Jody Gregory ’12

In the spring of 2012, as students began choosing their classes and schedules for the 2012-2013 academic year, a group of students devised a new course to take during the first semester. Like many past seniors, Andrew Minkovitz, Shoumick Hasan, Evan Frazier, Eugene Greggo, and Will Mette were interested in creating an independent study in History under the watchful eye of Dr. Wasson. Typically, an independent study consists of meetings with the faculty sponsor and individual reading and research time, culminating in an extensive research paper at the end of the semester. However, the magnitude of interest in independent studies this year led the students to devise a new type of independent study, with an element of group discussion that is key to the Tower Hill learning environment. After conferring with Dr. Wasson, the group selected a current events movement to focus on through out the fall: the Arab Spring.

The five seniors and Dr. Wasson met regularly twice a cycle to discuss both history and breaking news surrounding the Arab Spring, which began in January 2011. Eventually, each member of the group selected a country to highlight and began the process of researching and producing a final paper regarding his country’s participation in the Arab Spring movement. The countries chosen were Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Bahrain, and were studied respectively by Andrew Minkovitz, Shoumick Hasan, Evan Frazier, Will Mette, and Eugene Greggo. Dr. Wasson noted their dedication and ability to “conduct effective discussions and produce excellent papers.”

This type of course is new to Tower Hill, and Dr. Wasson was thoroughly impressed by the dedication of the students. He believes these students are “true seekers after truth” and enjoyed the course because of their level of commitment.

Andrew Minkovitz wrote his paper on the nation of Syria, and worked for months on completing the essay. Below we have posted his final product (including the 44 footnotes). Enjoy!

The Syrian Arab Spring:

The Key Factors that Fueled the Arab Spring Movement in Syria

Andrew Minkovitz

More than 45,000 people have been killed in the Syrian Civil War over a span of nearly 2 years, from January 26, 2011 to the present, according to anti-regime activists.[1] However, the United Nations estimates that the death toll for the war is more likely upwards of 60,000 people over the same period of time.[2] The conflict is part of the “Arab Spring,” a series of revolutionary events in the Middle East characterized by protests, violence, and unrest, and by hope, liberation, and change. The movement has embroiled and ultimately profoundly affected numerous countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Syria. As 2013 begins, the leaders of four of these countries, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, have been overthrown while rulers in Bahrain, Morocco, and other countries in the region such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia have remained in power. Although relatively democratic elections have only been held in three of those four nations, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the novel occurrence of active democracy displays the early impact the Arab Spring has had in championing for more and improved rights. However, the stability of the entire region is fragile, even in countries that have already voted for change such as Egypt.[3]

The first indications of the extension of the Arab Spring into Syria can be dated to January 26, 2011, when Hasan Ali Akleh immolated himself to protest against the Syrian government, sparking a desire for change. According to human rights groups, up to 28,000 Syrians have disappeared and up to 335,000 have fled the country as of October 2012.[4] More than one million Syrians may have been displaced.[5] Yet, the war has continued into the beginning of 2013, with rebel opposition forces trading blows with Assad and his army.

While the outcome has not been determined, there are many identifiable causes for the revolution. Some of these causes have proved to be consistent across the Arab Spring movement, while other issues are more particular to Syria. These factors range from the trigger event in Tunisia, the first country to experience an Arab Spring, to economic problems unique to Syria. However, the central cause of the events in Syria is the oppressive nature of the current regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Although not the most significant, several of the most important factors contributing to the Syrians’ desire for change have been present in many of the countries involved in the Arab Spring. The first country involved in the Arab Spring, Tunisia, played a role as a trigger for the wave of protests throughout the Arab world. On December 17, 2010, a street vendor, Mohamad Bouazizi immolated himself after a local municipal inspector humiliated him, attempting to confiscate his fruit and slapping him in the face.[6] This catalytic event began not only the first protests of the Tunisian Revolution, but also was an influential event for other countries.[7] The Syrian Civil War, or the Syrian Uprising, began with a copycat event; on January 28, 2011, Hasan Ali Akleh set himself on fire as an act of protest against his government, serving as a similar ‘spark’ and ‘igniting’ Syria’s Arab Spring.[8] Through social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter, a ‘Day of Rage’ was planned, with a stated goal to “end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption.”[9]However, due to the government’s ban of Facebook and other sites and Assad’s power and popularity at the time, the plans failed. [10]Assad was interviewed in January of 2011, and stated his belief that his country was immune from the region’s unrest and nothing should be changed in Syria, saying, “We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries, but in spite of that Syria is stable…If you do it [reforms] just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action and….you are going to fail.”[11] However, this statement soon proved to be misguided.

Youth unemployment has also been a major problem in many of the countries involved in the Arab Spring, including Syria. In April, 2011, the youth unemployment rate in the Middle East region was reported to be at 25 percent. In both Syria and Egypt, people between the ages of 15 and 24 comprised up to 60 percent of unemployed people in that year.[12] Prior to 2011, the Syrian government reported a progressive decrease in unemployment from 20 percent when Bashar al-Assad took office to 9% in 2007, and 8.3% in 2010.[13] Then, corresponding to the beginning of Arab Spring, reported unemployment rose to 12.3% in 2011, and nearly 25% in 2012.[14] Coupled with rising inflation rates and rampant poverty, the above increase in unemployment appears to be a significant factor contributing to the anger of the Syrian people. However, prior to the Arab Spring, the unemployment figures were potentially greater than reported, as Syria’s data have been known to be unreliable. The Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Radwan Habib admitted in December, 2011, that unemployment was between 22 and 30%, rather than the 12.3% reported.[15] With unclear unemployment rates, it is difficult to ascertain the role youth unemployment played as a factor in the events of Arab Spring, especially given the high figures previously reported at the beginning of the millennium.

In many of the countries connected with Arab Spring including Syria, the military has had an important role and influence, especially in regard to their loyalty to or dissatisfaction with the regime. In Syria, the military has remained loyal to Assad with the exceptions of several defections and other desertions. The Syrian Army has been essential to Assad’s maintaining control, as it has superior weapons and technology, as well as organization, in comparison to the rebel forces.[16] This advantage includes not only firepower, but also an Air Force and a potentially lethal chemical weapons supply. Furthermore, among other countries, Russia has supplied weapons and other resources to Assad, angering the United Nations and especially Turkey, a country neighboring Syria.[17]However, the army has had several important defections, most notably that of the head of Syria’s military police, Major General Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal. Al-Shallal was previously in charge of preventing defections, yet defected himself, choosing to join “the people’s revolution” in December, 2012. He stated that, “the regime army has lost control over most of the country.” [18] Despite their advantages, the loyal Syrian Army has been unable to suppress the scattered rebel forces, and has struggled with the rebels for control of major cities and bases once solely in their jurisdiction including Allepo and Assad’s capital, Damascus.

Several factors that led to the emergence of protests in Syria are more specific to Syria, rather than consistent throughout the seven major countries involved in Arab Spring. While crucial, these too were not as fundamental as Assad’s tyranny. Although nations such as Bahrain are wealthy, Syria is a particularly impoverished nation. Agricultural challenges including droughts and water shortages, illiteracy, unemployment, and the high inflation rates are among the problems plaguing the country, and especially the rural population.[19] While the inflation rates surged during the Arab Spring, surpassing 36 percent in June, 2012, the rates leading up to the Arab Spring were similar to those in years past, despite the difficult economic conditions. [20] During the five years prior to the first protests in Syria, from 2005 to 2010, inflation rates had fluctuated between 2.8 and 15.2 percent. In fact, inflation during 2009 and 2010 was at the lower end of the recent spectrum, at 2.8% and 4.4% respectively.[21]

The legacy of imperialism is also an important cause of the events of Arab Spring in Syria. In 1920, following World War I, Emir Feisal was declared the King of Syria, a region larger than the current country today. Later that same year, the Syria-Lebanon territory was placed under the control of the French, who favored the minority groups, and Feisal was forced to flee. In 1922, the territory was divided and modern day Lebanon was separated from Syria. The French military remained in Syria until 1946, when Syria gained its independence five years after first declaring independence in 1941. After a struggle for power, Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of Bashar al-Assad, seized power.[22] The Syrian people’s powerlessness and the absence of an elected ruling party are reflected in the Syrians desire for influence and change.

Another factor specific to the Syrian Civil War is the sectarian conflict prominent throughout the country. The Alawite minority group, itself a minority sect of Shia Islam, has controlled the government in Syria since Hafez al-Assad became president in 1971. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, however, which has led to tension. One of the early events of the Syrian Civil War occurred on March 6, 2011, when fifteen schoolboys were arrested for their graffiti pronouncing a slogan used in the Tunisia and Egypt uprisings, “As Shaab Yoreed Eskaat el nizam,” or “The people want to topple the regime.” The boys’ Sunni families approached the Alawite head of local security, who insulted them, and when the boys were freed from jail two weeks later with marks indicating torture, the Alawite governor’s office was burned and the conflict began.[23] In addition, the Kurds are also a significant group in Syria, living primarily in the north and also clashing with Assad’s forces. Still, despite this instance of a sectarian conflict acting as one of the catalysts to the arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria, the Shia-Sunni divide has always been present in Syria and has been a part of the Middle East for centuries, and was not the greatest factor of the Syrian Civil War. Sunni Muslims have supported Assad and his government, for reasons of fear and a lack of faith in the rebel group. One Middle East analyst, Rami Khoury, stated, “There is no sign that Alawites as a group are backing the state. And the opposition is working very hard to avoid a sectarian backlash once they get rid of the regime.”[24] While the sectarian conflict is an important factor, especially in the context of recent events in the region including the civil war in Iraq, it was not the most significant.

The chain-reaction effect of violent and dangerous actions feeding off each other also played a role in escalating the Arab Spring in Syria. Although the protests were at first peaceful with no intention of violence, this did not remain true. Even during the early protests over the arrest of the fifteen schoolboys, security forces from the local governor’s office killed at least four protesters. As reported by anti-regime activists, the vicious cycle of violence has claimed the lives of more than 45,000 people in only two years. The severity of the conflict has continued to increase, with a reported 39,520 people killed in 2012 a significant increase from the 6,548 killed in 2011. When the United Nations provided their estimate of the death toll, the figure was totaled to be greater than 60,000 deaths. At the end of December, 2012, the United Nations-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters, “do not expect just 25,000 people to die next year—maybe 100,000 will die. The pace is increasing.”[25] Although this now consistent violence has elevated the protest movement to a deadly and costly civil war, the impact of violent actions fueling further violence was not the most important root cause of Syria’s Arab Spring.

Although each of the above factors have contributed to the Syrian uprising and its escalation, the greatest cause of the Syrian Arab Spring is the oppressive nature of the current regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Assads first rose to power in 1971, when Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad became president. Under Hafez, the military massacred between ten and twenty-five thousand people in the span of only one month in Hama, after an attack on pro-Assad officials by opposition groups started a rebellion in February, 1982.[26] Hafez’s first son, Basil, died in 1994, placing his second son Bashar, Western educated and at the time practicing ophthalmology in Britain, in line for the presidency.

Bashar al-Assad was initially viewed as having “the aura of a young reformist president and the promise of a ‘Damascus Spring’.”[27] In the same year he was elected, Assad released 600 political prisoners.[28] However, with the exception of this act, he has instead rejected the opportunity to truly implement reforms and changes. In 2005, James Bennett of the New York Times Magazine wrote that “what they [westerners] have seen as a pattern of empty promises, nasty oratory and bloody tactics has turned them against the Syrian regime.” He states that the Bush administration believes he is “a murderous proxy warrior, permitting or even encouraging jihadists to stream eastward into Iraq…encouraging terrorists to the South, against Israel….[and] a dictator interrupting a new expansion of democracy.”[29] Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, stated in 2010 that “whether President al-Asad wanted to be a reformer but was hampered by an entrenched old guard or has been just another Arab ruler unwilling to listen to criticism, the outcome for Syria’s people is the same: no freedom, no rights…Al-Assad’s record after 10 years is that he has done virtually nothing to improve his country’s human rights record.”[30] Even one minor change Assad did make early in his presidency, abolishing the militaristic uniforms of primary and secondary school students, may have had a greater, different impact than imagined. In Assad’s early attempts to shift Syria’s older, wartime atmosphere to “a more normal educational environment that focused on developing useful skill sets,” he potentially encouraged his country’s youth to desire a stable environment that would provide them with better lives.[31]

Assad’s regime has been a continued period of oppression for Syrians, rather than an age of change. Professor David Lesch wrote that Assad “has been transformed from a potential agent of change to a figure almost universally seen as a brutal dictator with the blood of his people on his hands.”[32] Haitham Maleh Foundation, a Syrian rights organization based in Brussels, estimated that 4,500 political prisoners and people who have spoken out against the regime were kept imprisoned in 2010.[33] The Kurdish minority has also been denied rights and has been treated unfairly, with hundreds of thousands being denied their citizenship. Additionally, despite Assad’s statement in 2005 that “the coming period will be one of freedom for political parties,” parties besides the longstanding and powerful Ba’arth party were not given self determination until 2011, when concessions were made allowing the formation of new parties.[34]However, until February 27, 2012 when the Constitution was altered, the Ba’arth party was still rendered supreme and the sole ruling party by article 8 of the Constitution of Syria.[35] The regime has also strictly censored media outlets and global websites, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and for a period of time starting on November 29, 2012, Assad shut down the Internet for the entire country as well as cellular service in several areas.[36] These restrictions, in today’s modern world, alienated and infuriated the people, and in particular the youth

Although few and largely ineffective, several reforms were initiated by Bashar al-Assad in an attempt to calm his people when the protests began in Syria. He issued decrees to grant citizenship to thousands of Kurds and abolish state security courts, which prosecuted those who challenged his government. Most notably, on April 22, 2011, he ended the state of emergency, a law that had been in affect since the Ba’arth party seized power in 1963 and had provided the government with the authority to arrest people who were believed to pose a threat.[37]

However, at the core, Assad is corrupt and dictatorial, and this has allowed the Arab Spring to take hold and rage in Syria. Analysts have found that Bashar al-Assad has amassed up to 1.5 billion dollars, held in offshore tax havens in places such as Russia and Hong Kong. One analyst stated that his assets “are held, not just by Assad himself, but by extended family members, including second cousins and uncles, and by business partners and their advisors.” The Assads are also deeply entrenched with their country, owning between 60 and 70 percent of Syria’s assets before the revolution.[38] This presents a stark contrast to the widespread poverty plaguing Syria.

The president has also been intolerant of the rebels, and has taken controversial actions. He has led a brutal massacre of his civilians, and has used and threatened to use dangerous and inhumane tactics as did his father previously. In December, 2012, news sources reported that bombs filled with the deadly nerve agent Sarin, illegal since 1993, were being prepared to be used against the rebel forces. Sarin was previously used by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, during an assault that killed thousands of Kurds.[39] Syria has also been the only country in 2012 to place new landmines, which have been used along the borders with Lebanon and Turkey. Cluster munitions, or cluster bombs, have been dropped on civilian areas.[40] In a speech given in Damascus on January 6, 2013, his first public address in 7 months, he maintained his belief about the protestors, that “the enemies of the people are the enemies of God, and the enemies of God will burn in hell.[41]

The theory that the Assad regime has been the greatest factor in the revolution is supported by the fact that he has maintained power during his country’s involvement in Arab Spring for nearly two years. Some still support Assad, believing him to be“ a misunderstood patriot, fighting to preserve his nation’s territorial integrity.”[42] Most, both in and outside of Syria, do not. On August 18, 2011, President Obama imposed additional sanctions against the regime and called for Assad to step down from power, stating that, “the future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people…he has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”[43] However, as the new year, 2013, began, Assad has remained in power. On December 29, 2012, the foreign minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, stated that Assad “has repeatedly said, both publicly and privately…that he has no plans to go anywhere, that he will stay in his post until the end…there is no possibility of changing this position.”[44]

The “Arab Spring” has had a profound impact in many countries in or near the Middle East, including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Syria. Change has been a constant theme of these revolutionary events, although many of the causes in each country are different. In Syria, while there were many factors that caused the Arab Spring to take hold and led to the civil war, the oppressive nature of the current regime of Bashar al-Assad has been the most significant. Assad’s tyranny in particular has not only been a primary cause but also a contributing source of many of those other issues in Syria. Furthermore, Assad has not just been the greatest inciting factor of the revolution, but has had and will continue to have among the greatest impacts on the outcome. With a tense and bitter sectarian conflict, poor economic conditions, and tens of thousands of people already killed, Bashar al-Assad’s further actions and decisions will determine and shape the future of Syria, and impact the success and legacy of the Arab Spring.


[1] Ben Brumfield and Yousuf Basil, “Syria’s Grim Toll Continues into 2013,” Cnn, Jan. 2013, 1 Jan. 2013

[2] Joe Sterling and Salma Abdelaziz, “U.N.’s Syria Death Toll Jumps Dramatically to 60,000-Plus,” CNN, Jan. 2013, 3 Jan. 2013

[3] Kenneth Roth, “Time to Abandon the Autocrats and Embrace Rights,” Human Rights Watch, 2012, 1 Jan. 2013

[4] Luke Harding, “Up to 28,000 Syrians Have ‘Disappeared’ Since Uprising Began,” The Guardian, Oct. 2012, 26 Dec. 2012

[5] Abu Dhabi, “Up to 335,000 People Have Fled Syria Violence,” Reuters, Oct. 2012, 28 Oct. 2012

[6] Kareem Fahim, “Slap to a Man’s Pride Set Off Tumult in Tunisia,” The New York Times, Jan. 2011, 8 Dec. 2012

[7] “Let Them Eat Baklava,” The Economist, Mar. 2012, 8 Dec. 2012

[8] Paul Iddon, “A Recap of the Syrian Crisis to Date,” Digital Journal, July 2012, 17 Nov. 2012

[9] “Syrian Protesters Plan ‘Day of Rage’,” The Independent, Feb. 2011, 8 Dec. 2012

[10] Iddon.

[11] Zeina Karam, “Assad Says Syria Immune from Unrest Roiling Egypt,” The Guardian, Jan. 2011, 28 Oct. 2012

[12] Glen Carey and Vivian Salama, “Middle East Leaders Address Unemployment in Arab Spring Wake,” Bloomberg Businessweek, Oct. 2011, 22 Dec. 2012

[13] “Unemployment Rate (%),”Index Mundi, Jan. 2011, 22 Dec. 2012

[14] “Syrian Arab Republic,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Sept. 2012, 22 Dec. 2012

[15] Joshua Landis, “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime is Likely to Survive to 2013,” Middle East Policy Council, 1 Jan. 2013

[16] Ashley Fantz and Joe Sterling, “Syria’s Endgame in Sight as Rebels Advance,” CNN, Dec. 2012, 1 Jan. 2013

[17] Jessica Elgot, “Russia Is ‘Illegally’ Arming Syria, Says Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan, After Plane Intercepted,” The Huffington Post, Nov. 2012, 30 Dec. 2012

[18] Kareem Fahim and Rick Gladstone, “Syrian General in Charge of Stopping Defections Becomes a Defector,” The New York Times, Dec. 2012, 26 Dec. 2012

[19] “Rural Poverty in Syria,” Rural Poverty Portal, 22 Dec. 2012

[20] Massoud Derhally, “Syrian Inflation Hit 36.1% in June As Revolt Goes On,” Arabian Business, Aug. 2012, 22 Dec. 2012

[21] “Syria Inflation Rate (Consumer Prices),” Index Mundi, 22 Dec. 2012

[22] “Syria Profile,” BBC News, Dec. 2012, 30 Dec. 2012

[23] Jackson Diehl, “Lines in the Sand: Assad Plays the Sectarian Card,” World Affairs, May/June 2012, 26 Dec. 2012

[24] Zeina Khodr, “Inside Syria’s Sectarian Divide,” Al Jazeera, July 2012, 26 Dec. 2012

[25] Brumfield and Basil

[26] “Profile: Syrian City of Hama,” BBC News, Apr. 2012, 28 Oct. 2012

[27] Edward Djerejian, “Al-Assad Missed Chance to Reform Syria,” CNN, Feb. 2012, 8 Dec. 2012

[28] “Syria Profile.”

[29] James Bennet, “The Enigma of Damascus,” The New York Times, July 2005, 8 Dec. 2012

[30] “Syria: Al-Asad’s Decade in Power Marked by Repression,” Human Rights Watch, July 2010, 2 Jan. 2013

[31] David Lesch, “The Dictator of Damascus,” Foreign Policy, Sept. 2012, 2 Jan. 2013

[32] Lesch.

[33] “Syria: ‘A Kingdom of Silence’,” Al Jazeera, Feb. 2011, 2 Jan. 2013

[34] “Syria: Al-Asad’s Decade in Power Marked by Repression.”

[35] “Syrian President Allows New Political Parties, but Protestors ‘Will Not Be Fooled’,” The Huffington Post, Apr. 2011, 8 Dec. 2012

[36] “Assad Regime Cuts Internet Across Syria,” Haaretz, Nov. 2012, 1 Jan. 2013