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Syria following the script

Peter Harling, Foreign Policy  |   30 Mar 2011

President Bashar Assad's strongest asset, in the face of growing frustration in the street, was the lapse of time he was offered to study developments elsewhere in the region. Indeed, surprise was a key factor in the speed with which his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts were overtaken by events. With the president's speech today, the Syrian regime has just let pass another chance of learning from others' mistakes...and making up for its own.

First, it was late in recognizing the shifts that occurred region-wide: Western hypocrisy and Israeli arrogance no longer distract citizens from the legacy of domestic mismanagement; subdued societies simply will no longer tolerate the many forms of abuse, large and small, to which they had grown accustomed -- including crude propaganda, rapacious corruption and unaccountable violence; as a result, any attempt to deal with brand-new expectations via age-old methods can only backfire.  

Syrian authorities initially saw themselves as an exception, based on their bold defiance of a U.S. and Israeli regional order, and Assad's personal standing. They knew popular demands would inevitably rise, but thought they could both contain them through preemptive security measures and satisfy them with a rather uncreative mix of quick-fixes (cash-handouts, salary rises, tax cuts, etc.) and ever-so-gradual reforms (the most tangible of which, at the outset, being a revised municipal elections law). 

Second, the regime missed two critical turning-points in Syria itself. One was visibility. Prior to the Tunisian watershed, the media blackout was far from total in Syria. Information on the regime's practices, past and present, was at hand, but most citizens were too busy getting on with their lives to care. Everything has since come under scrutiny, and there is nothing and nowhere to hide. The regime's every move is documented, commented and countered. Business as usual took on provocative undertones, as people aspire to more than an upgraded status quo. 

The other was violence. When unrest spread in various parts of the country, a bewildered security apparatus responded according to ingrained bad-habits. The arrest of children, the beating of women and, tragically, the killing of unconfirmed numbers of protesters took their toll. To calm things down, authorities announced measures that would have carried significantly more weight earlier on, such as reshuffling the government and considering a lifting of the emergency law. In a region where tens of casualties hardly was something to fuss about, the regime remained oblivious to new standards of accountability. 

Rather, many officials and cronies felt it was the time to put all their love and loyalty on display, mounting a regressive personality cult, which found its paramount expression when the regime mobilized millions on the streets -- at the cost of further alienating both less willing participants and Syrians that have paid the highest price for airing their grievances. 

Third, it overlooked the dearth of trust and credibility that has built up over the years. The regime thus resorted to a strangely naive narrative, while assuming it would be taken at face-value. It talked of formal reforms as it had in the past, leaving unanswered the question of whether the regime can change its fundamental practices. It accused outside elements of stirring unrest, which in part is true, but undermined its argument by denying the reality of popular discontent. It berated foreign media for their biased coverage of events, while imposing a clampdown, ignoring the evidence circulating on the internet, and articulating the crudest propaganda of its own. 

Ironically, in a country where conspiracy theories have huge resonance, the regime has been losing the battle of perceptions by over-investing in them. Were discreet forms of subversion the problem, it would quickly have been solved by a well-honed security apparatus. By conflating popular protests and the more insidious threats posed by its many foes, treating both rhetorically and practically as if they were one, the regime is slowly turning its people into the enemy. 

Fourth and last, the Syrian leadership did not grasp the huge price to pay for the accumulated grievances of the past and booming expectations of the day. The toll could be settled in one currency only, namely moves -- going beyond the announced package of reforms -- that could convince the people that an entirely new compact was in the works: punishing those responsible for the loss of life, reeling in the security apparatus, and coming to terms with the issue of high-level corruption. Revealingly, not a single measure taken threatens entrenched interests in the higher circles of power, when that is precisely what the people want deep-down: holding to account an elite that has considered power as an entitlement, the state as personal property, and the country as a fiefdom. Trying to protect the prerogatives and privileges of the few will only cost them everything they believe they own. 

Assad's master card was to lead a revolution against his own entourage. To his credit, he pushed back on those who from the onset wanted all-out repression. But his much-anticipated speech has failed to offer a credible alternative. There is now every likelihood that Syrians, their hopes dashed, will again take to the streets. The regime must past this last test, which is to avoid more bloodshed. Repression could help it survive or it could be tantamount to suicide -- but in either case, it would be an ignominious fate.

Peter Harling is the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon project director with the International Crisis Group.

Foreign Policy

 
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