Syrians are approaching the one-year anniversary of what has become the most tragic, far-reaching and uncertain episode of the Arab uprisings. Since protesters first took to the streets in towns and villages across the country in March 2011, they have paid an exorbitant price in a domestic crisis that has become intertwined with a strategic struggle over the future of Syria.

The regime of Bashar al-Asad has fought its citizens in an unsuccessful attempt to put down any serious challenge to its four-decade rule, leaving several thousand dead. Many more languish in jail. The regime has polarized the population, rallying its supporters by decrying the protesters as saboteurs, Islamists and part of a foreign conspiracy. In order to shore up its own ranks, it has played on the fears of the ‘Alawi minority from which the ruling family hails, lending the conflict sectarian overtones. All these measures have pushed a growing number of young men on the street — and a small but steady stream of army defectors — to put up an armed response, while impelling large sections of the opposition to seek financial, political and military help from abroad. Loyalist units have taken considerable casualties from the armed rebels, and the regime has hit back with disproportionate force.

Events have aided the regime in its attempt to dismiss the protest movement and further tip the balance from nominal reform to escalating repression, fueling a vicious cycle that has turned sporadic clashes into a nascent civil war. In a sense, the regime may already have won: By pushing frustrated protesters to take up arms and the international community to offer them support, it is succeeding in disfiguring what it saw as the greatest threat to its rule, namely the grassroots and mostly peaceful protest movement that demanded profound change. In another sense, the regime may already have lost: By treating too broad a cross-section of the Syrian people as the enemy, and giving foreign adversaries justification to act, it seems to have forged against itself a coalition too big to defeat. At a minimum, Bashar al-Asad has reversed his father’s legacy: Through tenacious diplomacy over three decades (from his takeover in 1970 to his death in 2000), Hafiz al-Asad made Syria, formerly a prize in the regional strategic game, a player in its own right. In less than a year, Bashar’s obduracy will have done the opposite, turning actor into arena.

At the start of February, the regime stepped up its assault by using heavy weapons against rebellious neighborhoods of Homs, the third-largest city in Syria and the most religiously mixed one to become a hub of the uprising. The escalation was bolstered by Russia and China, which on February 4 blocked the Arab League-inspired, Western-backed attempts to pass a resolution at the UN Security Council condemning the violence and suggesting a plan for a negotiated solution by which Asad would hand over power to a deputy, who would form a unity government ahead of elections. The assumption in Moscow, which fears instability and views the struggle in Syria as a contest with the West, is that the regime will succeed in defeating both the ongoing protest movement and the emerging insurgency. In so doing, runs Russian reasoning, Syria’s regime will reassert its control over the country and compel at least significant parts of the opposition to negotiate on its own terms — preferably in Moscow.

Losing Control

This outcome seems unlikely. Behind all the bloody, one-off battles lies a picture of this country of 23 million slipping out of the regime’s control. Over a period of 11 months, the regime has altogether failed to cow protesters through its mixture of violent intimidation and offers of paltry reforms.

Time and time again, the regime has proved its promises to reform, already grudging and tardy, to be largely empty as well. The lifting of emergency law in April 2011, for example, did not stop the shooting or arbitrary detention of protesters. Pulling in the leash on the security services, whose harassment of citizens fed the anger of the uprising, is off the table, for fear that it would weaken the regime’s hold on the country. Any measure that could jeopardize the ruling clique’s unaccountable reign is equally out of the question. What can be changed is what matters least. The Baath Party’s role will certainly decrease, but Syria is a one-party state no longer: It is a state of a few families and multiple security services, who have long used resistance to US imperialism and Israeli occupation as a substitute for clear political vision. Participation in the legislative branch of government will be opened to the tamest of oppositions and perhaps in the cabinet as well; real decision-making happens in the presidential palace, anyway. The regime has set the ceiling on reforms low. Its calls for “dialogue” are designed only to legitimize this course of action.

Rather than reform, the regime’s default setting has been to push society to the brink. As soon as protests started, security agents hung posters warning of sectarian strife. State media showed staged footage of arms being found in a mosque in Dir‘a, the southern city where protests first broke out, and warned that a sit-in in Homs on April 18 was an attempt to erect a mini-caliphate. This manipulation of Syrians meant the regime was confident that the threat of civil war would force citizens and outside players alike to agree on preserving the existing power structure as the only bulwark against collapse. In an October interview, Asad reiterated threats of an “earthquake” and “ten Afghanistans” in the region. The regime’s narrative boils down to, “Après moi le deluge.”

It is doubtful that this blackmail will work. All too many Syrians have buried friends killed during protests (or, for that matter, funerals, which routinely come under fire), or have been shuffled through the regime’s ghastly prisons (which consistently fail to break them, radicalizing them instead), or have watched their homes destroyed and looted. They say they will not stop, whatever the cost — and the costs are already huge. Having weakened its home front beyond repair, the regime is also vulnerable to growing pressure from abroad. In particular, the United States and Saudi Arabia, who have long feuded with Syria over its role as a linchpin of Iranian influence, have been given an opportunity to change the Syrian regime that they could never have dreamed of.

The regime may win a pyrrhic victory, by bringing about a civil war that will destroy its own structures, wreck the country and suck in the outside world. It would be a sad end for the most surprising explosion of empowerment of the Arab spring. As protest roiled Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011, many, including Syrians themselves, who saw the population as depoliticized, thought an uprising would not come. But it did: When a handful of schoolchildren in Dir‘a were detained and tortured for scrawling graffiti calling for the end of the regime, protesters took to the streets from Dir‘a to Idlib in the northwest, from the Mediterranean coast to eastern Dayr al-Zawr, and in tiny towns and villages from the sandy desert to the fertile plains. Calls for “toppling the regime” saw their meaning evolve from “reforming the system” to “executing the president,” as they were met with ever more violence. The hope that the regime could offer any future was chipped away and then shattered.

Many see Syria, with its wealth of ethnicities and sects surrounding a Sunni Arab majority, as doomed to fail; parallels with fractious Iraq and Lebanon, which suffered long years of civil war, are frequently drawn. Yet there is reason to think that, given the chance, Syrian society could survive the family-based regime that has ruled it since Hafiz al-Asad came to power in a bloodless coup in 1970. All depends on whether society will surrender to, or face up to, its own demons, as a deep political crisis devolves into a no less profound social predicament.

The Struggle

The struggle over Syria pits two symmetrical narratives against each other. For the regime, its supporters and its allies, Syria’s is an immature, if not disease-ridden society. They posit — with evidence both real and invented, and generally blown out of proportion — that Syrian society shows sectarian, fundamentalist, violent and seditious proclivities that can be contained only by a ruthless power structure. Remove Bashar al-Asad, and the alternative is either civil war or the hegemony of Islamists beholden to Turkey and the Gulf and sold out to the West. Regime loyalists argue that society is not ready for change and, in fact, deserves no better than its present shackling. Hizballah and Iran, rather than cultivate popular support to ensure enduring influence, have placed all their chips on the regime’s ability to crush what, early on, they chose to see overwhelmingly through the lens of foreign conspiracy.

The regime’s opponents, by contrast, posit that any and all change is desirable, given the regime’s own nature. Over its four decades in power, the Asad dynasty has increasingly treated the country as family property, plundering its wealth for redistribution to narrowing circles of cronies. In line with divide-and-rule traditions inherited from colonialism, the regime has cynically strengthened its grip by nurturing fractures within society, keeping state institutions weak for fear they might underpin genuine national sentiment, and setting up a security apparatus heavily staffed with members of one minority, the ‘Alawi community. It has suppressed dissent with at times extreme brutality, as typified by the 1982 shelling of Hama, which left many thousands dead. Regime opponents argue that, without Bashar al-Asad, Syria will finally be free to express its stifled economic potential, its natural communal harmony and its aspiration to an open, democratic political system. For their part, Gulf states and the West see in regime change a solution to all problems, not necessarily within Syria itself, but throughout the region: At last, Hizballah, the Lebanese resistance movement that relies on Syria as a transit route for weapons, would be neutralized, Iran badly weakened and the so-called moderate Arab states empowered.

Although the two narratives appear mutually exclusive, they both hold a measure of truth. The regime and the opposition in exile, who accuse the other of being the mother of all ills, have each tended to conform to stereotype.

Throughout the crisis, the regime has proven more sectarian, unaccountable and vicious than ever. Obsessed with the challenge posed by peaceful protests, its mukhabarat security services — almost none of whose members have been put on trial as promised — have hunted non-violent progressive activists, often with more zeal than shown toward criminal gangs and armed groups. The mukhabarat have recruited thugs and criminals — the more extreme, venal and subservient elements of society — into an army of proxies known across the country as shabbiha. It has tried to intimidate protesters through gruesome tactics. An emblematic case for the opposition is Hamza al-Khatib, a 14-year old from Dir‘a whose battered and castrated corpse was returned to his family a month after he was taken. (The regime never denied the boy had been arrested and killed, but had forensic experts explain on television that he was in fact a professional rapist operating within a jihadi network.) Asad has gradually shed all pretense of being a national leader, speaking instead as the head of one camp determined to vanquish the other.

For its part, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group that is composed mostly of exiles, has failed to offer an inspiring alternative since it was formed in September 2011. Its mainly unknown and inexperienced members have done little to counteract the regime’s propaganda. Unable to agree on any positive political platform, the SNC has refused any negotiation with the regime and called for “international intervention” that is conveniently left undefined, leaving to their anxieties the many Syrians who simultaneously loathe the regime, dread foreign interference and panic at the idea of a high-risk transition. It has estranged, among others, Kurdish factions, who fear a Turkish agenda, and petrified Syrians distrustful of Qatari and Saudi influence. It has most notably failed to reach out to the ‘Alawis, many of whom are poor and disgruntled but afraid to change sides lest they suffer a backlash due to their association with the security forces and army units responsible for much of the violence. By abandoning all these people to their dark forebodings, the SNC’s members have missed an opportunity to hasten the decline of the regime and ward off civil strife in the event of Bashar’s fall. On the international level, the SNC has displayed political naïveté by putting all its energy into lobbying for support from Turkey, the Gulf monarchies and the West, all of whom are already sympathetic, while ignoring and alienating the regime’s allies.

Social Shifts

What does not fit any prior stereotype is the behavior of Syrian society. It certainly is fissiparous, but not along predictable lines. Past uprisings — the Muslim Brother-led insurgency in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Druze intifada of 2000 and the Kurdish rebellion of 2004 — raised suspicions in society at large for their communal nature. In contrast, today’s protest movement is surprisingly broad-based and cross-cutting. Many an ‘Alawi, especially among intellectuals and simple villagers, resents how his community has been taken hostage by the regime. The Druze are split somewhere down the middle. Christians, who are geographically dispersed, adopt remarkably different viewpoints depending on how much they see of the security services’ abuse on the ground. Those in Damascus and Aleppo have generally rallied to the regime’s side, but in many other areas Christians at least sympathize with protesters. Ismailis, based in the town of Salamiyya, were among the first to join the opposition. And Sunni Arabs, of course, are not all against Bashar; the Shawaya tribes in the northeast, to cite one example, tend to be supportive.

Nor is a communal prism the only one through which the conflict should be seen. Although it started off as an underclass and provincial phenomenon in the Hawran plain, the protest movement has crossed socio-economic boundaries, drawing in doctors, engineers and teachers. It has spread to the capital, where flash demonstrations stand in for the large rallies that would take place were it not for massive security deployments. The business establishment, whose interests initially made for a cautious, conservative stance, has realized the regime is compromising them: Most — even within crony capitalist circles — have long been donating money to the opposition. Fault lines have appeared in less likely places still. Within the same family, older generations are more likely than the youth to cling to the devil they know. Couples are sometimes torn; some women are prone to prefer stability and dialogue, while others push the limits of dissent beyond what their husbands are inclined to do.

The uprising has caused parts of Syrian society, which had long been apathetic and fragmented, to undergo a sort of renaissance. Protesters have been extraordinarily dedicated and creative. They have set up committees to collect and distribute money and document individual deaths with a fastidious sense of duty. In the midst of bloodshed, they have expanded their inventory of smart slogans and eye-catching posters, chanted in support of besieged cities in different areas of the country, stitched together new flags, and spoofed the regime in video and animation. Areas such as Daraya, close to Damascus, have become known for their acts of civil resistance. Ghiyath Matar, a young activist who was later killed under torture, had ordered roses and water to hand out to soldiers and security forces sent to police the area.

Precisely because the regime has sought to exploit every source of possible strife, its opponents have had to work hard to contain the more thuggish, sectarian and fundamentalist strands in their midst. Their efforts are what have kept society together, despite a growing and worrying pattern of confessional, criminal and revenge-inspired violence. The protest movement would have degenerated into chaos long ago if it were not for an overriding desire among the majority of its members to recover their country, their dignity and their destiny, rather than forfeit them.

There is a distinctly Syrian character to the crisis. Unlike Libyans, who in a matter of hours defected en masse, took up arms and called upon the outside world to step in, Syrians took months to resort to weapons or cry out for international intervention. Unlike Egypt, where revolution was a sublime but somewhat shallow moment of grace, the Syrian uprising has been a long, hard slog: The protest movement has gradually built itself up, studied the regime’s every move and mapped out the country to the extent that small towns such as Binnish in the northwest are now known to all.

Alongside actual demonstrations, an expansive albeit largely invisible civil society has emerged to render them possible, by offering numerous forms of support. Businessmen have donated money and food; doctors sneak out medicines from hospitals and man field clinics in the most violence-ridden areas; religious leaders, by and large, try to keep a lid on sectarianism and violence. Over the course of the uprising, Syrians have articulated a now deeply rooted culture of dissent and developed sometimes sophisticated forms of self-rule by setting up local councils: Homs, which is also home to unruly armed groups, has developed a revolutionary council with an 11-member executive that presides over committees responsible for different aspects of the crisis, from interacting with the media to procuring medical supplies. Within revolting communities there is a greater sense of purpose, solidarity and national unity than at any time in recent Syrian history.

Even the growing insurgency makes for an interesting paradox: Proliferating armed groups derive their popular legitimacy from the need to protect peaceful protests militarily. No mad dash to the arsenal, the armament in most places has proceeded in stages. People first purchased weapons to keep in the house for self-defense in the event of raids by security forces. Small groups of armed men then went out with protesters to respond if the security forces started to shoot at them. Over time, the action has transformed from pure defense into a more aggressive modus operandi — targeting government checkpoints, regime proxies and informants, military convoys and security facilities. Tit-for-tat sectarian killings occur all too frequently in central Syria. But much of the violence, up to this point, has been not random but constrained by a mandate of sorts, as it takes protecting the protests and civilians as the base for action.

Troubling Times Ahead

Of course, the foregoing is the better part of the story. On both sides, thugs and criminals are exploiting the struggle as a vehicle for social promotion, a means of enrichment and an outlet for sectarian hatred. This statement is true of regime forces, whose fallacious claim to stand for law and order is disproved all too often by their heinous behavior, as it is of some armed groups fighting them under the umbrella of the “Free Syrian Army,” a motley assortment of local vigilantes. The recruits into this “Army” range from fathers defending their families to bereaved young men to defectors fighting for their lives, but its ranks are not devoid of fundamentalist militants and unreconstructed villains. To date, the latter elements have not been predominant, although they are all that the regime, its supporters and its allies want to see. The logic is self-evident: The ruling elite, having little good to offer, is hell-bent on proving that anything else to emerge from Syrian society can only be much worse. Thus the almost hysterical cult of Bashar, whose gross mishandling of this crisis matters not to his supporters: He alone can save this society from itself.

But Syrian society is better prepared to manage a transition than it would have been had the power structure collapsed early on. It has been forced into learning how to organize itself to prevent its own collapse. The regime’s divide-and-rule tactics have been a key unifying factor for large swathes of society, which to survive has had to reach across geographic, communal and socio-economic boundaries. Were the revolutionaries to be successful, however, that source of unity would disappear, leaving them disoriented. As elsewhere in the region, “the fall of the regime” is a remedy for the depressing impasse that ruling elites lock their societies into, not a blueprint for successful change.

Spurred on by Iran and Hizballah and bolstered by Russian support, while facing an increasingly potent insurgency backed — politically if not militarily — from abroad, the chances are that the regime will neither survive nor “fall,” but gradually erode and mutate into militias fighting an all-out civil war. But assuming the power structure does give way before that corner is turned, there are at least three threats that could quickly derail a political transition.

The first is the reality of Bashar’s power base, which has narrowed spectacularly but remains an incontrovertible fact on the ground. Just as the regime dismisses the protest movement with the spurious argument that a majority has not taken to the streets (as if any country around the world had ever witnessed half its people on the march), the regime’s opponents berate its supporters as a minority of delusional, criminal, treacherous citizens. The fact is that, just as the regime cannot survive this crisis by ignoring the millions mobilized against it, so a transition cannot succeed while overlooking the millions — security officers, proxies and regular people — who have thrown in their lot with Bashar. Short of protection for the people most exposed to retribution, notably among the ‘Alawis, a genuine reconciliation mechanism, an effective transitional justice process and a thorough but smooth overhaul of the security services, it could all go very wrong.

Secondly, judging by the SNC’s performance, there is cause for concern if it were to play a key role in such a transition. Its leading members, hindered by personal rivalries, unable to formulate clear political positions for fear of implosion and seemingly consumed with having a spot in the limelight, may fall back on sectarian apportionment as the only consensual criterion for power sharing. Syrians on the street have made clear that they see the SNC’s legitimacy as based on their ability to lobby for diplomatic pressure and see their mandate as stretching no further, but the outside world’s quest for a ready-made “alternative,” and the prevailing assumption that pluralist societies in the Middle East are condemned to such evolution, could prove to be Syria’s undoing. A political process including the SNC, but built primarily around locally led organizations, along with technocrats and businessmen, would have more legitimacy and a greater chance of success.

Finally, as increasingly desperate protesters call for help, there is a danger that the outside world will make matters worse as it plays at being savior. Calls for aid are somewhat worse than a pact with the devil: They entail pacts with many devils that do not agree on much. The Gulf monarchies, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, the US, Iran and others all see geostrategic stakes in the fate of the Asad regime. The greater their involvement, the less Syrians will remain in control of their destiny. Crying out for foreign intervention of any kind, to bring this emergency to an end at any cost, is more than understandable coming from ordinary citizens subjected to extreme forms of regime violence. Exiled opposition figures who pose as national leaders have no excuse for behaving likewise, when what is needed is a cool-headed, careful calibration of what type of outside “help” would do the minimum of harm.

Close to home, another Middle Eastern experience — Iraq — serves as an example on all three fronts. A political process excluding even a relatively small minority within Iraqi society led to a collective disaster. A group of returning exiles, without a social base but enjoying international support as the only visible, pre-existing “alternative,” quickly took over the transition and agreed only on splitting up power among themselves on the basis of a communal calculus. Their division of the spoils gradually contaminated the entire polity, and ultimately led to civil war. And the US, presiding over this tragedy, succeeded only in turning Iraq into a parody of itself, a country that now fits every sectarian and troubled stereotype the occupying power initially saw in it.

All told, on a domestic level Syria has entered a struggle to bring its post-colonial era to a close. It is not simply about toppling a “regime” but about uprooting a “system” — the Arabic word nizam conveniently evoking both notions. The current system is based on keeping Syrians hostage to communal divisions and regional power plays. Indeed, the regime’s residual legitimacy derives entirely from playing indigenous communities and foreign powers off each other, at the expense of genuine state building and accountable leadership. Prior attempts at breaking with the legacy of colonialism, in the revolutionary bustle of the mid-twentieth century, failed, grounded as they were in narrow politicized elites and military circles. What is different today is the awakening of a broad popular movement, motivated less by parochial interests and grand ideologies than by a sense of wholesale dispossession of their wealth, dignity and destiny.

This awakening, in a sense, is precisely what the regime has been fighting. Although foreign interference is a fact, there is less a conspiracy in Syria than a society on the move, headed along a path that the regime simply will not follow. The road ahead is a dangerous one, and the chances are real that it will lead Syria, and the region, into the maze of civil war. But for all too many Syrians there is no going back. The regime was given a year to stake out a safer way forward, but has clung ever more fiercely to its old narrative, ultimately recasting itself as a historical cul-de-sac.

How to cite this article:

Sarah Birke, Peter Harling "Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime," Middle East Report Online, February 24, 2012.

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