Democratic Syria could destabilize region - political analyst

As violent clashes between the protesters and the security forces resume in Syria, political analyst Professor Mark Almond says democratic changes in the country could be for worse and not for better.

Six protesters have reportedly been killed as Syrian tanks stormed the coastal city of Banias on Saturday. The protesters were trying to keep them out by forming human chains amid deadly confrontations with the security forces.

It follows a day of nationwide protests across the country that left at least 30 people dead and hundreds arrested.

The Sawasiah human rights group claims 800 people have been killed since the uprising began almost two months ago.

The US is warning the regime that it will take new steps against it in response to Friday’s bloody crackdown by security forces. The EU has also agreed on an assets freeze and a travel ban on top Syrian officials.

But international relations expert and visiting professor at Bilkent University in Turkey, Mark Almond, believes the Americans or the Europeans have little leverage to influence Syria.

“One of the big causes of discontent in Syria is precisely the transfer of the state assets into private hands – private hands of people associated with the government. That’s what we see happen across the whole of the former communist world and Syria, in this sense, is a bit like a former communist country, ” he said. “One problem is –we’ve been saying for years to Syria, not just, but certainly there too – if you introduce market reforms you’ll begin to stage the process towards democracy,” he said.

Professor Almond believes that Western leaders have an ideal hope for democracy in the country but they believe that President al-Assad has turned out not to be such a good reformer as they hoped, and not as co-operative in the peace process with Israel. So they hope if they get rid of him, things will be better.

“I think myself,” continued Professor Almond, “that is possibly an illusion. The illusion might be that democracy would be good for peace in Syria, good for peace in the region. I fear that the democratic Syria would make a much more difficult regional neighbor for Israel, for instance, and much more difficult for us [the West] to refuse its demands, so it could be destabilizing, or there could be chaos, which could be even worse.”

Professor Almond says things in Syria are very complicated and contradictory and people there say they want less capitalism, not more.

“Yes, we can see there a lot of protests, there’s a lot of discontent,” he continued. “But also there are significant groups who say change could be for the worse, not for the better.”

Comparing the country with Libya, Professor Almond stressed that Syria is in a much more sensitive position. 

“It has Israel to the south, Iraq next door and also Turkey – a NATO ally- to the north. Turkey doesn’t want chaos in Syria. There’s a choice in Syria not just between democracy and dictatorship, but possibly instead of dictatorship – anarchy – who wants another Iraq?” he questioned.

“There’s a lot of outside pressure from, as we see, Europe and the United States. On the other hand, it’s quite striking Israel has been very quiet about this crisis. It’s also the case with Iraq – which has the government, if you like, installed by the US.”

“There are also lines of contact with Iraq, where the government in Iraq says we don’t necessarily want another regime change in Syria because that could produce a kind of civil war flowing over our borders… So, not everybody is happy and, above all, Turkey is sitting next door. There are trade links with Syria but there also are minority links – Kurds in Turkey and Kurds in Syria. If Syria broke up that could destabilize Turkey too,” says Professor Almond.

“So there are a lot of people with fingers in the pie who don’t necessarily want change. The further away from Syria you get – Europe, America – you can then perhaps say that’s how the change is – it might be for the better and if it goes bad – it’s a long way from us,” he concluded.

­Meanwhile, Dr. Franklin Lamb, the director of ‘Americans Concerned for Middle East Peace’ is not one of those who think that regime change in Syria would be a catastrophe.

“Many academics and supporters of the regime are saying we must keep the dictatorship because it would be uncertain,” says Dr. Lamb. “I don’t accept this. I think people in Syria, if they overthrow the regime and if they get proper support internationally, including from Russia, they will survive. The people are determined here and I’m not concerned about the spill over to Lebanon and Palestine. Let the people decide. They are the ones who are sacrificing, and it is their future and their country and I think it behoves all of us to support them in their struggle.”

“I would argue we are just at the beginning of the great Islamic and Arab awakening of 2011 that would be felt throughout the Middle East and also in America and probably in Russia in one form or another. It’s difficult to predict where it will end,” he added.