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Documenting the Roots and Dynamics of the Syrian Uprising
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Western students of Syria are like the blind men and the elephant: the country’s complexity and impenetrability to outsiders means that each researcher tends to see a particular aspect with clarity, possibly to the neglect of others. Each of these books exposes a particular aspect of the roots and dynamics of the Syrian Uprising and thereby provides a valuable service to students of the country. Their authors share a deep familiarity with Syria from years of study or residence and access to Syrians, but the special strengths of each are reflective of the particular Syrians to whom they had access: Lesch enjoyed access to the political elite, including the president himself; Wieland enjoyed extended discussions with the secular traditional opposition, notably Michel Kilo, while Lefèvre managed to get exceptional access to the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Each book is chock-full of valuable information and insights: Each strives for objectivity with reasonable success, even if they sometimes rely a bit uncritically — in view of the wars of disinformation being waged over Syria — on information provided by the opposition.

All three books offer explanations for the Syrian Uprising. Lesch ably summarizes the structural factors for and against the spread of the Uprising to Syria by considering the degree to which Syria was different from and similar to the other Arab Uprising countries. He recounts how Bashar al-Asad imagined his case was different because the latter was in touch with nationalist opinion, while al-Asad saw the overthrown Arab leaders as Western lackeys. Asad was, however, still very cautious about political participation, seeing it as leading either to chaos or institutionalization, and Syrians seemed to agree: having seen the chaos in Lebanon and Iraq from democracy promotion, Syrians were thought to value stability, which the regime was credited with having delivered. Other factors that could have been expected to deter a rebellion were the substantial stake in preventing Islamic fundamentalism by minorities and the secular middle class and bourgeoisie — who could account for half the population in Lesch’s calculation (p. 52); the fragmentation of opposition; Asad’s relatively good image as a youthful reformer with a still-modest lifestyle; and the absence of a viable alternative to him. Moreover, some reforms had been positive: private banks and an inflow of Gulf investment in tourism and real estate, plus the spread of private educational institutions, had provided jobs, profits, and opportunities for the urban middle classes.

In fact, though, Lesch argues, Syria had many of the same problems as the other Arab republics (pp. 44–48, 55–68): rapid birth rates, combined with free education, hence a rapid growth of unemployed educated youth that the economy could not absorb; an attempt via infitah to restart the private sector while also privileging cronies, with the best of the new jobs going to the well-connected. The economic reforms had their down sides: the social safety net was shaved (30% fell under the poverty line and 11% below subsistence) and conspicuous consumption for the new rich burgeoned; market reforms had not gone far enough to spur much investor confidence but far enough to stimulate a takeoff in corruption and to expose the country’s manufacturing industries to ruinous foreign competition. Reneging on the social contract meant people were not protected from global food price increases. Rural neglect and drought drove up urban overcrowding. Repression was arbitrary and burdensome, a prime grievance of protestors for years.

Nevertheless, for Wieland in particular, it is agency that explains the Uprising. One of his main concerns is what he considered the opportunities missed by the president to carry out political reforms that might have headed off revolution. He believes this would have entailed minimal risk for, as intelligence boss Bahjat Sulayman acknowledged, the traditional opposition was loyal and moderate and its political incorporation could have enabled a gradual and peaceful transition to a more democratic and legitimate regime and would have strengthened the hand of reformers, including the president. Unlike other Arab states, foreign policy stands over the wars in Iraq (2003), Lebanon (2006), and Gaza (2008–2009) had endowed the regime with nationalist legitimacy that would have made a transition less risky. Failure...

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