In war or peace, development mode or revolt, Syria is always the most interesting and intriguing country in the Arab world, as it is now while the government faces a serious national rebellion that it can neither defeat nor co-opt into submission.
The domestic intricacies of the revolt under way in Syria during the past four months have been well captured in a new report by the International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling, a respected authority on Syrian affairs. The report, available from the ICG website, is titled “Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-Motion Revolution.” It makes the point that the revolt in Syria is serious because many of those who now challenge the government include several rural constituencies that had been the original benefactors and supporters of the Baath Party and the Assad-led regime when they took power some four decades ago.
The current situation sees growing demonstrations that have not yet achieved critical mass on a national scale, countered by large-scale demonstrations supporting the president and the status quo. Harling writes: “What is clear, however, is the degree to which a wide array of social groups, many once pillars of the regime, have turned against it and how relations between state and society have been forever altered … The regime’s first mistake in dealing with the protests was to misdiagnose them. The regime also got it wrong when it tried to characterize its foes. Syrian authorities claim they are fighting a foreign-sponsored, Islamist conspiracy, when for the most part they have been waging war against their original social constituency. When it first came to power, the Assad regime embodied the neglected countryside, its peasants and exploited underclass. Today’s ruling elite has forgotten its roots. It has inherited power rather than fought for it, grown up in Damascus, mingled with and mimicked the ways of the urban upper class, and led a process of economic liberalization that has benefited large cities at the provinces’ expense. The state abandoned vast areas of the nation, increasingly handling them through corrupt and arrogant security forces. There is an Islamist undercurrent to the uprising, no doubt. But it is a product of the regime’s decades of socio-economic neglect far more than it reflects an outside conspiracy by religious fundamentalists.”
The Syrian situation captures very neatly the basic drivers of the many revolts across the Arab world. Ordinary citizens who for decades supported and benefited from government policies that broadly improved living conditions for most of the people found themselves in the past decade squeezed by the twin forces of socio-economic stagnation and political humiliation – while a small minority of fellow citizens grew fabulously wealthy because of their connections with the centers of power.
President Bashar Assad has not played his cards well, most notably a degree of genuine domestic support that still manifests itself, and widespread regional and global reluctance to take a chance on the consequences of regime collapse. The two-day national “reform dialogue” that took place on Sunday and Monday is the latest of a series of such attempts by the president to soften the opposition by moving towards limited democratic transitions in various spheres.
The problem he encounters now, however, is that it may be too late for either “dialogue” or “reform,” because so many Syrians and others abroad have lost confidence in his security-based style of governance. In other words, the Syrian regime’s core legitimacy has been badly shaken by the expanding domestic challenge. It has also been further bludgeoned by the American and French ambassadors’ visits to Hama last weekend to show their countries’ support for the democratic values the demonstrators seek to enjoy in Syria.
Reform and dialogue may have worked months or years ago, but they will no longer satisfy the escalating demands of the demonstrators who want a more comprehensive and democratic reconfiguration of how political authority, security operations, and economic power are managed. It also seems clear that major foreign powers are now nudging and even pushing the Syrian leadership to consider such fundamental changes, which would be unprecedented in modern Arab history. Genuine democratic self-transformation has never happened at the hands of incumbent Arab regimes in modern times. The chances of Syria being the first example of this are slim.
Three options would then seem to be the most likely. One, the government uses more force to subdue the citizen revolt for some time to come. Two, the opposition tires and accepts to engage in dialogue that leads to some political liberalization, keeping the current leadership in place. Three, a sustained revolt that shatters the economy, pushes millions of Syrians into dire economic straits, and ultimately brings down the regime because cracks appear in one or more of the three key constituencies for the ruling authority: the Alawite minority from which the regime draws disproportionate support and manpower, the security and military services, or the mainstream commercial elite in the major towns.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.