The fast pace of developments in and around Syria in the past week has pushed the country more quickly toward the end of Bashar Assad’s regime, a situation many of us thought was imminent last autumn. He did not fall then for reasons that are evident today. The first is that Assad’s strategy from the start of the uprising against his rule two years ago this month turned out to be that he would, first, bludgeon into submission civilians who demonstrated against him (as his father had done in Hama 30 years earlier). And when that failed he would cede territory to them, but continue to hit their areas hard using air power and missiles. The Syrian government that ruled nationally has disappeared, to be replaced by fortified military bases tightly controlled by Assad loyalists, cousins and desperado fellow Alawites who are prepared to destroy Syria to save themselves.
The second is that this is a losing strategy, because the regime’s circling of its wagons in a few areas makes it more vulnerable than ever to the continued successes of Islamist rebels and the enhanced strengthening of the secular rebels (thanks to aid and training from Arab and foreign powers). As both prongs of the armed opposition advance on the regime’s isolated strongholds, and rockets fall in the center of Damascus, Assad’s constricted bases will panic, and ultimately collapse.
Third is the evident turmoil within the Syrian opposition coalition, coupled with this week’s bomb attack against the head of the Free Syrian Army. Unable to close ranks and work methodically to replace Assad, the weak Syrian opposition continues to flounder, despite considerable domestic and international support. It is worth remembering and repeating: A credible national opposition movement cannot be created and funded by Arab Gulf and Western powers. Rather, it must emanate solely from the legitimacy bestowed by those millions of brave Syrians who continue to fight on the ground inside their country.
Fourth, the opposition’s weaknesses underlie the major developments that now shape the situation: The anti-Assad uprising has turned into an armed conflict; Islamist opposition groups (including many non-Syrian nationals) have earned leading positions in the uprising, due mainly to their military successes; and regional and foreign actors such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States, Jordan and others are increasingly assisting all the armed opposition groups. Consequently, Syria has become the latest front in a regional struggle for control of Arab governments between secular nationalists and pan-Islamists. The Islamists seem to be doing well now, for the reasons mentioned above, but I suspect the secular nationalists will triumph in the end.
I have not been inside Syria for two years, but I sense that the political and military ascendance of Islamists is a short-term phenomenon that reflects their military prowess, the substantial aid they receive from abroad, and the parallel weaknesses of the secular nationalist opposition.
The heart and soul of Syrian society for a century has been neither sectarian nor religious. But in the face of state collapse and widespread insecurity, Syrians will naturally turn to sect and faith if that is their key to survival. If the fighting and destruction continue for a long time, sect and faith will reshape the country that emerges, probably laying the foundation for long-term tensions that provide structural entry points for others in the region to interfere in Syrian affairs. Syria could turn into a large Lebanon, should current trends continue for a year or more.
If, on the other hand, the Assad regime falls quickly and is replaced by a legitimate government that receives substantial foreign assistance during the transition and reconstruction period, I would expect two important developments to occur: Syria’s traditional secular nationalism and cosmopolitanism will reaffirm themselves, and this will reduce the influence of those Islamists whose sudden prominence – Presto! Meet the Nusra Front! – is due to their military actions.
The truly fascinating and relevant point across the region these days, especially in North Africa, is not the rise of Islamists, but rather their incompetence and decline in the face of their being held accountable politically by their own people. Syria will follow suit in due course.
Some Syrian Islamists who enjoy local legitimacy for nonmilitary reasons (tribal links, proven service delivery, response to moderate indigenous Islamic values) will help shape the new Syria that will soon emerge. As in all the other uprisings and revolutions across the Arab World, the single most important criterion to look for in spotting the likely new leaderships and regimes is not military might, financial capability, media attention, or foreign political support. Rather, it is the irreplaceable factor that shapes all credible and stable governments around the world, and that has now mercifully entered the Arab public political sphere in small doses: indigenous legitimacy, expressed through the principle of the consent of the governed.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.