Nader Hashemi writes: On March 15, 2011, the Arab Spring came to Syria. Like the other Arab revolts, it occurred spontaneously and proceeded nonviolently. The core political grievances and aspirations were the same as elsewhere: karama (dignity), hurriya (freedom) and adala ijtima’iyya (social justice). The House of Al-Assad, in power forty-one years at the time and arguably the most repressive regime in the Arab world, faced a legitimacy crisis of unprecedented scale and proportion.
What is interesting about this particular revolt is that at the time many experts predicted that the Arab Spring would stop at Syria’s borders. Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident and former fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argued that “Syria is not ready for an uprising” because the preparatory organizing at the grassroots that led to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt was absent in the Syrian case. Similarly, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma suggested an “important factor is that [Al-Assad] is popular among young people.” He explained: “I’m always astounded how the average guy in the street, the taxi driver, the person you talk to in a restaurant or wherever, they don’t talk about democracy. They complain about corruption, they want justice and equality, but they’ll look at elections in Lebanon and laugh, saying, ‘who needs that kind of democracy?’”
Unsurprisingly, Bashar Al-Assad, Syria’s president since 2000, held the same view. As the Arab Spring unfolded, he gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he rejected the idea that Syria was ripe for revolution. Criticizing his fellow Arab rulers, he observed that if “you didn’t see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s too late to do any reform.” He assured his interviewer, however, that “Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.” But six weeks later, a revolution did begin in Syria, and three years on—notwithstanding its attempted eradication by the Al-Assad regime, its abandonment by the international community and its predictable militarization and radicalization — it staggers on, and resistance to the House of Al-Assad continues.
Hoping that the conflict in Syria will simply go away seems to have been the unstated policy of the Obama administration for much of the last three years. This view is widely shared by the American public. Tired of a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this sentiment is certainly understandable. The United States has effectively lost these wars and the cost to America’s self-image and its economy has been enormous. Yet the conflict nonetheless continues to haunt our collective consciousness and to hold our attention. For three distinct but interrelated reasons — rooted in basic ethics, global security and normative political values — the conflict in Syria profoundly matters for our world today. In the absence of global leadership that prioritizes this crisis, the conflict will continue to destabilize the broader Middle East and its ramifications will be felt far and wide for years to come. [Continue reading…]