The Arab Epic Reaches Syria

The Arab Epic Reaches Syria

Syria is now the critical country to watch in the Arab world, after the home-grown regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, and the imminent changes in Yemen and Libya. The Syrian regime headed by President Bashar Assad is now seriously challenged by a combination of strong forces within and outside the country. His current policy of using force to quell demonstrators and making minimal reform promises has lost him credibility with many of his own citizens, largely due to his inability to respond to his citizens’ reasonable demands for democratic governance. His downfall is not imminent, but is now a real possibility.

The next few weeks will be decisive for Assad, because in the other Arab revolts the third-to-sixth weeks of street protests were the critical moment that determined whether the regime would collapse or persist. Syria is now in its fourth week. Having lost ground to street demonstrators recently, the Assad-Baathist-dominated secular Arab nationalist state’s response in the weeks ahead will likely determine whether it will collapse in ruins or regroup and live on for some more years.

Assad should recognize many troubling signs that add up to a threatening trend. The number and size of demonstrations have grown steadily since late March, making this a nationwide revolt. Protestors’ demands have hardened, as initial calls for political reform and anti-corruption measures now make way for open calls for the overthrow of the regime and the trial of the ruling elite. Some portraits and statues of the current and former president are being destroyed, and government buildings attacked. More protesters openly call for the security services to be curbed — an unprecedented and important sign of the widespread popular loss of fear of security agencies that always bodes ill for such centralized systems of power.

Many of the Syrian protest leaders and human rights groups are coordinating to form a unified movement that makes coherent demands of the regime, reflecting widespread indigenous citizen concerns that cannot be credibly dismissed as the work of Islamic radicals or foreign agents. Shooting the protesters has failed to stop them, and has only brought out larger crowds on subsequent days — especially when mourners in funerals for yesterday’s dead are themselves shot dead. A few public figures have resigned in protest at the use of arms against demonstrators, and the several reform concessions by Assad seem to have been widely dismissed.

Assad’s big problem is that Syrians continue to express greater populist defiance of the regime, rather than compliance with either its political promises or its hard police measures. The core elements of the regime that he and his father have managed for over 40 years are now all being challenged openly and simultaneously, including the extended Assad family, the Baath Party apparatus, the government bureaucracy, and the numerous security agencies. These form a multi-layered but integrated power system whose center of gravity and policy coordination is the president.

We are unlikely to see a Tunisian or Egyptian model of the security agencies abandoning the president to drift and be thrown out of power, while they remain in place. In Syria, either the entire system asserts itself and remains in control — with or without real reforms — or it is changed in its entirety.

Here is where the Assad government and power structure play on some of their assets. The two most significant ones are that: 1) most Syrians do not want to risk internal chaos or sectarian strife (à la Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia) and might opt to remain with the Assad-dominated system that has brought them stability without democracy; and, 2) any changes in regime incumbency or policies in Syria will have enormous impact across the entire region and beyond — given Syria’s structural links or ongoing political ties with every major conflict and actor in the region — especially Lebanon and Hizbullah, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Palestine and Hamas, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. Regime overthrow in Syria will trigger significant, cumulative and long-lasting repercussions in the realms of Arab-Israeli, Arab-Iranian, inter-Arab and Arab-Western relations, with winners and losers all around.

For some, this makes the Assad regime the Middle Eastern equivalent of the banks that were too big to be allowed to collapse during the American economic crisis three years ago, because the spillover effect would be too horrible to contemplate. The specter of sectarian-based chaos within a post-Assad Syria that could spread to other parts of the Middle East is frightening to many people. Yet many, perhaps most, Syrians indicate with their growing public protests that they see their current reality as more frightening — especially the lack of democracy, widespread corruption, human rights abuses, one-party rule, economic and environmental stress, excessive security dominance, and burgeoning youth unemployment.

The epic battle between regime security and citizen rights that has characterized the modern Arab world for three long and weary generations enters its most important phase in Syria in the coming few weeks, with current Arab regional trends suggesting that citizens who collectively and peacefully demand their human and civil rights cannot be denied.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.