How the Syrian revolt went so horribly, tragically wrong


Liz Sly reports: From Egypt to Yemen, Libya to Bahrain, the brief flowering of freedom and hope that surged across the Middle East five years ago has failed more spectacularly than could have been imagined back when people chanting for freedom thronged the streets of towns and cities regionwide.

Syria marks the fifth anniversary of its first peaceful protest Tuesday in the shadow of a brutal war that has sucked in global powers and fueled the rise of radicals such as the Islamic State. Libya and Yemen are likewise locked in savage conflicts.

In other countries, such as Egypt, autocratic regimes have reasserted their control with a vengeance, clamping down on liberties even more fiercely than had been the case before the demonstrations were held.

In all of them, except Tunisia, the moderates who dominated the early days of the revolts have been silenced, imprisoned, hunted down or driven into exile, either by the governments that sought to repress them or the extremists who moved into the vacuum created when state authority collapsed.

Whether those early protesters were ever truly representative is in question, said Rami Nakhla, one of the most prominent leaders of the early Syrian protests, directing the Local Coordination Committees from exile in Beirut. He now lives in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep near Syria’s border, a hub for many of the activists who have been forced to flee.

But he also wonders whether they ever stood a chance. “We are hostage to two choices: either the authoritarians or the extremist Islamists,” he said. “Should we accept this equation? That we endorse either dictatorship or Islamic extremism?”

It is a false choice, but it has served to sustain the twin tyrannies that proved the undoing of the Arab Spring, said Shadi Hamid of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Since well before the revolts, the region’s dictators have raised the specter of Islamist extremism to scare ordinary citizens into submission and justify their harsh oppression to foreign powers. And extremists exploit the climate of fear to win recruits and justify their own brutal tactics.

“Authoritarian regimes and groups like ISIS both rely on violence and oppression to promote their political objectives,” he said, using another term for the Islamic State. “For regimes, it’s actually a successful strategy, at least in the case of Egypt and Syria. The Assad regime has been able to promote its own narrative very successfully, and many members of the international community say the armed opposition is primarily a radical opposition, that there are no moderate rebels.” [Continue reading…]

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