What if the demonstrations in Syria fail?

By Adel Al Toraifi

The majority of analysts examining Syrian affairs recently have been focusing on the regime’s evil history and on how the time has come for the majority to rebel against the rule of the minority, and reject five decades of the Baath party’s iron-fisted rule. Meanwhile, others are focusing on the mistakes being made by President Bashar al-Assad, in the manner in which he is handling the events taking place on the ground, presupposing that the regime is capable of containing the sudden uprising that has hit a number of Syrian cities by offering a package of concessions. However, other scenarios can still possibly occur, for the Syrian regime continues to hang on, and as of yet there are no signs of any major splits or division within the [Syrian] military or political institutions, whilst the demonstrations have yet to reach the regime’s important bases in the capital city Damascus.

Does this mean that the regime is secure? Not necessarily, for developments are taking place hour by hour, whilst the momentum [of the protestors] is increasing with every passing Friday. However it is important that we acknowledge the possibility that the regime may not collapse in the next few months, and we need only look at the Yemeni and Libyan examples to realize this. In Yemen, deep divisions have occurred within the ruling party’s structure, as well as amongst the President’s associates – or so we believe – and also within the army and amongst the Yemeni embassies abroad. In spite of all of this, the President still remains in power and continues to negotiate and maneuver to the extent that he prompted neighboring countries to propose an initiative that includes all possible guarantees for him in the event that he decides to step down. Whilst in Libya, the eastern cities joined together to stage a rebellion, whilst a number of senior state officials resigned from the government in the early days of the uprising. Despite the UN Security Council’s resolution and the NATO-led air raids, Gaddafi’s troops, who remain relatively loyal to him, remain firmly entrenched along the battle’s front-lines. Of course, these examples are not fixed representations [of what may happen in Syria], as the situation on the ground changes day by day or indeed hour by hour. However for regimes that are suffering from the same crisis [as Libya and Yemen], like Syria, the manner in which other regimes manage to cling to power is of great concern. This is to say that if others are capable of using force and arms to disperse demonstrators, then they [the Syrians] can also do so. Similarly, if superpowers have refrained from intervening in certain countries where clashes have broken out between the regime and demonstrators – due to their preoccupation with the situation in Libya – then this means that they [the Syrians] can do the same.

There can be no doubt that the demonstrators who have taken to the streets in Syria are risking their lives, and they no longer accept lacking even the most basic political and economic rights under the current regime. However as for their actual capacity to overthrow the regime, or their ability to replace it with a better alternative that can fill the security and political vacuum, this remains unclear at the moment.

The [Syrian] street is moving spontaneously, which means that there is no leadership, and there is no opposition party or internal institution that can take control of the country during a transitional period, should the regime collapse. There is another issue that means the Syrian crisis is hard to predict, and that is the lack of neutral observers and media outlets that are accurately reporting the situation in the country today. The Syrian regime has been a closed one for decades, and this is why there are no neutral studies or observations that allow us to draw a conclusion as to whether the regime will inevitably collapse, or whether Syria – as we have come to know it as an independent state – is capable of remaining unified should the country slide into chaos, and ethnic and sectarian divisions come to the surface.

In an article entitled “Syriana: After Bashar al-Assad, the deluge” (published on 20 April 2011 by Foreign Policy magazine) Robert D. Kaplan argues that the Syrian state would never have remained unified and cohesive over the past decades were it not the iron-fisted rule of the Baath party. In the period between 1947 and 1954, three national elections were held with each government ending in failure. Until 1970 [when Hafaz al-Assad took power] Syria witnessed 21 changes of government for a variety of reasons, most prominently the lack of a [Syrian] national identity which would bring together the different sects and ethnic groups. This is why the cross-border Baathist ideology, with dreams of a “Greater Syria”, enabled the regime to remain in power and justify its existence, by putting forward a scenario of compulsory unity in the face of an endless struggle. The regime was successful in exploiting the region’s minority card, and it further consolidated its presence by allying with Shiite Iran over the past three decades, in the face of Iraqi threats. Following the invasion of Iraq, it was made clear that Syria was the next target for “regime change” by the neo-conservatives [in the US].

The current situation can be traced to the position of minorities – whether in Syria or Lebanon. The active elements in the Syrian demonstrations, for the most part, are Sunnis and Kurds, the country’s largest sect and ethnic group. This does not mean that there are no Druze, Alawites, or Christians in the opposition, for small-scale opposition groups and trends have been formed that incorporate all social classes and ethnic and sectarian components. However it is necessary here to be aware that the ongoing popular uprising has a significant ethnic and sectarian dimension, and this is something that simultaneously threatens the regime, yet also strengthens its position. In other words, whilst this Sunni and Kurdish majority-led uprising may impact upon the Syrian regime, the other ethnic and sectarian minorities will support the regime and form a cohesive force that will allow the Syrian regime to withstand this leaderless uprising.

Kaplan wrote that “the Iraq war propelled millions of refugees to those two latter countries [Syria and Jordan], but the impact of Syria becoming a Levantine Yugoslavia might be even greater.”

In his book “Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom” (Zed Books, 2003), Alan George tells a joke that was circulating in Syria following the failure of the “Damascus Spring”, a period of political debate following the death of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, after his son President Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency. This period saw some Syrian intellectuals and activists encouraged to call for greater political and civil freedoms, however just six months later the regime suppressed these activities and put an end to any chance of social or civil openness, thereby making it impossible to lift the yoke of the Baath party. The joke tells the story of a deep hole in a Damascus street, which continues to injure pedestrians and damage vehicles, due to the lack of a warning sign. Some people wrote to the concerned authorities, asking them to fill in the hole or erect a warning sign. However the officials are content with assigning a nurse and an ambulance to be stationed close to the hole, in order to assist the injured. However the injuries soon increase day by day, to the point where the residents decide to complain about it to the district’s Baath party. The case is then transferred to the central authority of the ruling Baath party. Years later, and following numerous exchanged correspondence, the government decides to construct a hospital next to the hole, named after the late President’s son. However when this solution fails to appease the angry people, the highest authority in the country, namely the Regional Congress of the Baath Party, decides to dig up the entire street and tear down all the buildings! In Syria today, the hole of disagreements and division is too large to be filled!

First published in Asharq Alawsat newspaper on Thursday 28 April 2011 

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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