Conflict Risk Alert: Syria
25 Mar 2011
Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership. There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change. The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end. Already, the unfolding confrontation in the southern city of Deraa gives no sign of quieting, despite some regime concessions, forceful security measures and mounting casualties. For now, this remains a geographically isolated tragedy. But it also constitutes an ominous precedent with widespread popular resonance that could soon be repeated elsewhere.
The regime faces three inter-related challenges. First is a diffuse but deep sense of fatigue within society at large, combined with a new unwillingness to tolerate what Syrians had long grown accustomed to – namely the arrogance of power in its many forms, including brutal suppression of any dissent, the official media’s crude propaganda and vague promises of future reform. As a result of events elsewhere in the region, a new awareness and audacity have materialised over the past several weeks in myriad forms of rebelliousness, large and small, throughout the country.
Secondly, at the heart of virtually any locality in the nation is a long list of specific grievances. These typically involve a combination: rising cost of living, failing state services, unemployment, corruption and a legacy of abuse by security services. In a number of places, religious fundamentalism, sectarianism or Kurdish nationalism also form an integral part of the mix. In others, the depletion of water resources and devastation of the agriculture sector add to the tensions.
The third challenge relates to the regime’s many genuine enemies, all of whom undoubtedly will seek to seize this rare opportunity to precipitate its demise. Authorities have ascribed much of the strife to the exiled opposition, home-grown jihadi elements, local “aliens” (notably residents of Palestinian and Kurdish descent) and hostile foreign parties (notably U.S., Israeli, Lebanese and Saudi).
As a result, the regime claims to be fighting critical threats to national unity, such as foreign interference, ethnic secessionism and sectarian retribution. It also stresses the illegitimacy of exiled Syrians they accuse of stirring unrest – some of whom, in fairness, are suspected of crimes no less deserving of investigation than those of the officials they seek to replace.
All this unquestionably forms part of the picture. But these factors are intertwined with others, far more difficult to define or to manage – a popular desire for long overdue, far-reaching change; the simultaneous expression of numerous legitimate demands; and a growing belief that the regime is incapable of shifting from a logic of entitlement and survival to one of accountability. The current blend of mounting repression, blatant disinformation, minor concessions and presidential silence is quickly hardening negative perceptions.
A window of opportunity still exists to change these dynamics, although it is fast closing. Unlike most of his peers in the region, President Bashar Assad has accumulated significant political capital, and many Syrians are willing, for now, to give him the benefit of the doubt. In fact, a broad range of citizens – including members of the security apparatus – are desperately waiting for him to take the lead and to propose, before it is too late, an alternative to spiraling confrontation. Although he has held numerous consultations and sent some signals of impending reform through the foreign media and other officials, he has yet to assume clear and palpable leadership.
Instead, faced with an unprecedented, multi-faceted, fast-paced and critical challenge, the power apparatus at best is implementing chaotic steps that convey a sense of confusion, at worst is reacting according to well-ingrained habits. Left to its own devices, it will send precisely the wrong messages to a population that will not wait much longer for the regime to get its act together and to put forward a comprehensive and credible vision. At this point, only one thing can change swiftly, dramatically and effectively for the better, and that is the president’s own attitude.
President Assad must show visible leadership and do so now. His political capital today depends less on his past foreign policy successes than on his ability to live up to popular expectations at a time of dangerous domestic crisis. Meanwhile, repression perpetrated under his responsibility is costing him dearly. He alone can prove that change is possible and already in the making, restore some sense of clarity and direction to a bewildered power apparatus and put forward a detailed framework for structural change. This should include several steps:
- The President should speak openly and directly to his people, recognise the challenges described above, stress the unacceptable and counterproductive nature of repression, offer condolences to the families of victims, order a serious, transparent investigation into the violence in Deraa, present a package of measures for immediate implementation and suggest an inclusive mechanism for discussing more far-reaching reforms.
- He should announce the following, immediate measures: release of all political prisoners; lifting of the emergency law; authorisation of peaceful demonstrations; opening of new channels for the expression of complaints, given lack of trust in local officials; and action on the many cases of corruption that already have been compiled by the security apparatus but lie dormant due to nepotistic intervention.
- Upcoming parliamentary elections should be postponed pending a referendum on sweeping constitutional amendments which should be discussed with a wide and inclusive range of Syrians. Deeper change requires broad consultation and cannot be arbitrarily implemented.
Many within the regime argue against such a radical course of action. Their points might appear logical, but none should carry the day:
The regime has never responded to pressure, and this time-honoured principle has always served it well over the years, particularly in times of crisis.
While this might have been true in the past, the current situation involves an entirely different and unprecedented kind of pressure, one that is relentless and grounded in deep-seated popular feelings. If resisted, it will only swell. This is not a time for business as usual or for standing still when all around is moving.
Any concessions are likely to be viewed as inadequate and only fuel additional demands.
This almost certainly will be the case. And it is why any initiative must go all the way, from the outset. Only by doing so might the president convince the people that change is real. The question, in other words, is whether the regime can accept fundamental change. If it cannot, it is headed toward a bloody confrontation.
People do not know what they really want and express endless demands, some of which are unacceptable.
Again, this likely is true and, after years of suppression, wide-ranging aspirations cannot but be expressed. But the lack of a clear popular vision for orderly change offers the president the chance to convince citizens of the merits of his own.
The regime’s enemies are stirring things up and must be subdued before they do more damage.
In reality, none of the regime’s enemies possess enough support or influence in Syria to mount a critical threat. At best, they can try to make use of broad popular anger and steer it to their advantage. But by focusing on “enemies”, the regime is giving them more space while deepening popular discontent.
There is, in short, reason to question whether a dramatic approach will prevail. But it is the only realistic way to avoid a perilous confrontation.
After decades of colonialism followed by authoritarian rule, the Middle East and North Africa are facing a new phenomenon: a demand for governments based on popular legitimacy. Rulers in Syria or elsewhere can pass this test of leadership, or they can fail it. Bashar Assad has important assets; he retains significant political capital measured by regional standards, and it is high time that he spends it. As each day goes by, repression will both dissipate that capital and increase popular demands, making constructive action all the more difficult. Hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass may have served the regime well in days past. But now, it must fight against those instincts if it wants to preserve the possibility of a peaceful outcome.