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Editorials 17 July, 2011

The Syrian uprising: concerns and pathways


Hamzeh Almoustafa

Hamzeh Almoustafa is a research assistant at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. His primary research concerns internal relations, with a special focus on Syria.Turkey and their geo-political significance. Prior to joining the Center, al-Moustafa worked as an executive researcher at the Orient Center for International Studies, and focused on Israeli affairs. He holds a BA in Political Science from Damascus University, and is currently preparing for an MA in International Relations. Additionally, he holds a Certificate in International Relations from the Global Policy Center at the Free University of Berlin.

Three months have passed since the eruption of the protest movement in Syria. The current "acute" crisis is still paddling in place, not just in terms of its declared results, but also in those of how best to address it, as well as in the ways in which to deal with it politically. The reality of the situation indicates how rapidly events have followed each other on the level of the protests. This has been accompanied by the absence of a role for the leadership of the national opposition and its other main actors - with some rare exceptions - in controlling the street. This has left the arena open to slogans and deviant acts that could bring on other consequences - and embody social and political problems and schisms that could influence the present, and perhaps have ramifications on the future. Meanwhile, the political authorities seem far removed and politically distant from the rebelling street. The situation is ripe for concerns and fears, internally and externally, due to a variety of indicators, the most significant of which are:

Avoiding a genuine acknowledgement of the crisis

In the science of crisis management, there is a degree of confusion between admitting to a crisis or ignoring it completely, as a means of dealing with it or resolving it. Ignoring a crisis and downplaying its repercussions are some of the most frequent strategies used to deal with crises in the moment, the aims being to maintain a situation that has been stable, and avoid change. This method could, in the present, help to address labor or economic crises where the desire for change might exist. However, dealing with a political crisis - under which the current Syrian situation is classified - in this manner could be an ominous indicator, fraught with dangers, especially since ignoring the crisis and refusing to acknowledge it may allow the forces of confrontation to beat the forces of absorption in crisis management.

In Syria, we find an implicit official admission of a political and social crisis, but the regime has dealt with the challenge on the basis of there being an acute emergency situation that has not yet developed into a full-blown crisis, an approach which could lay the ground for results. Any observer of the situation in Syria will note that, since President Bashar al-Assad's instruction speech to the new government (April 14, 2011), there has been a near-complete absence of any official response to the developments on the street.  The rare exceptions have included statements by the information minister indicating the regime's desire to establish a national dialogue, and reactions to external developments, such as Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim's statements made on the night of the European Union's declaration of political and economic sanctions against the Syrian leadership, including its top tiers.

During this period, a number of academics and media figures close to the political ideologies of the leadership have found themselves isolated in the public sphere. Initially, during the popular protests' first days, they were able to produce a counter to the opposition's political discourse. However, their presence has waned due, on one hand, to the rapid development of events, and, on the other, to their own insistence on ignoring the crisis by resorting to political terms, repeatedly generalizing that the protest movement came under a context of "conspiracy". Consequently, many have fallen into traps that have served to accelerate and inflame the situation, such as when one of the "academics" described the protesters as "society's scum" and incited their deaths. Another academic used the term "guests" to describe figures from the Syrian national opposition who have been urged to enter into dialogue. After that, the wave of protests was dealt with on the presumption that it was an armed situation that threatened the state as a whole, and whose containment required the imposition of draconian security measures. These measures have developed to the extent that the military establishment has now been deployed into special squads to contain the movement, starting in the place where it originally broke out, Deraa, before moving to Homs in central Syria, followed by Ristun, Talbisa, to Idlib and other villages and towns in northern Syria.

During this period, state authorities of all sorts -the government, the Baath, and political organizations - have almost completely disappeared from view, appearing only sporadically, such as when the foreign minister and the information minister announced in brief statements that Syria is currently confronting an armed uprising that will be dealt with forcefully.

The main approach to the continuing events in Syria emerged during al-Assad's June 20 speech, in which the official view came closest to the discourse that the authorities had attempted to transmit through media figures close to the regime. Al-Assad focused on the unfolding of a "trial" through which Syria was passing, which tied to "vandalism" caused by people connected to an external conspiracy who had taken advantage of the protests, whose large numbers were themselves part of the execution of the plan. He outlined promises of reform on certain superficial matters that sometimes touched on fundamental issues, but gave no details on how the process would operate, casting the regime's desire for change as a continuation of his "reformist" agenda over the past decade. He also placed responsibility for removing constitutional and procedural obstacles to the development of reforms, whether to electoral law reform or political party law, on national dialogue, opening up a horizon for constitutional amendments, or even the promulgation of a new constitution, in the coming years.

During his speech, Assad avoided acknowledging the presence of a crisis within the regime, instead simply sweeping the current imbalance in the political situation under the rug of the political stability of the past five decades. In the opinion of the regime, Syria is not passing through a genuine crisis, but a situation in which demands over living standards and political rights have meshed with an external attack against the entity of the state. This is what makes the situation in Syria potentially dangerous on several levels, since there is no definitive political solution that will outweigh the other solutions, and the protest movement has continued to be dealt with as an "extralegal" phenomenon.

Confusing the security and the military in the absence of the political

From a reading of the Arab scene in the various Taghyir ("Change") Squares - Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria - we can conclude that dictatorial Arab regimes have reached the conclusion that the main reason for the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts was a lack of appropriate violence and suppression. This lack of violence contributed to the growth of mass protests on Habib Bourguiba Avenue and Tahrir Square, clarifying unmistakably just how devoid the regimes were of popular support.

The regimes realized, too, that military neutrality in these cases also played a prominent role in tipping the scale in favor of the protesters. For this reason, they decided that the suppression of protest movements would not be limited to other security forces' use of unrestricted violence, but would also involve the military as a party to the dispute - on the side of the regime. For this reason, we can describe these regimes as resorting to the "military solution", as opposed to the "security solution", based on an equation that categorizes the protesters as a "side" in a struggle against the entity of the state. This has resulted in a dangerous situation that conjoins the state with the ruling regime, something that the leaders in Tunisia and Egypt were never able to do.

The factors in the above examples indicate that the military solution has failed. It has not managed to prevent the re-ignition of protests in Bahrain, despite the success of the Peninsula Shield forces in clamping down on them as a clearly defined movement. It has also led to a schism in the military establishment in Yemen after it was unable to end the popular revolt, which has begun to reap the fruits of its initiative. As for Libya, where the state is associated with the personality of the "leader", the capability of the national army has long been neglected, which led to tensions and divisions in the fragile military establishment after the outbreak of the February 17 revolution. It now appears that the security battalions related to the Gaddafis are the military guarantors of the Libyan regime against the armed resistance.

There is no similarity between the immediate foregoing and the Syrian case. The Syrian regime is clearly cohesive and powerful, and its bureaucratic institutions have not been subject to schisms or fractures. The overall economic indicators show strength and robustness, especially in the most sensitive sectors, and government intervention has done much to absorb pressure on the national currency. Based on this, I conclude that the protest movement in Syria has not yet reached the revolutionary stage, at least according to Lenin's definition of revolution necessarily requiring a breakdown in the regime's structure in order to effectuate change. However, after analyzing the structure of the military institution and its mechanisms as an existing hierarchy, then comparing these with similar historical experiences, it is difficult to conclude that the protest movement will be suppressed militarily, since from its inception it has had a peaceful, popular dimension and is not really an armed insurrection in the true sense of the term.

The failure of the military option to suppress the current protests in Syria has become obvious after several areas where there were harsh military crackdowns, such as Deraa, Douma, Tal Kalkh, Talbisa, and Marat al-Numan, saw even more intensive protests afterwards. So the military solution is not capable of removing the motivations for the protest movement, despite its occasional successes in diminishing their cumulative effect, which is then renewed when circumstances permit. This situation only deepens the crisis, giving it new dimensions and exacerbating the situation to the point that it will not be possible to suppress it due to the cost in human life. The military's inability to fully suppress the protest movement makes the situation similar to that in Iran about a year before the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Another look at external interference

What distinguishes the political and social realities in Syria from elsewhere is that because of the Syrian state's complex geopolitical situation, it is unusually sensitive to events taking place outside its national borders. For this reason, one can in principle arrive at the conclusion that most of the Syrian people reject intervention in Syria's internal affairs, regardless of the pretext. However, during the early stages of the Libyan situation, there was a noticeable change in many of the indicators of Arab public opinion towards intervention in its various forms. If one compares the data regarding the 2003 Iraq war with that relating to the NATO intervention in Libya, one can detect a radical difference in public opinion, which now views intervention in an emotional, or at least "sympathetic" context that has actually outweighed Arab suspicions about the intervening nations' particular interests. What exacerbates the situation is that several Arab governments agree with this outlook. This is extremely dangerous for the Arab political scene.

In spite of the foregoing, the Syrian authorities have failed to emphasize the people's rejection of solutions imposed from outside, choosing clumsy explanations that highlight the official Russian and Chinese roles in blocking foreign intervention instead of crediting this to its own society. Moreover, this does not take into account the possibility that the Russian and Chinese positions may change due to changing interests and shifts in the balance of power. At the beginning of the Libyan revolution, the official political discourse and state media in Libya went so far as to praise Russia and China's opposition to international intervention. A similar trend is evident in the discourse emanating from the Syrian regime, from its official media, and from media close to it. Official discourse has generalized the protest movement's views on external intervention by conjoining them to the positions of some opposition parties and figures based outside the country, who aimed to attract foreign intervention due to their limited understanding of how to bring about change since they were of the opinion that it would be impossible to achieve internally. As a result, these actors have felt it necessary to provide examples of foreign interventions that have produced change, i.e., "the Iraqi experience". Notably, these elements have sought to antagonize the Syrian state by calling for help from international institutions such as the International Criminal Court, or by presenting documents to foreign powers (Russia and China) urging them to change their view of intervention; this had led these actors down an exhausting, mixed-up path that confuses political matters and sovereignty when it comes to their nation's affairs.

Mistakes by official Syrian media have also contributed to deepening the chasm between the regime and the protesters. The regime appears to have continued its suppression of the protests because of Russia and China's objections to a Security Council condemnation of the crackdown. This official interaction with the Russian position continues into the present, despite the fact that in recent years Russia as a state has been known for its opportunistic dealings with Western policies. It has not used its veto power at the UN since 1991. It has always toed the Western line at these moments. In the absence of a political solution and the continuation of the military solution, this should raise fears of the development of a true international intervention, particularly in light of positions taken by Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, which recently announced that it would no longer object to international sanctions against Syria, and has indicated that it will be willing to internationalize the matter of Syrian refugees if Assad fails to undertake deep, radical, and tangible reforms. In addition, there are genuinely painful humanitarian facts that may instigate such a change of heart towards intervention in Arab public opinion.

As the crisis drags on, if the regime continues to reject change and no tangible results emerge from the protest movement's demands, this may create a dangerous factor whose repercussions would be felt not only on the political level, in which a large number of actors on the Syrian scene would become involved, but also on the social and economic levels. It would contribute to a decrease in the value of the Syrian pound, a dwindling of the reserves used to shore the currency up, and a destabilization of the Syrian economy; the brunt of these problems would be borne by the poor and other vulnerable social classes, many of whom (in rural areas and urban suburbs) already have been involved in the protest movement. The consequences also would include slower or even negative economic growth, as well as rising unemployment, both of which would worsen Syria's "country risk" in the eyes of ratings agencies; in turn, this would deter at least some investors, reducing the amount of investment. Among other implications, such a fall in investment would carry dangerous implications for the state's structural health, degrading its ability to maintain employment and, possibly, even its capacity to function.

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