Pressure Mounts on Syria

Published June 20, 2012
By Natalie Manning
The Failed States Index
The Arab Spring was one of the biggest stories of 2011, and many of its effects have been registered in the 2012 Failed States Index — Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen all saw their scores seriously worsen. For some, the tension has eased, at least for now. For others, conflict and instability continues.

The Arab Spring hit Syria in April 2011 with demonstrations in the southern town of Dara’a against the government’s heavy handed response to students who had spray painted anti-government slogans. The uprising quickly spread and President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces brutally cracked down on the population. By late 2011, the opposition had transformed from a peaceful movement into an armed insurrection. An estimated 13,000 people have died since the conflict began, and thousands more have been displaced as the country spirals further towards civil war.

Until 2012, Syria’s ranking on the Failed States Index had been steadily improving, moving up 19 places since 2005. However, in 2012, Syria was the third most worsened country, slipping 8.6 points, a change that ranks it as the fourth-most significant decline in the history of the Index. Syria’s performance so far this year also puts it at risk of continued decline in the 2013 Index, as a significant uptick in violence has already been witnessed in the first half of 2012.

Syria has been ruled by an authoritarian government since the father of the current president, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in 1970. A persistent state of emergency has facilitated the government’s strict control over all aspects of social and political life. As a result, Syria’s State Legitimacy score has never fallen below 8.3. For the duration of the uprising, the Assad regime has used tanks, gunfire and mass arrests against the population. Amateur video footage appearing to show government troops moving through Homs in tanks suggests that the regime is carrying out the majority of violent attacks. Fearing the Assad’s brutal security forces, citizens continue to flee government controlled areas and flock to those controlled by rebel forces. As a result, the State Legitimacy indicator score has now skyrocketed to 9.5.

Many opposition groups have banded together with no common ideology other than the fall of the Assad regime. In October, dissidents established the Syrian National Council to bring together the opposition, with the stated goal of overthrowing Assad. However, the opposition is still very fragmented, with members from the Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish, tribal and independent factions. Many defected soldiers, once loyal to Assad, also make up part of the opposition. As a result of the array of different groups involved in the conflict, Syria’s Group Grievance score has unsurprisingly jumped to 9.2 in the 2012 Index.

The context behind Assad’s oppressive dictatorship is a highly divided sectarian society, made up of an Alawite minority and Sunni majority. As such, Syria’s Factionalized Elites score has for the most part remained above 7.0. Alawites typically hold positions in the upper ranks of the military and government and control the bulk of Syria’s wealth and power; they also make up the majority of the security forces controlled by the Assad regime. Their dominance is reinforced by Assad’s alliances with Russia and Iran, who steadily supply the regime with weaponry, food and other aid. Indeed, foreign aid has provided the Alawite elite a significant advantage over the opposition during the conflict.

The government’s brutality has also dramatically affected the country’s Human Rights indicator score. Since the beginning of the uprising, security forces have been involved in human rights atrocities, with widespread reports of torture, rape, bombings, beatings and other abuses. Extra-judicial killings increased dramatically throughout the government’s crackdown. Journalists have frequently disappeared or have been jailed, often facing extended detention. It is estimated that there are between 12,000 and 40,000 political prisoners in Syria. The country’s Human Rights score now sits at a high 9.4, up almost one full point from 2011.

Syria’s Public Services indicator worsened 1.2 points to 7.0 in the 2012 Index, due to the government denying many Syrians access to essential services, mainly healthcare. Protesters who were wounded in the demonstrations were purposefully denied access to healthcare or were arrested at the hospital when they sought treatment. Pop-up hospitals were set up for those who needed treatment but feared arrest. Security forces blocked ambulances from reaching the injured and some doctors and nurses who attempted to help were killed.

Although 10 of Syria’s 12 indicators have worsened, the most significant jump has been in the External Intervention indicator, which worsened by 2.4 points to 7.9 in the 2012 Index. Despite an initially slow response, the Arab League voted to suspend Syria and impose sanctions in December 2011 after Assad failed to implement the Arab peace plan. Jordan and Turkey heavily condemned the regime. League observers were eventually allowed into the country, although their presence did little to curb the violence. The score also worsened due to the Assad’s regime’s reliance on Russian support as sanctions tighten, with some analysts speculating the regime would crumble in months if aid was retracted.

The conflict in Syria has only recently been labeled a civil war. The Assad regime has continued its campaign of shootings, bombings, injuries and deaths into the first half of 2012. The government has continued to attack cities such as Homs and Taftanaz, using helicopters and tanks to attack with shells and artillery — 108 people were killed in the city of Houlu in May alone. There have been too many killings for the Syrian population to quietly concede, and the government shows no sign of stopping its assault on the civilian population. With no sign of either side willing to appease the other, the brutalities of the Assad regime will continue. It is highly likely that this will continue and that regrettably we will continue to find ourselves discussing Syria and its performance again next year in the 2013 Failed States Index.