Daniel W. Drezner

How Syria didn’t ruin the Arab Spring

Your humble blogger has been traveling a lot, so it was only this a.m. that I got around to reading Marc Lynch’s blog post on "How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring."  It’s pretty gripping stuff: [T]he Syrian nightmare has destroyed the spirit of fun, hope, and positive change of the early Arab uprisings. The promise ...

Your humble blogger has been traveling a lot, so it was only this a.m. that I got around to reading Marc Lynch’s blog post on "How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring."  It’s pretty gripping stuff:

[T]he 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.

Now, Marc knows way more than I do about the region and has literally written the book on understanding the Arab Spring. His points about the changing media landscape in the region are fascinating. But if I could go all blogger for a second, can I point out the ways in which I think there’s some gross exaggerating going on in this post? 

First of all, let’s be clear that Syria was hardly the only Middle Eastern country to experience a violent blowback to the uprisings. Iran cracked down almost immediately after the first protest broke out in early 2011 — indeed, it cracked down so effectively that after that January the country disappeared from the Arab Spring narrative. 

Now, one could argue that Iran is not an Arab country, so what happens in Persia stays in Persia and doesn’t taint the Arab Spring. Bahrain certainly is Arab, however, and there was a pretty brutal crackdown there as well. It was far less bloody than in Syria, but it was a crackdown nonetheless and a significant part of the counter-revolutionary trend that Lynch highlights. And what happened in Bahrain was merely the most egregious example of repressive acts that occurred across the Persian Gulf.

Second, Lynch argues that "the Syrian war has also created an opening for al Qaeda and jihadist trends, which earlier Arab uprisings did not." This is likely true with respect to Tunisia and Egypt … but it is less true with respect to Libya. And if the counterfactual is a world in which Syria doesn’t descend into civil war, one could envision a scenario where al Qaeda elements simply decided to target the next-weakest state in the region instead. That likely would have simply meant a larger AQ presence in Libya.

Third, Lynch notes that Syria transformed the media narrative from one of spontaneous revolutions to one of bloody internecine warfare, tarnishing the image of the Arab Spring. It’s true that war tends to drown out other forms of news, but I wonder if the absence of a Syrian conflict would have led to such a great change in news coverage. Absent Syria, the leading narrative in the region would likely be the myriad ways in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has morphed into the very Arab dictator that he replaced. And I’m not sure that narrative would be any more upbeat. 

I suspect that the proxy warfare and media transformation are likely Syria-specific, so I don’t want to say that I completely disagree with my FP colleague. Still, the Arab Spring narrative was never quite so pristine as it seems now, and there are plenty of other ways the narrative would have been sullied absent Syria. 

Am I missing anything … asked the IR generalist prepared to be smacked down by the better-informed area expert? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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