goes across cities and literally from north to south and east to west has not happened and in that sense there is something new. Given the degree of state repression, this is an accomplishment.

The Politic: Would it be in the best interest of the Syrian people to have President Assad resign, rather than seek government reforms?

EL: There are two parts to this. One is the question of whether or not a post-Assad regime will be better than one with him. There are some who say that Syria will fragment into several pieces and that Islamists will take over, a situation that would be worst for Christians. I personally don’t think this is the case. Some people have raised the issue of the rights Kurds should have, but it is not clear if the Kurds would rally for separatism. If Assad were to leave the country tomorrow, would it be peaceful utopia the day after? No. The hard thing for Syria is the question of how fast the end can be reached. The air of uprisings led to a whole sense of impatience, which is really based on the notion that bin Ali fell so fast. The possibility of a better future without his resignation is possible but not assured.

The second question is whether the opposition will follow through with their promises of reform. The only action that the citizens will accept is for them to reform. The question of whether or not the Syrian regime can credibly commit to reform is a big debate. I also think it is worth noting that in the mid to late 80s, Hama had massive amounts of people killed, but it never had sustained protests that we are seeing at this point. After that period security was very tight in Syria. There are going to be all sorts of reasons to say that we need to defend against infiltrators from the outside and therefore we can’t have this freedom, wait until we have protected the state. And I think that would be a concern in expecting that a reformist government would move forward.

The Politic: In 1979, Syria was placed on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism due to its funding of various terrorist organizations in conjunction with Iran. If Presi­dent Assad were to be ousted, what would this mean for ties with these groups and Syria’s relations with Iran?

EL: Let me just point an objection to that, I am not going to call them terrorist organizations. The Iranians fear that the subsequent regime would not have as close ties with the country.

You can see the argument for weakened relations because in terms of Hezbollah, and considering the fact that it is the Shia crescent, there is no longer the identity of a Shia, Alawi, and Iranian alliance, and at the same time the big issue is what would happen to Syrian and Israeli relations. Because Syria’s relations with Hezbollah and Hamas are not about financing these groups, but instead about Syria-Israeli relations that then get connected to Syria-Lebanese and Lebanese-Israeli relations. The question is how should Israel’s engagement with its neighbors be structured in such a way that it minimizes the cost to Israel, to her security and to her neighbors?

This suggests moving on with talks and stopping settlements, all these things that Israel does that exacerbates problems. You can’t expect to continue to have these types of engagements and not have harsh repercussions from a change in regime. It is ironic because the underlying question is this: since Syria has close ties with these anti-Israeli groups, what would happen if Assad were to fall, as he has managed to contain the groups.

The Politic: On a grander scale, what other geo-political consequences would President Assad’s fall have in this region?

EL: It would be depend on who takes over and how quickly change can occur. Some say that Syria doesn’t have enough consolidated political power and that there will be fighting and weak spaces. It is going to be fertile ground for al Qaeda to hold up and use. The other extreme version says that they are organized and that they will march towards democracy and it will be orderly and easy. One is overly negative and the other is overly positive. But in terms of the broader sphere we need to think of how much these relations can end up being Realpolitik, how much Syria cares about itself as a state and how much they are identity based. When we look at this region, we tend to think that relations are identity. Bahrain is a great example. If it were to be ruled by Shia, there is an automatic assumption by the Saudis and the US, that Bahrain would not care about the financial interests it has in keeping the fleet there but it would care about the fact that Shia should be closer to Iran and that Iran would have an input. If you think about it, our reading of that situation was about identity, about Shia versus Sunni and what that meant for alliances. And there is one reading about Syrian politics that is about Alawite-Shia alliance and what that means for geopolitics. And there is another reading that says that Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are states that are driven by what is good for their citizens and not what is good for Shia, Sunni or Alawi. If you accept that reading then other questions regarding Lebanese stability and Israel’s role in the start to matter more.

The Politic: As for the Syrian people, what is their fate? Considering that they do not share political ideologies, is there any indication of who would come to power?

EL: Kevin Russell, a graduate student in our department wrote that, “the one thing that nobody talks about but everybody knows is that whatever the next Egyptian government, it is likely to fail.” In these kinds of struggles nobody’s demands are always met. These are long standing grievances. The issue is that when immediate change does not occur, the person who comes into power is the one blamed. Will their demands be met? The answer is clearly no. Will they be met enough to establish institutions and procedures to keep marching towards that kind of goal? I think it is very possible. I don’t see anything wrong with the way Syria or Tunisia is being governed, I am more concerned about Egypt in terms of what is going on there. There is nothing inherent about these countries or their societies that they can’t move towards democracy, that they can’t have the same kind of divisions that we do among races and others in the states, yet at the same time see themselves as Syrians when the go to the polls.

Hamara Abate is a freshman in Pierson College.

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