Foreign Policy Blogs

What Next?

The past 6 weeks have witnessed the most dramatic events in a generation for Syria. The phrase game changer doesn’t even begin to cover it. At the beginning of the “Arab Spring” Syria was seen as the steady, stable Arab nation that was immune to the revolutionary changes sweeping the region. 6 weeks ago, President Assad was still seen as a potential agent of reform. 6 weeks ago, everyone thought the Syrian regime still had time. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Stability and steadiness are words that some still attempt to attach to the Syrian regime, with diminishing levels of success, as government officials resign by the day and rumors abound of dissension within the military. President Assad has lost forever any credible claim to the banner of reform, for although he has made changes to the face of Syrian law in the past weeks, his army currently has its sights trained on the Syrian population. And the last thing this regime currently possesses is time; as evidenced by the dramatic deployment of the army to hot spots of resistance in the south, and the concerted effort made by government forces to arrest, and target, figures of the opposition. The big question is, what happens now?

What started as a fairly straight forward response to government failures, economic hardship, and state repression, has taken on a host of new dimensions. The heart of the Syrian protest movement from the start has been the rural poor that make up the majority of cities and villages that surround Damascus–the so called poverty belt–like Dera’a. Places overflowing with young men; men with economic opportunities ranging from little to none, and no way of improving their lot in life. Poorly educated, and excluded by way of class and sect, there was nowhere for the shebab to go. The arrest of a view taggers in Dera’a was just the spark that set off a an already smoldering tinderbox.

Instead of responding to calls for moderate reform, the regime responded, all too predictably, in heavy handed fashion. This set off a series of protests, and counter-protests, which remains ongoing. At each turn the regime has attempted, by various means, to take the steam out of the protests; promises of limited reforms, speeches, the formation of a new government, and now what appears to be a full fledged military response have all been tried. While it remains to be seen if the “Hama option” will succeed in quieting demonstrations, some feel it will eventually lead to much more violence.

From what I can tell, feelings within Syria are mixed. The thing about the demonstrations is that they haven’t really cracked Damascus or Aleppo, Syria’s two largest and most important cities, in a meaningful way. Yes, there have been protests at Damascus University and in Midan. Barzeh and Mua’damiyeh (two nearby Damascus suburbs) have both seen armed clashes. These events are small in comparison to the violence that has rocked the outlying suburbs, ie Dera’a and Douma, and Homs. Conclusion; the urban middle, and upper, classes have not embraced the uprising…yet.

The battle for that silent majority is what is now being waged. Fiercely. While many on the fence might share certain beliefs with the protest movement, they have not been given a reason to abandon the status quo. The opposition has done a fairly decent job of articulating what it is against, but a pretty bad job of stating what it is for. If I were a middle class Syrian I would be VERY reluctant to embrace a disparate movement which has lacked any sort of cohesion outside of the internet; especially if I knew the Assad security apparatus was there to punish me if that movement failed after I had supported it.

The bottom line is that the opposition has picked up most of the low hanging fruit, those who were at the bottom of the previous system, those who were predisposed to, and in need of, change; however, few outside that group seem to be joining in right now. In Egypt, it was the lawyers and doctors who put the final nail in Mubarak’s coffin. While reports of a Lawyer’s protest are circulating, the numbers will need to be much larger than the rumored 25 who actually showed up in front of The Palace of Justice.

There is also a fairly sizable pro-regime contingent within the country. Many have been convinced by the regime’s narrative of blaming violence on various outside elements, including armed gangs, islamist groups, and other assorted foreign agitators. This argument is not without merit, as incoming weapons shipments have been reportedly seized, and according to WikiLeaks, the US has been supporting Syrian opposition groups for years. There has also been some doubt cast on the motives of one of the most influential sources of online support for the opposition, as the administrator of the Syrian Revolution 2011 facebook page might have strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. There are also plenty of Syrians who have done quite well for themselves and just don’t want things to change.

Any way you slice it the outlook is grim. It seems that the regime, and the opposition, are willing to resort to whatever means are necessary to achieve their goals. Unfortunately those goals are entirely incompatible. Purely based on firepower, a handicapper would have to give the edge to the regime at this point. However, the regime’s claims of maintaining stability for the population at large have to lose credibility at some point. The President cannot continue to oversee an unstable situation, and profess to be the keeper of stability. Eventually that rhetoric will simply break down if a resolution is not found. There is also the snowball effect the regime’s violent tactics engender. If a person is on the fence trying to make up their mind about who to support, and a family member is killed, or arrested, by elements of the government, who will that person support? Especially in a semi-tribal society in which familial, clan, and sectarian pride, honor, and ties are often paramount.

Ultimately the regime cannot kill its way out of this problem. This is not 1982, no matter how much current events resemble that tragic moment in Syrian history. In this writer’s opinion it is too late for the Assad regime to save itself over the long term. Too many of that all important silent majority will never forget the behavior of the regime over the past few weeks. Syrians can easily see the results of popular uprisings in neighboring countries and I believe they simply will refuse to sacrifice their personal freedoms for this regime, no longer willing to trade freedom for security.

That being said, the short and medium terms are still up for grabs. The Assad regime is still significantly stronger than the opposition movement in terms of coercive force, and has shown a willingness to flex those muscles indiscriminately. It is quite conceivable that the regime will succeed in putting out this particular fire. However, it is also easy to see how the current conflict could be drawn out over a much longer period. Just today Robert Fisk and Joshua Landis, two Syria watchers with much more experience than I, both wrote editorials outlining the possibility of an escalation of violence, with Fisk openly discussing the possibility of civil war. This potential outcome cannot be brushed aside, as the opposition has shown staunch resilience in the face of ongoing violence, and the regime seems intent on doing whatever it can to maintain its hold on power.

The Syrian population will ultimately decide the victor of this contest, either through a proactive choice, or passive inaction; an outcome I don’t think Syrians are entirely prepared for, and something they certainly wouldn’t have predicted not so long ago.

What a difference 6 weeks can make.



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.