4: Syria – nightmare story
While Tunisia could rule against democracy without significant outside interference, Syria was interesting to several other states. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar supported the uprising, as did the United States, Britain and France, while Russia and Iran sided with Assad. Neighboring Israel also reacted when Iranian-hired militia groups approached their border at the Golan Heights.
Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez as president of Syria in 2000. Initially, he had ambitions to reform and modernize Syria, but he soon fell back on his father’s use of surveillance and brutal repression of opponents of the regime. He liberalized the state-dominated economy, but this worked primarily in favor of wealthy businessmen with ties to the regime – and the result was growing inequality.
In the years before the uprising broke out, the country was also hit by a drought. Hundreds of thousands of farmers applied to the cities. The Arab spring therefore met a Syria under strong pressure, and it would be worse.
According to handbagpicks, the uprising was triggered by a group of children in the drought-stricken Daraa province who wrote graffiti directed at the regime. The regime responded with arrests and harassment. Demonstrations followed, and the security police instinctively resorted to the use of force. This appeared to be in the DNA of the Assad regime.
In the autumn of 2011, the civil war was in full swing.
The lines of conflict crossed. The campaign soon gained a religious dimension, especially between the Alawites, to whom Assad belongs, and the vast majority of Sunni Muslims.
The rebel groups were many, but they did not manage to create a common front. After a quarter of an hour, the initiative went to extremist groups, first to the terrorist organization al-Qaeda and then to the Islamic State (IS). After a while, the latter also fought against each other.
The Arab League and the UN tried to establish a ceasefire, but did not close. One could nevertheless note one diplomatic progress: After the use of chemical weapons was established, Russia, Syria and the United States agreed to take all chemical weapons out of the country.
The Russian military intervention in 2015 was crucial. Together with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, the war was turned in favor of the regime. At the same time, the Kurds, who settled in the northeast, drove large parts of IS out and away with support from the United States.
By the spring of 2020, between 380-580,000 warts had been killed in the war, and there were 11 million refugees and internally displaced persons (almost half the population).
The nightmare is not over, but most of it is over. Nobody knows how the war-torn country will build itself up.
5: External powers
We do not have much help to get from outside for those who have fought for democracy in the Middle East. The European colonial powers pursued a divide-and-rule policy to secure access to energy resources, and they preferred stability over democratization. Nor has American policy promoted democracy in the Middle East.
The United States is currently reducing its military presence in the region. It started with Obama and continued with Trump, and incoming President Biden will probably follow up. This is good, because experience shows that better governance is not promoted through the use of force. War has hurt worse.
The Russians are working to stabilize Syria and are also trying to turn other conflicts in the Middle East to their own advantage. They are on par with almost all countries in the region, but have limited resources and no attractive form of government to export.
China is the largest investor in the Middle East, but has not engaged in the military. They defend their own set of rules with beaks and claws, but do not interfere in others’ ways of governing. China is primarily interested in the stability of its investments.
If all this means that the Middle East can be a little more at peace for intervention by the great powers, it is an advantage, because research shows that democratic reforms must come from within.
6: Conclusion and future prospects
Democracy has poor conditions in the Middle East, for many reasons. Some interpret Islam so that there is no distinction between religion and politics. Then there will also be no room for democratic values such as religious freedom, equality and popular sovereignty. Others point to patriarchal features of the traditional Arab tribal societies and believe that there is a line from there to authoritarian regimes in the present.
Education is important for understanding what democracy entails, but such knowledge is in short supply. In Egypt, the Arab Spring was first fronted by liberal-minded young people with higher education, but the Muslim Brotherhood, which took the lead and recognizing many democratic standards, did not have the same understanding of liberal values.
Internationally, democracy has been in decline for the past five years, but the picture is not just negative. The new US president will try to repair American democracy and says he will convene an international conference on democracy during his first year in the White House.
The Arab Spring did not lead to more democracy in the Middle East. Set aside from Tunisia, the pain was worse. But some seeds were sown that gave hope for new advances in an otherwise uncertain future.