Syria’s broken spring: a Damascus report

At Open Democracy, Vicken Cheterian writes:

Syria is going through an uprising of socially marginalised regions, suffering from the absence of institutions and services, where the most obvious state presence has been the security agencies.

The context of this revolt is the weakness as well as the strength of the state. The Syrian regime portrays its major assets as opposition to great-power politics and support for anti-Israeli resistance. Its true chief resource is the fact that parts of the population still see it as a guarantee of stability and security. But this resource is fragile, and eroding under the pressure of the current violent confrontation.

The revolt that started in Deraa is, despite ferocious repression using live bullets, spreading rather than dying down. Several towns and cities remain under siege, with telecommunications shut down, highways blocked, and the country isolated from the outside world. A key question is how long such a situation can persist before the merchant class sees the regime as part of the problem rather than the solution; and whether, to avert this outcome, the Syrian authorities can learn how to use their most valuable (if now damaged) resource – the fact that they have come to represent stability and a defence against chaos?

“I do not care about who rules, or the type of regime” a Syrian friend who supports the status quo told me. “What I care about is that when my children go to school or university, I do not worry about their safety.” But today, he is worried about his family’s immediate safety.

Three months into the revolt, the regime seems at a loss. Bashar al-Assad’s third speech since it began, on 20 June 2011, offered little if anything new. “The authorities have fewer and fewer choices”, says a Damascus observer. “First, they tried to suffocate the incipient movement with heavy repression. That has clearly failed. Then the president announced reforms, the end to the state of emergency, but he said he would do reforms his way, according to his rhythm. This was taken very badly by the public, and the rebellion only spread further.”

Another analyst adds: “Neither repression nor the promise of reforms can calm the situation. Dialogue is declared, but dialogue with whom? We do not see it happening. How can it give any results?” When asked what the authorities can offer to the population to defuse the situation, the response is: “The only promise the president can give is to be the leader of a political transition”. But as Bashar’s latest speech confirms, the regime is managing the situation day by day – mixing repression here, the promise of dialogue there.

This is unsustainable over the long term. The security forces are over-stretched, and massive operations need resources. The state treasury cannot forever ensure such funding, especially as it has made costly economic concessions in other areas to appease popular anger: increased salaries and decreases in the price of diesel, even as Syria’s economy is in trouble and state revenues in free-fall. [Continue reading…]

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One thought on “Syria’s broken spring: a Damascus report

  1. dmaak112

    Vicken Cheterian’s article touches upon a number of issues that has not been addressed by the wider US/EU media. There are a number of points that are left out that holds potential influence on what will transpire in Syria.

    First, the opposition to Bashar Assad’s regime is diffuse. Although attention has been on the internet, regional problems reflect a number of worries. The rural-urban divide over economic and political power is seen in that many areas of revolt are agrarian. The population has shifted from villages and farms to towns and cities. Aleppo and Damascus contain almost half of the population of the country. Economic strength and political leadership have become more centralized. The lack of jobs, the increasing cost of food, and drought are just three problems that contributed to underlying discontent with the government which exploded. The internet revolution would not have been as alluring in terms of attracting support if Syria’s economic situation was better off .

    Second, there are regional players who are very interested in the Syrian conflict, and will exert influence. Not mentioned by Cheterian is that Syria was a state that saw a great deal of interference with its internal affairs for twenty-five years. Nuri Said’s Iraq, King Abdullah’s Jordan, King Ibn Saud’s Saudi Arabia, King Farouk’s and Abdul Nasser’s Egypt are but a few players who interfered in Syrian politics. Non-Arab actors also kept tabs on Syrian developments–the most prominent being Israel and Turkey. As the confrontation between Assad and the protestors drag on, these nations will be drawn in and will contribute money, material, and perhaps manpower as a post-Assad Syria unfolds.

    Third, the longer the faceoff continues, the greater the chance of chaos increases. In spite of words to the contrary by the internet rebels, revolutions have historically ended badly. Latent grievances (real or imagined) come to the forefront and social fissures emerge. The very lack of a coherent political philosophy guiding the dissension is a clear indication that promises of a democratic republic guaranteeing civil, economic, and political rights of minorities cannot be assured. With examples of Lebanon and Iraq on its very borders, many Syrians have a legitimate concern about the fracturing of the body politic and widespread violence.

    Fourth, the death toll, as bad as it is, seems to be inconsistent with descriptions from the marchers. Indiscriminate tank fire, machine gun fire, attack helicopters, snipers, etc against large masses of people have resulted in 1500 to 2000 deaths in four months. 2000 people die in car accidents each month in the US. The protesters’ need to maintain interest in their cause (as well as perhaps physiological effect of being center of attention on the world stage) has resulted in blocking any possibility of a resolution. The incessant cycle of marches calling for Assad’s removal, the resultant clashes and casualties has not achieved the demonstrators goal of regime change. What remains is either a complete reversion to civil war or the pursuit of foreign military intervention with its own concomitant bloody outcome.

    Cheterian does raise the need for some sort of transition so as to reduce the likelihood of bedlam. Bashar Assad and his regime represent a great many interests. Forty years worth. Its sudden collapse or removal is highly unlikely. For Syria to have any expectations of achieving a democratic republic, then there must be a meeting between Assad and his opponents. If need be, private meetings between their representatives could meet and begin the process. When a certain point has been reached, then public meetings could be held. In exchange for real political and economic reform, the dissidents must make concessions so as to induce Assad et al’s cooperation.

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