The Failure of Diaspora Elites and Implications for the Syrian Crisis

Syrians carrying flag and protesting on top of car

By Michael Lynch, Research Intern, Center for Strategic Research
Edited by Dr. Denise Natali, CSR

Many would argue that the Arab Spring failed. This assumption of a squandered movement is largely based on differing perceptions of what the Arab Spring sought to bring about. If one were expecting liberal secular democracies emerging in the Middle-East, then disappointment is certain.

The reality is that the Arab Spring was never about democracy. It was about overthrowing the government that the general populous perceived as ailing them. Any confusion lies in the rhetoric of the leaders that emerged during the revolution and suggested that they were the champions of the movement. What seems to repeat itself is that in a power vacuum diaspora elites, who have been residing in the west until the uprisings, emerge from the political rubble and return home touting ambitions of western style democracy and governance. As the dust settles, the reality of the situation on the ground is much different than as advertised.

This emergence of diaspora leaders and their subsequent failures occur for several nearly universal reasons. The new leaders were educated in the west, speak very good English, and dress as proper western elites. The familiarity is comforting. These elites tell the US and its officials exactly what they want to hear. These propositions are the fantasies of a pro-west, democratic, and most importantly economically liberalized new state.

The problem; however, is that  that these leaders may have the backing of western institutions but, they have little or no legitimacy on the ground. They did not fight alongside the revolutionaries, they did not endure the hardships under the former leader, and when they grew tired of their situation, they abandoned their homeland only to return at a rather opportunistic time.

The crisis of elite legitimacy was the case not just during the Arab Spring but also in the reconstruction of Iraq and most post-conflict state building operations. (see;Afghanistan). Maliki and Allawai fled Iraq only to return after the invasion and other prominent figures have tended to go to schools in Western Europe. They are the antithesis to Muqtada al-Sadr, a Islamist and arguably militant leader who is from Baghdad, fought against western forces, and oversees several massive social programs in the slums of Iraq, which are now known as Sadr city.

This scenario has repeated itself in the aftermath of Arab Spring where exiled, traditionally western educated men, have returned to oversee the new government. Specific examples include:

  • Moncef Marzouki- Interim Tunisian President, fled to France in 2002. Studied medicine in Paris
  • Moncef Marzouki- Egyptian Opposition Leader possible presidential candidate, returned from Vienna where he was director of IAEA, Doctorate in International Law New York University
  • Abdurrahim al-Keib- Libyan Prime Minister, former engineering professor at University of Washington
  • Burhan Ghalioun- President of Syrian National Counsel, professor University of Paris Sorbonne

These diaspora leaders will not become the power brokers in the country for several reasons.  First, they are not able to distance themselves far enough from the former regime. While many had been long time activists, it appears longevity of polite resistance (op-eds in the New York Times) does not garner respect from the general populous in the Souks.  Rather, what the movements that did manage to gain the most momentum appear to the embodiment of the opposite ideology of the former regime.  In Tunisia and Egypt, formerly outlawed Islamist parties replaced secular, pro-western, modern, and highly militarized governments. In Libya, Ghadaffi’s rival tribal region Cyrenaica ousted him and the rest of his emplaced Tripolitania elites.

In each case, the opposition movement rallied around a direct opposing identity. Looking to throw off the shackles of the past and begin a new more prosperous era, they distanced themselves from the former system. This has happened in the Middle-East before, yet in the opposite direction. When Mustafa Kemal and the Young Turks ousted the Ottoman Empire, they wanted to establish a new governance that was as anti-Ottoman. Kemal replaced the Arabic script, moved the capitol from Istanbul and its Islamic architecture, and installed an entrenched secular ideology that still exists (however eroding) today.

The most prominent voice of the Syrian opposition movement is the Syrian National Counsel. The group was formed in Turkey, is composed of western elites, and was first conferred international legitimacy in Tunisia. The recognition of the SNC at the Friends of Syria Conference is problematic in itself. One would assume that the revolutionary factions would be too busy fighting in the streets of Damascus or under siege in Homs to take an international flight to attend a conference in at the La Palace hotel in Tunis.

The militant opposition, the Free Syrian Army, is also disadvantaged. First, it has no connection to the SNC, despite the SNC’s claims. The FSA is more of a network of lightly armed revolutionaries rather than an army as its name suggests. It has neither organizational hierarchy nor method of command and control. Unlike the armed opposition in Libya, the FSA lacks control over a geographic space and lacks a strategic stronghold like a Benghazi. Therefore when the question emerges about arming the opposition, it appears there is no consolidated military opposition to arm.

As the UN, United States, and other Western governments examine their options in Syria, there is a significant push to aid the Syrian opposition. The amount of fault lines the outcome of this conflict has is enormous.  It is a situation that will not just affect the Syrian people but the entire region.  It is worth noting that these perceived simple solutions such as “No-Kill Zones” or “Buffer Zones” or every ones favorite “Technical and Humanitarian Support” are never simple.  These simple plans never seem to include a “what happens next” (see; Afghanistan) or contingency guidelines.

It should be worth noting that the staple of low level conflict, a truck mounted machine gun known as a “technical”, got its name from aid workers in Africa arming militants using “technical assistance” grants.  Until there is a more unified and identifiable opposition as well as solidified power sharing agreements on what comes after Assad, the US needs to be cautious.

While the situation in Syria is grim, we need be weary that any misstep by the international community could escalate the situation to levels of violence far beyond what they are now. Any action in Syria risks crossing the Rubicon of Damascus.


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Filed under Middle East, Regional Studies

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