Syrian Reform or Revolution: What is to be done?

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Around 300 activists, including Syrians living in Switzerland, gathered to protest against President Bashar Assad's regime during a 'Jasmin march for the Syrian people's freedom' in Geneva. (Photo: AFP - Fabrice Coffrini)

By: Muhammad Dibo

Published Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Syria stands at a crossroads. The status quo of protest and regime crackdwon might not end soon, but the situation may also escalate as protests in the street continue as well as the killing of civilians and security forces. Foreign intervention or the regime’s downfall may not be the worst outcomes for Syria. Civil war remains a distinct possibility and would result in a lasting power vacuum, with civilian forces unprepared to take over the regime. In Egypt and Tunisia, opposition parties survived in some capacity over the years, despite the states’ authoritarian regimes. No such opposition existed in Syria until the recent uprising. And unlike Turkey, Syria has no independent military institutions to oversee a transition towards democracy.

The regime, street protesters, and the opposition all have a role in determining Syria’s future, but only the regime carries the burden of solving the current crisis. Although it lost its legitimacy when the first martyr fell and tanks entered the streets, the regime still holds the cards, so to speak, and is capable of resolving the conflict.

Opposing actors in the Syrian drama have dug in their heels — both loyalists and opposition. They seem blindly devoted to their own perspectives and preoccupied with attempts to achieve them. This is why there is no dialogue between Syrians; each faction totally rejects the other.

Regime’s Choices: Security Solution or Dialogue?

The regime may continue pursuing security-oriented policies to address problems in the country. But this approach has not calmed protests and has heightened chances of foreign intervention in Syrian affairs.

The regime might also choose national dialogue to quell the unrest. A higher committee was formed to pursue this mediation, but the government offered no guarantees for the dialogue and continued in parallel its repressive security measures against the opposition. The proposed dialogue is not an option, especially as opposition groups have refused to participate in it. The call for dialogue may be an attempt by the regime to stall until the situation in Syria calms down, at which point they can renege on their promises. Undermining these calls for dialogue, the regime has not demonstrated its commitment to a fair process, utilizing its security apparatus to threaten members of the opposition, banning opposition websites and newspapers, and blocking the Internet for days on end. Meanwhile, the official media continues to accuse prominent Syrians of treason against the state.

Dialogue with the regime will fail if it does not provide a credible transition to a new Syrian state. And even if protests stop calling for the regime’s downfall, Syrians will not relinquish their demand for change. A transition may take months or years, but it would inevitably lead to the regime’s collapse. Some high ranking officials may remain in power, but the overall character of the government would necessarily change. This may be precipitated through a compromise allowing free and clean elections or, as inspired by the Chilean model, a transition towards democracy where the mechanisms of state power are slowly dismantled and replaced by democratic institutions.

Fears of Civil War in Syria

Discussions surrounding the Syrian uprising have not addressed the existence of sectarianism in the country and the need to mollify it. Sectarianism still exists in the Syrian subconscious, concealed underneath Syrians’ identities as either patriots, nationalists, socialists, communists, resisters, objectors, and so on. Yet this sectarian identity is very influential, especially in times of crisis. Those denying the existence of sectarianism in Syria are acting in willful blindness. However, to say that it is rampant is also untrue, because sectarian problems have not yet exploded in Syria as they have in nearby countries. There are symptoms of this problem in Syria, that, if unabated, might develop into sectarian strife with the possibility of civil war. On the one hand, problems may result from the continuing political vacuum combined with unchecked sectarian pressure and foreign meddling. Alternately, national forces may be able to steer those with sectarian tendencies towards an effective national assimilation.

The opposition often accuses the regime of exploiting sectarianism as a means of control. They claim that the regime stokes fears of sectarian warfare, inciting one sect against another in order to win allegiance from minority groups. The claim itself proves that the populace holds some sectarian notions, notions that the regime willingly exploits. Denying this reality is not productive.

Although the regime has encouraged sectarianism, the problem existed prior and will continue to exist long after the regime’s downfall. The supposed secularism of many nationalist and leftist parties’ only served as a refuge to hide sectarian affiliations. Every Syrian political party since the 1960s has had distinct sectarian or ethnic characteristics. Even neighborhoods within Damascus and other Syrian cities are divided according to sect, reflecting a sectarian awareness among the populace.

The opposition also bears sectarian elements. The Friday of Free Women (Jum’at al-harair), a protest held on May 13 honoring women killed and imprisoned during the uprising, bears an Islamic label derived from the word hurra, denoting Muslim women, as opposed to non-Muslim, slavish women.

The Syrian people have no desire for a sectarian war. But sadly, the struggle is not just between the regime and its people. It involves other interests and powers. Foremost among these groups, the countries pressuring the Syrian regime are largely interested in Israel’s security. Given the current climate in the region, we must recognize that Israel may not benefit from real democracy in Syria and the Arab world.

The partial victory — partial because the outcome remains unclear — of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions undermined the stability and regional support Israel enjoyed over the past decade. This new reality was reflected during regional events commemorating the Palestinian Nakba and Naksa, days commemorating the 1949 expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine and the 1967 Arab defeat at the hands of Israel, respectively. These non-violent protests formed in opposition to Israel’s use of unmitigated violence as a means of control. If Israel’s neighbors form democratic states and adopt methods of civil democratic struggle, Israel loses its leverage: the need for violence disappears as does Israel’s claim that it is the only democracy amid a sea of authoritarian regimes. If democratic change sweeps the Arab world, Israel will be forced to change. Tunisia and Egypt have already set out towards democracy, now Israel’s only option is to abort the process in Syria, possibly by instigating a civil war.

Other parties may also be interested in a Syrian civil war. Modern history offers a wealth of examples where civil wars were precipitated by foreign intervention: Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia, and Iraq. When it comes to Syria, western interests intersect with those of Israel and with the interests of deep pocketed Syrians living abroad, who now find themselves without a place in the new Syria. For the latter group, civil war might endear them to the West as happened in Iraq during the invasion and occupation.

The New York Times alluded to this potential in an article published 14/6/2011. The article sourced an anonymous American official who claimed that sectarianism was on the rise in Syria and would not disappear. The source adds that the violence in northwestern Syria “will inflame the feelings of the Alawites and make them feel more like one group. It will inflame their hatred of the Sunnis and vice versa.”

Coming from an American official, these ideas suggest an intention to promote sectarianism ahead of party politics. Sects create a sharp division in society and lead to the formation of religious parties. A nationally-divided, sectarian system will result, like those in Lebanon and Iraq. Countries who adopt a sectarian system remain under the mercy of foreign powers, as each sect vies for a foreign sponsor. The seeming harmony between America, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood must be considered in this light.

Members of the opposition, particularly in Turkey, deal with Western countries as though they are charities spreading democracy and aid to the world’s people. This view is wrong and the opposition needs to clarify its position on these issues. The opposition conference in the Samiramis hotel did well to reject both foreign intervention and civil war as options. Yet some members of the opposition must stop calling those who disagree with them traitors. Silencing people not viewed as central to the revolution is harmful to the cause. In truth, no voice is above criticism and the opposition must strive to create space for legitimate criticism, no matter the circumstances.

The Plausibility of Foreign Intervention

Foreign intervention may become inevitable if the regime continues its repression without forwarding real political initiatives and convincing the street of its seriousness. Without an encompassing national alternative able to stand up to the authorities and to foreign interests, people will seek help from outside, simply as a means of self-preservation. There are already forces working locally, regionally, and internationally to compel foreign intervention. This could take place through the guise of civil war or through a UN Security Council, as happened in Libya. Gilbert Achcar, in an interview with al-Akhbar (22/6/2011), said that the situation in Syria is similar to the one in Libya, in terms of the West’s perspective. In both Egypt and Tunisia, the army under Western patronage was able to contain the revolutions. However, in Syria and Libya, the army sided with the regime and the West will first resort to non-military means to protect their interests.

The Syrian opposition faces great difficulty in assuaging the populace of their fears of foreign intervention while managing the complex situation on the ground. If the the opposition does not remain abreast of these realities, they will guide their country towards an abyss. Opposition activists must equip themselves because they may soon face all at once the regime, foreign intervention, and civil war.

Saving the Regime From Itself

The regime’s continued reliance on security solutions in face of popular unrest places it in peril. Its rejection of dialogue that secures Syria’s transition from an emergency state — that has lasted since the 1949 Husni al-Zaim coup — to a free state with presidential and parliamentary elections and a modern political party law also places the state in peril.

What happened in Syria came as a surprise to everyone: the regime, the opposition, and the street, which fast discovered its power. The unpredictable nature of these events also yielded surprising results. The regime finds itself befuddled, relying on its failing security apparatus and without an effective political solution. The street, which began its protests hoping to overthrow the regime, has demonstrated its inability to achieve its goals or offer an alternative. The same goes for the traditional opposition inside and outside Syria. The opposition conference in Antalia betrayed this reality and proved the absence of a unified vision, as well as mechanisms to implement change. Similar attacks were levied against the Samiramis conference, accusing its participants of treachery before it met or produced a statement.

Each group in the uprising faces a crisis, but solutions may arise as a result of this crisis. The regime must learn that its desperate attempts to stop the protests and impose cosmetic reforms are not effective, and that dialogue for the sake of dialogue is also useless. The traditional opposition, particularly secular intellectuals, must recognize that they can no longer remain as spectators, waiting for the protest movement to save them or to join the regime’s dialogue. Spectating is both impossible and disastrous. Finally, the protest movement has to realize that their demand for “the downfall of the regime,” without an articulated agenda, is not a reasonable alternative for many ordinary people.

All three sides reside in the realm of impossibility. Each have to bring themselves back to reality and find solutions through authentic dialogue. This requires a move away from desires for revenge against the regime, as attempts to destroy it may push the regime towards further repression.

The regime must be saved from itself. It must end its repression and allow the opposition to develop its vision for a political solution. The regime may then engage an established opposition as equal partners. Similarly, the protest movements should be allowed to develop leadership and programs so they may participate in this dialogue and contribute towards a new, free Syria.

Future protests should reject foreign intervention and civil war in favor of dialogue with the regime. This dialogue should follow mutually agreed-upon rules and not those exclusively chosen by the regime. This dialogue should aim for a gradual dismantling of the regime. Without other viable alternatives, the future looks bleak and full of danger. Even if the regime is overthrown, by revolution or foreign intervention, the political vacuum, a weak civil society, and ongoing and heavy bloodshed will make the task of rebuilding Syria long and exhausting.

Muhammad Dibo is a Syrian author and political commentator

This article is an edited translation from the series The Great Syrian Revolt published in al-Adab Magazine (Issue 7-9-2011). Al-Adab was founded by author, literary critic and renowned linguist Suheil Idriss in 1953. Currently published by his son, Samah Idriss, who is also an author, critic, and activist, al-Adab is a primary source and record of Arab cultural, social, and political debate and discourse.

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