November 16th, 2011
02:07 PM ET

The Reads You Need: Strife-torn Syria

Editor's note: Each day, we'll be bringing you some of the diverse voices from our site and across the Web on the stories causing ripples throughout the news sphere.

Syria has faced a chorus of criticism over its eight-month crackdown on opposition protesters that has left at least 3,500 people dead, according to sources reporting to the U.N.

The calls from other key players in the region for the regime to step down, as well as the Arab League's suspension of the nation from the alliance, have put Syria at the top of the list of countries dealing with the possibility of civil war in the wake of unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.

Syria's regime is showing no indication that it will soften its position, leaving many people asking whether President Bashar al-Assad is open to any outside influence.

Today we're taking a look at the reads you need to dig a little bit deeper into the situation in Syria, a look at why the Arab League has gotten involved and where the country falls in comparison to the rest of the region dealing with the Arab Spring.

Inside Syria's economic implosion

Stephen Starr, a freelance journalist writing for Foreign Policy magazine, says Syria's economy is suffering because of the protest crackdowns and subsequent sanctions against the country, especially tourism. But the business community, which Starr says has long had a good relationship with the regime, isn't exactly ready to challenge Assad.

"A Quran sits atop a 4-foot Sony speaker in Wissam's modern Damascus office. It is 9 a.m., and Wissam, a stout 30-something businessman, seems flustered. He arrived a little late for this interview, wiping beads of sweat off his forehead before sitting down next to a cabinet, where books authored by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett peek out. Wissam's company owns the import rights for Sony products in Syria, but he's unlikely to sell many speakers or flat-screen televisions in the near future.

"Business activity has recovered slightly, but it is still down about 40 percent" since March, when the protests began, he said. "I think companies can survive another six or maybe even 12 months, but beyond that it will be impossible."

Wissam, like others in his position, is trapped. He recognizes the regime's actions have damaged the country's businesses, but feels powerless to do anything about it. "They feel they are under siege, and they won't be moved," he said, referring to the authorities.

Syrian business leaders, with much to lose and deeply fearful of the regime's security apparatus, are unlikely to join the country's ongoing revolt anytime soon. Even the businessmen interviewed for this article blanched upon seeing their remarks about the dismal state of the Syrian economy in print, quickly requesting anonymity to express themselves freely. The government's rose-tinted pronouncements about the condition of Syrian finances aside, there is no doubt that the country's economy is in dire straits."

Read the full story here.

The Arab League awakening

Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, writes in The Globe and Mail that the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria is a remarkably new type of stance for the group. After years of effectively conceding regional security decisions and ideological functions to foreign powers, he says, the organization is taking these up for itself and may be "starting to pay attention to the sentiments and values of their people."

"Here in Doha, it doesn’t seem to be the new political vanguard and locomotive of the Arab world as reported by the international press. These stories followed the prominent role of Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani in the Arab League’s weekend decision to suspend Syria and press it to stop using military force against civilian protesters. The idea that Qatar is making its move now to assert a leadership role in the Arab world strikes me as exaggerated.

The real story at hand is about the revival of Arab sovereignty – expressed obliquely in the slow steps the Arab League is taking to pull back from the brink of irrelevance, and actually play a meaningful political role that responds to the sentiments and values of the Arab people.

The Arab League has long been a cross between the forces of fiction and futility, a largely meaningless organization that has enjoyed neither impact nor respect in the Arab arena it’s supposed to represent. The reason for this is that the Arab League is, as its official name indicates, the “League of Arab States.” Arab statehood has been simultaneously one of the great frailties and cruelties of the modern world – for the most part, offering citizens less than a minimum of those things that a successful state is supposed to provide: security, identity, representation, equal opportunity, rights or quality services. A league of dysfunctional states is a monument to immobility and irrelevance, and such has the Arab League been for many decades.

That’s why it’s so surprising to see the Arab League uncharacteristically decisive this year on Libya and Syria, offering solace and protection to citizens challenging the authoritarian rule of long-serving regimes. The league’s decision on Libya was half-hearted and without unanimity, and was soft-pedalled immediately afterward by then-secretary-general Amr Moussa. The decision on Syria was strikingly different, with 18 of 22 Arab states voting for the Syrian suspension.

The Arab League didn’t only make a historic decision to stop the bloodshed inside an Arab country; it also set in motion a sequential political process that directly challenges the policies and the authority – and perhaps even the legitimacy – of the Assad regime. By engaging with Syrian opposition groups, it firmed up that which the Libya decision had only gingerly touched on: It’s now permissible for Arab states to meddle in the internal affairs of other Arab states, when there’s a clear moral or political reason to do so that reflects the sentiments of a majority of Arab public opinion.

The Arab world is moving in a new direction. And we may be witnessing the first tangible impact of the Arab uprisings, citizen revolts and revolutions on those Arab elites that still control most governments in the region. Arab regimes may be starting to pay attention to the sentiments and values of their people, who widely reject the kind of killing of civilians that has taken place in Syria since late March.

Read the full story here.

Compromise in Tunisia offers a lesson for region

An editorial in The National, a government-run publication in the United Arab Emirates, lifts post-revolt Tunisia up as a model of how other Arab nations can pursue their own reforms. The editorial notes that after the country's first free elections, an Islamist party that won a plurality of seats compromised with the second-place Congress for the Republic party to name its leader - a secularist and human rights activist - as interim president.

"Ten months since the ousting of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and only weeks after the country's first free elections, Tunisia continues to serve as a role model for other Arab countries undergoing their own fledgling reforms.

The latest cause of optimism came on Tuesday. Reports that Moncef Marzouki, a veteran human rights activist and the head of the Congress for the Republic party (CPR), has been selected as Tunisia's new interim president, was another example of how compromise and maturity are the new order in Tunis.

The decision to install Mr Marzouki was reportedly reached between Islamist party Ennahda, which won 89 of 217 seats in the election and CPR, which came second with 29 seats. If confirmed Mr Marzouki will serve next year while a new constitution is drafted.

Mr. Marzouki's appointment is encouraging in many ways, both symbolic and practical. For starters he is considered one of Tunisia's most respected secularists, appealing to leftists and liberals, and with whom Islamists appear willing to work.

But more than the man is the method of his selection. Ennahda, banned under the previous regime, was a wild-card; some feared the moderate Islamist party would renegue on promises to forge a compromise government. So far, the party has done just the opposite.

This is good news for Tunisia, but it may be better news for the region. Indeed, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria now have an emerging Arab democracy to aspire to. From a relatively smooth setting up of a caretaker government and inclusion of former members of Ben Ali's party, to open campaigning by candidates and violence-free elections, Tunisians have navigated their democracy's early days well.

To be sure, the road ahead remains littered with obstacles. Corruption and unemployment are persistent challenges that Mr Marzouki and his new government will need to address. Tunisians' optimism and patience will not be open-ended."

Read the full story here.

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Jerry

    Who will pass down our History; the Corporate Media or the People? What was the war really about and what did the war really look like?

    November 16, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. fwat

    Syrians have been shat

    November 16, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Conspiracy theorists suck....

    ....Jerry.

    November 16, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jerry

    Oh really...so your telling me you trust EVERYTHING the Media tells you? Dummy !

    November 16, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • George Patton

      Point well taken, Jerry. Yes, the right-wing news media does lie to us time after time. Take for instance Afghanistan, when back in the 1980's the right-wing media continuously lambasted the Russians who were there to help preserve a Communist regime and now keeps on trying to sugarcoat the NATO forces who are there to exploit Afghanistan's natural resources any way they can. This is a shining example of just how biased the right-wing media can be!!!

      November 16, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. dr.RUFFNUTT

    a 4' sony speaker is awesome.. i bet that puts out a ton of ba55...

    November 16, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Tweety Bird

    @ dr.RUFFNUTT... I can't hear you, speak up!

    November 16, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |