This week marks five years since the beginning of the horrific Syrian civil war and the Arab Spring movement. A net assessment of the affected countries shows the ineffectiveness of the movement.
Protests began in Syria on March 15, 2011 in the capital Damascus as Syrians demanded democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. The protests spiralled into pain and madness when President Bashar al Assad’s security forces opened fire on the protesters, leading to a full-scale civil war and the dissolution of Syria as a viable country.
Over the next five years the conflict would attract almost every major world power, each joining the fight against various Syrian factions – or each other – for their own political purposes. A new generation of jihadists, evolving far past the al qaeda movement, took advantage of the chaos to build what has become known as the Islamic State in both Syria and the riven Iraqi north.
Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the bulk of his forces in Syria would begin departure from the conflict, having “achieved” the Kremlin’s initial military goals. Bolstering al Assad in Syria and setting the conditions for power-sharing negotiations between the rebels and the regime were indeed accomplished as a result of Russia’s intervention in Syria.
For Mr Putin, intervening in Syria was never strictly about that conflict. Rather it was used to demonstrate Russian power and seriousness to encourage concessions with the West regarding the frozen conflict in Ukraine.
It remains to be seen whether these wider goals can now be realised due to the actions in Syria. The Europeans and the US hold the strategic initiative in Ukraine and will probably conduct tough negotiations with the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the Syrian war grinds on.
Of the other three countries deeply affected by the Arab Spring – Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – only Tunisia has managed to forge something resembling a democratic government. Although it is fragile and under pressure by Islamist political forces, the government is currently under the control of Nidaa Tounes party, or Call for Tunisia, following the 2014 election.
Nidaa Tounes has a plurality of seats in parliament and enjoys significant support from the traditional power bases that enabled strongmen such as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba (Tunisia’s founding president) to govern the country. Essentially, some democratic progress has occurred, but not much has changed in the North African country since the protests. Many of Mr Ben Ali’s inner circle are back in power among the judiciary and executive branches.
The story is much the same in Egypt. The country received the most glowing media coverage during the mass protests in early 2011. According to most narratives Egyptian citizens were rising up against the dictator Hosni Mubarak, hoping to encourage a democratic transition.
Instead, the military – to which Mr Mubarak was deeply connected – worked to oust the dictator while paying lip service to protester’s demands. They made this decision because immediately before the protests began Mr Mubarak had nominated a controversial family member to succeed his rule. The military leadership felt threatened by this new face and used the protests as an excuse to remove Mr Mubarak’s regime and retain power.
And after a theatrical democratic election temporarily brought the provocative Muslim Brotherhood party to power in Cairo, the military leadership became concerned with many of the party’s proposed reforms and once again worked to remove the Muslim Brotherhood. Presently, a group of military leaders known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) remain in control of Egypt, as it always has been.
Libya is a broken country after limited democratic protests in the eastern city of Benghazi turned violent in 2011. Dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s regime was subsequently removed from power by a mix of Islamists and ethnic forces in a bloody civil war. Libya was the only country in 2011 where Western forces intervened. When the regime appeared to existentially threaten the uprising, US and European militaries conducted airstrikes to cripple Mr Gadhafi’s forces.
After his regime collapsed, the rebel factions split the country into at least three major sections along existing ethnic and historical lines. All the underlying tensions held together by the dictator have so far precluded the rebels from coalescing into a functional transitional government while strongmen from Mr Gadhafi’s regime have taken control of the various groups.
The UN has attempted multiple times to create a unity government, but each construction has failed. As a result of the present anarchy, an affiliate of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has gained control of the city of Sirte and threatens almost 250 kilometres of territory along the Libyan coast.
Even though Western forces quickly departed Libya after the regime fell, they are now preparing to re-enter Libya under the pretence of fighting IS to provide legitimacy to the nascent unity government.
Other countries across the region experienced only limited uprisings during the months of the Arab Spring. Protests in Bahrain were largely unsuccessful because of an extremely effective and heavy-handed security response by military and police forces of Saudi Arabia, which were invited to protect Bahrain by its government. In Saudi Arabia, the security response to isolated uprisings in the predominantly Shia east were quelled swiftly before they could connect and metastasise.
Saudi Arabia has also been involved in Yemen’s civil war on behalf of the elected President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The fighting may be resolved in the next few months as coalition forces are poised to retake the capital Sanaa. The Yemeni uprising was only peripherally a result of the wider Arab Spring, but protests did undermine the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh leading to instability and worried attention from Riyadh.
Monarchies in Jordan, Oman, UAE and Saudi Arabia all escaped the spread of the Arab Spring. For reasons presently unknown, the royals possessed perhaps both greater legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens and the international community than the unpopular dictators in the afflicted countries, and were able to introduce sufficient security force at critical moments to quell uprisings.
However, Jordan struggles to cope with the weight of millions of refugees fleeing to the country from the Syrian civil war to its north. Amman has set up temporary camps but its infrastructure (Jordan has little fresh water and few natural resources) has been stretched thin for years. The royal family faces only a weak threat from civil unrest, but the dangerous mix of refugees, over-stretched resources and a growing infiltration of terror groups may push it over the edge.
Saudi Arabia is carefully moving through a significant leadership transition as the second generation of its monarchs depart. Although the new rulers are the sons of the outgoing kings, they are a mixed group of highly experienced and unexperienced individuals. The regime is also barely coping with extremely low oil prices (hurting its vital social subsidies programmes).
Riyadh’s rulers have been unable to extinguish the flames of the Arab Spring and will not be blind to the threat against the regime’s status quo from growing democratic fervour. But to avoid the dangers inherent in the grey area of transition, Saudi rulers will need to manage how much political reform they can absorb without undermining the family’s rule. But the balance will be delicate.
Ultimately, while the Arab Spring introduced plenty of turmoil which is still not fully expunged, the pro-democratic movements have largely been a failure.
The reality is that old and entrenched government figures are still in control in most Arab governments or complete anarchy is the political norm. The protesters of five years ago had the heart for change, but not the might. And in the game of power, might will always make right.
Still, those old power structures continue to face challenges. Forces outside their control on a global economic or financial scale could result in a more effective catalyst for true revolutionary change should they compound in the next few years. Oil prices remain low and unemployment is high, alongside many of the very same reasons that boiled over in 2011 and haven’t been addressed.
Western actions over the past decade in the Arab world were a factor in stirring the unrest. Many protesters were hoping to foment democratic reform, an observation leading to the naming of the uprisings as the “Arab Spring.” But it is important not to deny the agency of the demonstrators.
A significant group of people desired change, but in the direction of more austere cultural traditions such as Islam – not for greater liberal values. These forces remain a strong undercurrent in Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria especially. Their goal was to remove the entrenched leaders not because they were undemocratic, but because they were not traditional enough. What this means in practise to the individual ethnic groups is as varied as the countries themselves, and doesn’t suggest an easy answer.
There are great divisions still raw across the Arab world, and far greater splits occurring along the ancient lines of Islam. The question is whether the violence observed today will reach a conclusion, or will continue seemingly without end in a cyclical nature or perhaps as a continued deterioration.
Or perhaps seeds of true change were planted in 2011 which will eventually lead to democratic and liberalised democracy. Washington, especially, would appreciate this outcome. It pays to remember that Europe spent centuries of nasty internecine conflict before it evolved away from religious wars to the consensus of the “nation state” system.
Perhaps the Arab world too is on this same path. But it is not a guarantee. If so, then at minimum the international community can expect an entire generation of fear and trembling in the region. Yet geopolitics moves quickly there and the Arab Spring surprised every intelligence agency on the planet. Predicting what happens next will always an imperfect science, to say the least.