The trajectory of the democratic movement in the Arab world was never going to be a straight line with clear goals and objectives. The Arab regimes are not homogeneous; they have medieval Islamist monarchies, as in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, and secular but completely authoritarian regimes, both Western puppets like Mubarak and anti-West figures such as Bashar al-Assad. Gaddafi falls in a class by himself: originally anti-West but later made up with the West before being discarded and proclaimed an enemy once again. The question is simple: if the ruling regimes are not the same, why should we expect their oppositions to be from a common mould?
Underlying the different types of opposition, there is no doubt a common denominator. Countries which have been under decades of completely authoritarian rule are no longer willing to let this continue. The people want a say in the way their countries are being run and they want it now. The problem is that this allows various forces to play — an initial Libyan democratic upsurge can rapidly transform to an armed rebellion and later to a Western military intervention, ostensibly to protect the civilian population, but actually for a ‘regime change’. The course of events in Syria appears to be on a similar track.
That the US and the West suffered a heavy defeat in the falls of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt goes without saying. While President Sarkozy may try to recover his sagging electoral fortunes by claiming to be on the side of democracy in Libya, France’s credibility on this cannot be high in Arab eyes. People have not forgotten that her Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was offering Ben Ali’s administration French police expertise in dealing with “security situations of this type” only a few weeks before Ben Ali was forced out. France also shipped on an emergency basis police equipment and crowd-control devices to Tunisia at the height of the demonstrations. In Egypt, Mubarak’s fall is widely seen in the Arab world as a defeat of a US puppet. Not surprisingly, the West is now trying to rewrite this recent history of supporting completely authoritarian forces by climbing on to the democratic bandwagon, first in Libya and now in Syria.
Meanwhile, the democratic upsurge in Yemen, Bahrain, and even in eastern parts of Saudi Arabia have drawn no response from the West. In Yemen, the West is now busy — along with Saudi Arabia — to ‘manage’ the transition. With the split in the armed forces in Yemen, crushing the upsurge against Ali Abdullah Saleh Bahraini style is no longer possible. Here, the West is trying to see how Saleh can be made to go while his family and entourage retain power — a kind of Salehism continuing without Saleh. The democratic uprising is not agreeing to call off its struggle on these terms, hence the continuing standoff. In Bahrain, Saudi armed forces along with Bahraini security establishment have crushed the forces for democracy, at least for the time being.
Syria is important in the West Asia far beyond its size. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been a force against Israel and plays an important role in Lebanon. A part of Syria’s importance comes from its name: Sham or Greater Syria was a much larger province of the Ottoman Empire. It spanned a large arc containing Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria, and Syria still exercises a great deal of influence in this region, particularly after Egypt abdicating its leadership post-Camp David agreement with Israel. Syria had virtual military control over Lebanon before the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the subsequent protests forcing Syrian forces out of Lebanon. The Hezbollah and the Syrian Government have a common interest in Lebanon in opposing the pro-Western 14th March Coalition which ranges from Saad Hariri to the quasi-fascist Phalangists.
It would be easy to dismiss the opposition to Assad’s regime as totally inspired and funded by the West. No doubt the West would like to get rid of Assad and has funded various opposition forces in Syria for this purpose. Nevertheless, there is also a genuine desire in Syria for a greater say in running the country that is very much a part of the opposition to the Assad regime.
Before we analyse the forces in Syria, it is important to register some basic facts. While the opposition to the regime has been widespread in Daraa, Homs and Douma, a distant suburb of Damascus, it has been relatively muted in cities of Aleppo and Damascus, where almost half of Syria’s population live. Daraa is where the movement first started. According to a retired diplomat living in Damascus:
The pro-democracy movement has failed to organise effectively, and lacks cohesion. The fact remains that while Assad’s reputation has been severely dented by the government’s ineptitude and brutality in dealing with the protesters and the so-called reform agenda, most Syrians respect Assad enough to see him as a hope for meaningful reform. While they will not give him the benefit of the doubt forever, the fear of chaos, including secular conflict, is very real. In this respect they see the pro-democracy movement as naive and out of touch with reality.
While over 450 protesters have died, a little known fact is that about 50 security personnel have also died — many from gunshot wounds. It appears that there are armed groups actively attacking security forces. This is not just Assad Government propaganda, it is also confirmed by Strafor — a strategic intelligence body — and other reports.
It is also true that the Syrian society has various sectarian divides. The Alawite community (a branch of Shi’ites) to which Bashar belongs is only about 15% of the population, the others being Sunnis, Christians, Druze and Ismailis. The Sunnis are probably about 70-75% of the Syrian population and by far the largest community. While the military and administrative elite have a large number of minorities, the older business community is largely Sunni.
It is not widely known that the US, Israel and Jordan had all combined to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in the 70’s and 80’s against the regime of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. While it is difficult to estimate the support of the Brotherhood today, it is possible that it still retains some following in Syria. If Bashar’s regime falls without a coherent opposition emerging, the country may see the emergence of sectarian forces of the kind that shook Hama, a town where the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood carried out killings of Alwaites before being crushed by Hafez al-Assad’s forces. The country falling prey to sectarian strife is the fear that drives large section of the people in Syria. This fear may not be unfounded when slogans such as “Alawiyye bi eltabout . . . w masi7iey 3a Beirut (Alawites in a coffin and Christians to Beirut)” are seen to be raised by a section of the protesters.
While there is little doubt that Bashar’s regime has lost some of its legitimacy, he is by no means as isolated as the Western media makes him out to be. Ben Ali and Mubarak did not only run completely authoritarian regimes, they also pauperised the people and enriched themselves and their families. To compound all this, they were seen to be US puppets and Israel’s peacekeepers in the region. The Assad regime is as authoritarian as any other in the region and his billionaire first cousin Rami Makhlouf is seen to be a major figure in Syrian corruption. However, Bashar is also seen to be in opposition to Israel and the West and also has managed to keep the armed forces with him. While this by itself is not enough, it may give him some elbow room to manoeuvre which Ben Ali and Mubarak did not have. But it does mean that Bashar will now have to try and bring about not just formal reforms such as lifting emergency laws, but a genuine democratic engagement with the people, something that the Ba’ath Party he leads has never practised in its four decade rule of Syria.
Just like events in Egypt, events in Syria will also have great significance for the region. Syria is at the heart of the Arab world and events here will have much greater impact than in Libya. We have already seen that Mubarak’s fall has led to a quiet change in Egypt’s policies towards Palestine. The Rafah crossing into Gaza is going to be opened and the Egyptians have now brokered a peace between Hamas and Fatah — the two warring factions in Palestine. If Bashar’s regime falls in Syria, not only will it weaken the forces against Israel, the political scenario in Lebanon could also change against the Hezbollah.
As of now, the military forces are with Bashar al-Assad. However using tanks to crush people’s protests cannot continue without damaging the regime’s credibility completely. Fortunately, the attempt by Western powers to fish in Syria’s troubled waters has not succeeded — Russia and China this time have refused to go along with the US, France and Britain in imposing sanctions through the UN. Turkey has called for an internal solution to the problems in Syria and opposed external intervention. Unlike in Libya, a Western military intervention therefore is not likely in Syria.
So Bashar has some time to put his house in order, but this may not last too long. It is crunch time for him and a test of his mettle. Either he will ride this out with major democratic reforms in Syria or his regime will increasingly lack legitimacy and face a slow disintegration. The second is the path that Libya and Yemen are following and would prove extremely expensive for the Syrian people as well as the region.
The Western policies in the Arab region can only bring about more and more failed states. With two military interventions in the region, a failed state Yemen already in the offing, adding Syria to the mix can only create conditions that breed all kinds of destructive forces and invite a future blowback. The US and other Western powers seem to be locked into this path — oil and Israel overriding all other considerations.
It is the ambition of a failing superpower — the US — that is the biggest challenge for Arab democracy. This is the challenge for the Syrian people right now: how to build democracy without inviting the US and allied forces in. The Libyan opposition have invited in the wolf to keep order in the chicken pen. Hopefully, the Syrians will learn from this and look for an internal solution to the problems with their regime. Hopefully, so will Bashar al-Assad.
Prabir Purkayastha is a member of the Delhi Science Forum. This article was first published in Newsclick on 2 May 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.
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