How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring
Hopes for peaceful change have been replaced by sectarian animosity and unending bloodshed.
When Bashar al-Assad gave his first major speech in response to the outbreak of protests in Syria in late March 2011, the Arab Twitterati’s response was an amused, "one down, two speeches to go." That was the script followed by Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak: The president flounders about with a series of unsatisfying reform offers in the face of massive, cascading popular mobilization, and then, after the magical third speech, disappears forever. If Assad opted instead to unleash military force against his people, then Syria would presumably switch over to the Libya script — a U.N.-authorized, NATO-led military intervention.
It’s been a long time since anyone invoked the magical third speech. Two years, more than 70,000 dead, and millions of refugees later, it’s painful to remember that easy joking about the inevitability of change. It reminds me of the famous preface to the third and final edition of Malcolm Kerr’s The Arab Cold War: "[S]ince June 1967 Arab politics have ceased to be fun. In the good old days … it was like watching Princeton play Columbia in football on a muddy afternoon," Kerr wrote. "The June war was like a disastrous game against Notre Dame … leaving several players crippled for life and the others so embittered that they took to fighting viciously among themselves."
Washington today is consumed by another round of its endless debate about whether to intervene in Syria, this time in response to the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. I have little to add to the thousands of essays already published on this, beyond what I’ve already argued. I might add that defending American "credibility" is always a bad reason to go to war. The reputation costs of not enforcing a red line are minimal, and will evaporate within a news cycle; military intervention in Syria will be the news cycle for the next few years. The United States should act in Syria in the way that it believes will best serve American interests and most effectively respond to Syria’s horrific violence, not because it feels it must enforce an ill-advised red line.
Rather than continue that debate right now, I want to take a step back and look at how profoundly the Syrian nightmare has destroyed the spirit of fun, hope, and positive change of the early Arab uprisings. The promise of the Arab Spring has given way to Syria’s highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare.
The most obvious way in which Syria has eaten the Arab Spring is the ongoing violence. Egypt and Tunisia may not have been quite as peaceful as many like to believe — many protesters died in clashes with the police — but it mattered that the militaries opted not to open fire on their people. The NATO intervention began in Libya barely a month after the first days of the uprising, before Muammar al-Qaddafi’s violent backlash gained full strength. But Syria’s almost incomprehensible scale of death and devastation has ground on for two long years, with only worse horrors on the horizon.
The Assad regime’s decision to deploy all means at its disposal in order to hold on to power drove what began as a peaceful uprising into an unstoppable spiral of militarization. And those atrocities have been profoundly visible, documented in endless YouTube videos. The Libya intervention and early Arab diplomatic mobilization over Syria held the possibility of the formation of a new regional norm against leaders killing their own people. Those hopes are now long gone.
The violence in Syria, which has gone on for so long and taken so many forms of inhumanity, shapes everything it touches. Like other protracted civil wars, Syria’s sectarian and political violence has created and entrenched divisions that didn’t previously have the same salience. No matter how many noble plans for transitional justice and post-Assad reconciliation are crafted, it is difficult to imagine that Syrians will move past this cruelty and horror any time soon. And the sectarian imagery travels far beyond Syria’s borders, heightening Sunni-Shia hostility and suspicion across the entire region in profoundly dangerous ways.
The Syrian war has also created an opening for al Qaeda and jihadist trends, which earlier Arab uprisings did not. While the early days of peaceful change in other Arab countries provided a potent challenge to al Qaeda’s ideology, Syria’s violence offered a nearly perfect arena for the revival of global jihad. It is now a failed state, where Gulf states are all too eager to pour funding into a jihad in support of a Sunni population fighting an "apostate" regime.
The rise of jihadist groups in Syria is not due to Western non-intervention — in fact, the presence of Western troops in an Arab country has typically been more of an attraction than a deterrent for such movements. They have simply been attracted by the best vehicle since Iraq for salafi-jihadist global mobilization.
The resilience of Assad’s regime also graphically demonstrated the possibility of less happy outcomes than in Egypt and Tunisia. Arab citizens who conquered the barrier of fear to join in mass protests against entrenched dictatorships in 2011 now have a raw, fresh example of the risks they face. Jordanians who might otherwise have joined in a growing protest movement may have held back when contemplating the horrors in Syria. Such a lesson is probably not unwelcome in the palaces of the Gulf, or other Arab countries that have thus far avoided uprisings.
Syria also helped to dispel the intoxicating sense of an Arab public coming together to confront its despotic leaders. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were unifying moments, not only in those countries but across the region. Almost everywhere outside the palaces of worried leaders, Arabs joined in the moment of enthusiasm for political change. Such unity would of course fade in the coming months, as polarization between Islamists and their opponents tore apart the Egyptian and Tunisian political consensus. But in those early days it was surprisingly strong.
There was never such consensus in Syria, though. Assad had many defenders among the "resistance" axis, many of whom dismissed the popular uprising in Syria as a Western or Islamist conspiracy. Anyone who has engaged the Syria policy debate online will be painfully familiar with the intensity of those divisions and arguments. Those divisions have only intensified as the conflict has worsened. In the most recent Pew survey, for instance, most Arabs expressed disdain for Assad — but large majorities opposed Western arming of Syrian rebels in every country polled except Jordan.
The focus on international military intervention that hangs over the Syria debate also differed sharply from the other revolts. Tunisian and Egyptian protesters were not calling for the United States to intervene on their behalf — but almost from the start, some parts of the Syrian opposition abroad sought to emulate the Libyan model and attract Western military intervention. The centrality of the question of military intervention shaped both opposition and regime strategies. It also helped to turn Syria into a battlefield for great-power politics, with Western diplomacy frustrated by Russia’s cynical obstruction at the Security Council and refusal to pre
ssure Assad for meaningful political change.
The Syria conflict also quickly became the central arena of the regional cold war rather than a purely internal struggle for change. Strategic proxy competition between regional powers — including support from the Gulf and Turkey for preferred rebel groups and support from Iran and Hezbollah for the Assad regime — shaped the Syria conflict in ways not seen as blatantly elsewhere. Syria’s alignment with Iran and the preexisting hostility toward Assad in the Gulf and elsewhere raised the outcome’s strategic stakes.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey had a variety of motives for supporting the opposition, and worked through different networks to accomplish their goals. They have often worked at cross-purposes, funneling weapons and cash to competing local forces in ways that undermined hopes for opposition unity and disproportionately empowered not only Islamists, but armed groups over peaceful ones.
Syria also radically changed the media narrative in both the Arab world and the West. During the early days of the so-called Arab Spring, the international media rushed to cover half a dozen rapidly moving storylines — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen — while anxiously checking in on almost every other Arab country to see if it might be joining the wave. These days, the international media’s coverage of the region is almost completely dominated by Syria, broken only by episodic coverage of Egypt during moments of crisis.
Coverage from inside Syria is dominated by war correspondents, for obvious reasons, while much of the outside coverage relies dangerously on video footage and information found on the Internet provided by activist networks. In Egypt, an army of freelance journalists could rush to check claims about clashes or protests, but that luxury isn’t available to the media covering Syria’s endless claims and counter-claims.
Syria has also profoundly affected the Arab media landscape. It has been particularly cruel to Al Jazeera, whose descent is probably the most important story in the Arab media landscape in the last decade. Whether loved or hated, the Qatari-funded station served as a crucial common public sphere for Arab politics since the late 1990s. With a highly self-conscious identity as the "voice of the Arab street," it dominated the Arab media — particularly during times of crisis — by covering everything from the wars in Iraq, the West Bank, and Lebanon to democratic reform struggles as part of a common Arab narrative.
But Al Jazeera’s one-sided coverage of Syria and perceived support of Qatari foreign policy has cost it that central position. It is increasingly seen as just another partisan media outlet — and nothing has replaced it. As a result, the Arab media is increasingly fragmented, with regional and national media alike divided along sectarian and political lines and much less of a unifying, common media space. Social media doesn’t really replace that shared broadcast public sphere — instead, it encourages the formation of polarized bubbles as the like-minded seek each other out and reinforce their prejudices.
Syria’s disaster does not mean that the Arab uprisings have failed. These revolutions were a manifestation of a profound structural change in the region’s politics, and will continue to unfold for many years to come. But it is sobering to step back and take account of how dramatically and radically the Syrian conflict has reshaped the world that the Arab uprisings created. An appreciation of these pathological effects, and a discussion of how they might be countered, should be part of the story as the international community struggles to respond to the unfolding disaster.