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  • Author: Jihad Yazigi
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: The already bleak prospects of the Syrian economy have worsened in recent months with the Lebanon crisis, the enactment of the Caesar Act and now the coronavirus pandemic. This paper examines their impact on the Syrian economy and the population at large. While the cumulative impact is hard to assess at this stage, Syria’s population will remain heavily dependent on the international humanitarian effort. The future of this effort will itself depend on major donor countries whose own economies are likely to emerge weakened from the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Topic: Economics, Public Health, Humanitarian Crisis, Pandemic, COVID-19
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Lebanon, Syria
  • Author: Mansour Omari
  • Publication Date: 07-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: The opening in Germany of the trial of two Syrian security officers accused of crimes against humanity was marked by the absence of regional Arab interest, despite its importance for the fight against impunity in MENA. This paper seeks to understand this lack of coverage by Arab media and the absence of interest from national as well as regional Arab human rights organizations, and highlights the implications of the trial for Syria as well as MENA’s struggle for accountability.
  • Topic: Human Rights, Non State Actors, Media, Accountability
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Genevieve Zingg
  • Publication Date: 07-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: While not the chief cause of Syria’s economic crisis, sanctions have exacerbated difficulties faced by the Syrian people – in particular as new humanitarian needs arise from the Covid-19 pandemic. This paper argues that sanctions are essential to sustain pressure in the pursuit of justice and accountability and should be maintained but that they must be improved to allow for a more effective use of humanitarian exemptions and to lessen their negative impacts on the Syrian people.
  • Topic: Sanctions, Public Health, Humanitarian Crisis, Pandemic, COVID-19
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Alimar Lazkani
  • Publication Date: 08-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: impacted by the conflict and deteriorating living conditions. This paper examines their reality and the evolution of some of their political views through on the ground research and interviews. It notes that an increasing number of Alawite youth have grown disillusioned and some go as far as voicing discontent in private discussions because they see the regime as having failed to provide them with basic living arrangements. However, it is hard to determine the prevalence of such discontent due to research limitations and the entrenched fear of the security apparatus.
  • Topic: Authoritarianism, Youth, Accountability, Quality of Life
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Publication Date: 09-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: Sanctions have so far failed to change the Syrian regime behaviour, and despite their stated objectives of minimizing harm to the population, indicators show that sanctions are hitting ordinary Syrians the hardest. This paper looks at the mechanisms that Assad has been using to overcome the impact of sanctions on its power structure and provides recommendations on how to make sanctions more effective against the regime while mitigating their negative impact on Syrians.
  • Topic: Sanctions, Authoritarianism, Humanitarian Intervention, Quality of Life
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Joseph Daher
  • Publication Date: 10-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: Since 2011, the Syrian authorities have continued to develop economic policies with the aim of consolidating their power and their various patronage networks, all while allowing new forms of capital accumulation. This process had already started in the early 2000s with the liberalization and privatization of the Syrian economy. Tradesmen and new businessmen affiliated with the regime have since then considerably increased and deepened their domination over the Syrian economy, especially in recent years. The policies of the Syrian government after 2011 continued in the same vein.
  • Topic: Privatization, Authoritarianism, Trade Liberalization, Centralization
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Roger Asfar
  • Publication Date: 01-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: On 22 September 2018, a boat carrying 39 refugees sank while sailing illegally from the Lebanese coast towards Cyprus. Five-year old Syrian-Palestinian Khaled Nejme drowned in the incident, drawing attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees from Syria seeking refuge in Lebanon. Once considered lucky compared to Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries, Palestinian refugees from Syria are now experiencing secondary displacement and are among the most vulnerable refugee groups in Lebanon.1 This paper attempts to provide a better understanding of the attitudes toward the return of Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria. More specifically, the paper addresses the challenges faced by Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria’s Yarmouk camp and currently residing in Lebanon. Since the Syrian regime and its allies have retaken control of Yarmouk, and amidst increasing calls from Lebanon for the “voluntary return of refugees”, what are Syrian-Palestinian refugees’ prospects of return? What are some of the major obstacles preventing their return? And what are some of the basic conditions to be met for a truly voluntary return to be encouraged? To answer these questions, the authors conducted a series of interviews in Shatila camp and Ain el-Hilweh between 26 June and 16 September 2018.2 The interviews were constructed in a way that allowed ample space for the representation of different political positions, ideological orientations, social backgrounds, and age groups.
  • Topic: United Nations, Diaspora, Immigration, Refugees
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Syria
  • Author: Bassma Kodmani
  • Publication Date: 07-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: Before the Syrian uprising morphed into a full-scale war, Syria was probably the most authoritarian regime in the Arab region, unequalled in the scale of its repressive practices except by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Authoritarianism is hardly compatible with decentralization. An authoritarian government’s key concern is to spread the tentacles of its surveillance apparatus across all regions in order to exert full control over the lives of the citizens. A process of decentralization – in which power is genuinely devolved – is practically impossible, therefore, in an authoritarian system of governance. Yet equating centralization with authoritarianism and decentralization with democracy is an assertion that deserves discussion. Some democracies have functioned in a highly centralized manner. Perhaps, one of the best-known examples is France (on which the Syrian state was modelled) that remained highly centralized since the early days of the state formation almost 1000 years ago. The French revolution of 1789 upheld freedom and equality and announced a democratic system. The very idea of decentralization was rejected at the time in the name of equality understood as uniformity. Yet even France found it necessary to engage in some form of decentralization. Since the early 1980s, it engaged in a process of decentralization, mainly for administrative and financial efficiency. Although it continued to consider identity politics as dangerous for the unity of the nation, it was forced to concede to one particular identity-driven demand, that of the Corsicans, by designing a special status for the island.1 And decentralized systems do not necessarily produce democratic or more representative systems. Mexico is a case in point. Although it was always a federation, its political system remained a one-party rule for some seventy years before it transitioned to democracy in the early 2000s. Decentralization and democracy are, therefore, not inherently inseparable. However, a centralized system, even if democratic, inevitably reduces and often denies the specific identity of certain groups within society. It might operate in a democratic manner when national identity is homogeneous, but the world is composed of states where homogeneity is an exception. In diverse societies such as those of the Middle Eastern countries, centralization together with the demagogic discourse of authoritarian regimes using national cohesion as a pretext and brandishing foreign interference as a permanent threat, have served to deny diversity and basic rights of both individual citizens and specific communities. Syrian society faces a historic challenge and possibly an existential one: it needs to craft a model of decentralization as part of a new social contract while its national institutions are all but failing and its regional environment challenges the integrity of its territory and its sovereignty. Given the uncertainty shrouding the future of Syria, the paper is organized in two parts. The first lays out the discussion about decentralization based on the current reality of the Syrian regime in a scenario in which it regains control after having lived through nine years of gradual foundering of state institutions. The second part considers options for a new decentralized order in a context of democratic political transition. This is not to say that the first option is viable while the second is an ideal order for a fictitious future. On the contrary, the paper shows that the destruction of state institutions is a reality and a consequence of the conflict, that violence and other forms of resistance will continue, and that peace cannot be brought to the country under the existing political system. The second option is, therefore, a necessity which Syrians will need to define with the support of the international community. The paper lays out the process with concrete steps for achieving democratic decentralization.
  • Topic: Fragile/Failed State, Democracy, Decentralization , Regionalism
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria, Damascus
  • Author: Bassma Kodmani
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: The Collapse of the Syrian state is largely a reality. Both Russia and Iran, Assad’s allies, know he is not the guarantor of the continuity of the state any more but continue to hold on to him to sign off on projects that consolidate their control. This paper argues that instead of a failed state, a two-headed system has emerged, with Iran and Russia each pushing for their own vision of the country.
  • Topic: Imperialism, Fragile/Failed State, Authoritarianism, Military Intervention, Repression
  • Political Geography: Russia, United States, Iran, Middle East, Syria, Damascus
  • Author: Nadine Abdalla
  • Publication Date: 05-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: Social movements in Egypt and Syria played a central role in sparking the 2011 revolutions. Yet, despite their profound influence both before and during these critical moments of popular mobilization, they have since been sidelined. In Egypt, the role of social movements has been severely diminished because of the now-restricted political sphere, which has become increasingly inaccessible since the 30 June 2013 revolution and the subsequent military intervention. In Syria, civil society groups and political movements have become less important as a result of the militarization of the revolution, which the Syrian government successfully transformed into armed conflict. This policy paper, which is based on various research papers conducted under the Arab Research Support Programme, provides insight on social movements in these two countries, three main factors that affect a movement’s ability to mobilize communities and that help explain how social movements are affected by increased state repression. These include movement’s ability to understand the changing political context and shift strategies and tactics accordingly; organizational structure and flexibility; and patterns of repression and oppression by the state. This paper finds that social movements grow or decline depending on the strategies chosen to navigate given political contexts, as well as their ability to organize and appeal to a wide audience. For social movements to succeed, they must also be cognizant of a community’s unique characteristics and strengths. This includes its collective memory and fears, dynamics of cohesion and integration, and its historical relation with authoritarian regimes. Understanding these dynamics is essential for a movement to expand and to grow sustainably, especially as tensions rise within a community.
  • Topic: Social Movement, Arab Spring, State Violence, Revolution, Repression
  • Political Geography: Africa, North Africa, Syria, Egypt
  • Author: Alimar Lazkani
  • Publication Date: 06-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: The Syrian Army has inherited a few of the norms and customs the French used for running army affairs following the French occupation. These did not include any provisions on regulating the army. After the Baa’th Party came to power, particularly after Hafez Assad had assumed office, the norms and customs guaranteeing minimum rights for army soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers faded gradually, leaving room for cronyism and allegiance to individuals and to the regime as the sole guarantor for the military to gain their rights. Leaders of military units became almost governors of their own units where nothing could take place without their blessings The Russians became fully in charge of the Syrian Army and started to instil rules and regulations that would ensure discipline and transform the army to a professional force capable of actual missions on the ground. Such rules included entrenching among Syrian soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers’ allegiance to Russian military officers and meant to subdue and prevent them from exercising their authority. This has established the Russians as the de facto leaders in the minds of members of the Syrian army. This has mainly shifted the responsibility for all the atrocities committed by the Assad forces under the Russian leadership to the Russians together with the regime’s officers and leaders. Despite their inability to make decisions, they are responsible, in terms of political structure and posturing, for all cases of genocide, chemical attacks, displacement, starvation and other violations. It has therefore become difficult in the Syrian context to separate between the Russian leadership and the Syrian Army, except in terms of differentiating between the leader and the follower, a divide that Russia has been working on consolidating in the media and in its diplomacy as an entity “assisting to achieve peace and combat terrorism”, while it undoubtedly deserves the description of “occupier” with its ability to run a lot of important issues on Syrian soil.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, Genocide, Political structure, Military Intervention
  • Political Geography: Russia, Europe, Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Nayla Moussa
  • Publication Date: 07-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: On 6 May 2018, Lebanon had its first legislative elections in nine years. But what was celebrated as a “victory for democracy” may have been merely a game of musical chairs between existing political actors. The elections may even be seen as a setback, with the return of major figures from the era under Syrian presence. For Lebanon, simply holding the elections – considered routine in most democracies – was seen as a victory. Parliament had extended its mandate three times since the last elections in 2009. Many obstacles had prevented the elections from taking place including the fragile security balance; the war in Syria and its polarization of Lebanese politics support for the Assad regime; the direct involvement of Hezbollah in Syria; and finally, a lack of consensus between major political parties and figures on a new electoral law. This last issue was the most crucial as the 2018 law emerged as a mix of elements designed to please all parties. Its key tenets were proportional representation and a division of electoral districts that satisfied most political actors. This paper explores the lessons learned from these elections and analyzes specific points such as the electoral law, political debate, and post-election perspectives.
  • Topic: Religion, Social Movement, Elections, Democracy
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, Beirut
  • Author: Alimar Lazkani
  • Publication Date: 07-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: There is constant talk of the “soft conflict” between Iran and Russia in Syria. Most research and media reports focus on the areas of influence and control of each party. Without going into the relationship between Iranian and Russian forces on Syrian soil, in which the Iranian of influence weakened following the entry of Russian troops, it is important to distinguish the nature of these two forces to help identify the characteristics of this conflict, which are not limited to areas of influence. In fact, there is a clear difference between Iranian and Russian interests as well as strategy on two major issues. The first is the relationship with Israel. While Russia sees Israel as a strategic ally in the region, Iran gains its regional legitimacy by emphasizing the continuity of conflict with it. The second is the way each party sees the future of Syria, and its own role in it. Iran is not capable of establishing a centralized state in Syria because of its ideological hostility to the Sunni majority there. Therefore, a state based on sectarian militias will be the cornerstone of Iran’s continued presence on Syrian soil as it has the capacity to manage militias with no national project. Russia, on the other hand, has a vision of a centralized state that is based on the fundamental pillar of a disciplined and dutiful army. Thus, the “soft conflict” involves not only the geographical divvying-up of Syria, but also fundamental matters related to the structure of Syria’s security and military system. This paper is the second part of a broader study of Russia’s policy of establishing a military influence in Syria. It will look at the Syrian militias that Iran has fostered and supported, and Russia’s approach in dealing with them on the ground. However, it does not consider non-Syrian militias on Syrian soil brought by the Iranians, such as Hezbollah, the Fatemiyoun, the Zainabiyoun, and other Shia militias because of their close association with Iranian politics and their temporary posting in specific conflict areas, making them a foreign presence on Syrian soil.
  • Topic: Military Strategy, Military Intervention, Sunni, Shia
  • Political Geography: Russia, Iran, Middle East, Israel, Syria
  • Author: Bassma Kodmani
  • Publication Date: 10-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: As long as military means prevailed in deciding the fate of Syria, the European Union could not alone induce any decisive change in the dynamics of the conflict, and Assad was vindictively seeking to prove that the European Union’s ability to influence the conflict was nil. Assad’s luck was that Putin was determined to prevent his fall and threw his full weight behind him to maintain his rule. When the guns finally fall silent, should the key countries of Europe and the EU itself simply accept as “a sad reality” the fact that the Syrian regime is back in full control of the country? Will they channel funds for humanitarian, post-emergency and early recovery purposes through the State’s financial system knowing full well that European tax payers’ money might be massively diverted to end in the pockets of Assad’s family and the kleptocracy around him,1 and serve to pursue his sectarian scheme of changing the demographics of Syria along religious and ethnic lines? Framing the discussion in terms of accepting Assad and rehabilitating him or not is disempowering for the EU. It assumes that military force alone is what determines the outcome of the conflict and the political fate of the country. If it follows this rationale, Europe would be annihilating everything it stands for; it would serve as a helping hand in Assad’s strategy to bury the civil society groups it helped organize and silence the democratic forces and all those within the different sectors of society who want a Syria that resembles Europe in terms of its values and its political system on the other side of the Mediterranean. The EU’s declared position that there will be no reconstruction without political transition in Syria is an honorable one, but this position still needs to be operationalized if the EU is to turn it into a policy and use its full clout to shape the resolution of the conflict.
  • Topic: Europe Union, Humanitarian Intervention, Military Intervention, Economic Policy
  • Political Geography: Africa, Russia, Europe, Syria
  • Author: Alimar Lazkani
  • Publication Date: 11-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: By monopolizing political, economic and social life in Syria, the Assad regime has barred the emergence and growth of independent, popular or influential local leaders and equated voicing reservations or being neutral towards its policies to opposition. With the outbreak of the revolution, the rules of loyalty to the regime have not changed for fear of reprisal or loss of opportunity. The opening of the market to large businesses have fed the ambitions of small entrepreneurs, making them more loyal. Neutrality and reservations have come from opponents who are waiting for the opportunity to organize, and from some cultural and artistic actors. This paper draws a rich map of the political, economic, cultural and religious elites of the Syrian coastal area and the extent to which they can become an actor able to build a national inclusive project for post-war Syria.
  • Topic: Civil War, Social Movement, Revolution, Dictatorship
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria, Damascus
  • Author: Bassma Kodmani
  • Publication Date: 12-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: Eight years of a high intensity conflict in Syria resulted in the forcible displacement of over half of the population of the country, some internally, while over six million others fled outside, causing the most severe refugee crisis the world has known since World War II. Little is written however on the estimated 18 million Syrians who have been living abroad for years, often decades. These Syrians emigrated in waves and settled in some 30 different countries worldwide, including in the most remote lands of South America and the Caribbean islands. Together with the refugees who fled as a consequence of the conflict, the number of Syrians outside the country is now three times higher than those living inside. This is not specific to Syrians. The number of Palestinians, Lebanese, Armenians and, of course, Jews scattered across continents is also three to four times higher than those inside Palestinian occupied territories, Lebanon, Armenia or Israel. But the Syrian conflict and its toll on civilians has undoubtedly triggered a new awareness of the existence of a strong Syrian diaspora which had, so far, kept a rather low profile. To the stories of suffering and misery about refugees, diaspora communities oppose inspiring stories of the successful integration of individuals and families in their host societies. The Syrian diaspora is no exception. Its story contrasts with the dire situation of desperate boat people and helpless refugees. In general, the Syrian diaspora is economically self-sufficient and composed of well-integrated communities spreading across the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This report is the result of a collective effort to draw the first comprehensive picture of the de-territorialized Syrian people encompassing the old diaspora and the recent refugees. Co-authored by 13 experts, it describes the socio-economic and cultural features of the old diaspora communities (a subject largely under-researched by scholars) and captures the fast moving but very uneven process of transformation of recent refugees into a new component of the Syrian diaspora. Scholarly research and interviews with key members of the diaspora in their different living contexts reveal the considerable effort that the diaspora has mobilized to support Syrians during the conflict and its potential to be a major player in the reconstruction and development of Syria when the conflict ends.
  • Topic: Civil War, Diaspora, Immigration, Refugees, Revolution
  • Political Geography: Africa, Europe, Middle East, South America, Syria, North America
  • Author: Firas Haj Yehia
  • Publication Date: 12-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: The Arab Republic of Egypt has attracted displaced Syrians despite difficulties in accessing the country. Syrian investment activity began to expand and spread over the past two years in a variety of different fields: companies, restaurants, factories, and other professions in the areas in which Syrians reside. Syrians mostly live in the cities of Obour, 6th of October, Alexandria, and 10th of Ramadan, and the Egyptian government therefore allocated Syrians a piece of land to build a Syrian industrial zone. Sisi’s rise to power in Egypt has played a role in changing the official discourse towards Syrians, and in framing their political and cultural activities. The evolution of the situation in Syria also played a role in reshaping the mechanisms of interaction between the owners of capital, which will shape the forms and mechanisms of investment in Syria after the end of the conflict.
  • Topic: Diaspora, Geopolitics, Refugees, Immigrants
  • Political Geography: Africa, Middle East, Syria, Egypt
  • Author: Cecilia Baeza
  • Publication Date: 12-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)
  • Abstract: This paper examines the stance taken by the Syrian diaspora in Latin America vis-à-vis the war in Syria and how it envisions its aftermaths. It builds on an ethnographic field research and analysis carried out between 2011 and 2014 in Argentina and Brazil, and expands its scope by including a questionnaire prepared by ARI on the diaspora’s future role in the reconstruction Syria in a post-conflict scenario. The questionnaire has been sent to Syrian immigrants and descendants from Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. The first section examines the patterns of Syrian emigration to Latin America and its diasporization process under the influence of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Ba’ath. The second section shows how those historical elements have impacted the diaspora’s attitude towards the conflict in Syria. The last section analyzes the answers to the questionnaire and identifies the main topics of shared interest.
  • Topic: Civil War, Diaspora, Refugees, Revolution
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Brazil, Argentina, Latin America, Syria, Mexico, Chile, Damascus