The Syrian protest movement, which started in mid-March, has this week entered its fourth month. Week after week, the Friday demonstrations have grown and their tone has hardened. Increasingly, the strident call is for the fall of the regime. Angry protesters say that more than 1,500 of their number have been shot dead in the streets and well over 10,000 arrested, while the regime retorts that 400 of its soldiers and policemen have been killed by ‘armed gangs’.
As casualties mount on both sides, so the rift widens between the regime and its opponents. Ramadan is fast approaching. When the daytime fast is ended at sunset, the tradition is for the rich to feed the poor, often at trestle tables in the courtyards of mosques — or so it was before mosques became centres of protest. If large crowds gather next month for occasions of this sort, there could be serious trouble.
The opposition faces a stark choice: either to go all out to bring the regime down, or to cooperate with it in building a new and better Syria. The first course is hazardous: if the Baathist state is torn down, what will replace it? The future is uncharted. The second course requires an act of faith: it means accepting that the regime truly wants to implement radical reforms by means of a national dialogue. Its attempt to launch such a dialogue has so far failed to convince.
The regime has mishandled the protest movement. Slow to grasp the nature of the popular challenge, it has been violent and incompetent in confronting it. The security services, like President Bashar Al Assad himself, seem to have been taken by surprise. By resorting to live fire against the protesters, they displayed indiscipline and arrogant contempt for the lives of ordinary citizens. Ordinary people want respect. This has been one of the motors of the Arab Spring.
Al Assad himself has fumbled. Of his three speeches in the past four months, two were public relations disasters and the third far from the rousing, dramatic appeal to the nation that his supporters had expected and the occasion demanded. Above all, he has failed to put an end to the killings, arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture which have sullied his and the country’s reputation.
Meanwhile, the Baath party — ‘leader of state and society’, according to the notorious article 8 of the Constitution — has been virtually silent, confirming the widespread belief that it has become a hollow shell, concerned only to protect its privileges and its corrupt network of patronage.
If the regime has shown itself to be weak, the opposition is weaker still. It wants to challenge the system, but it evidently does not know how to proceed. It is split in a dozen ways between secularists, civil rights activists, democrats — and Islamists; between angry unemployed youths in the street and venerable figures of the opposition, hallowed by years in prison; between the opposition in Syria and the exiles abroad; between those who call for western intervention and those who reject any form of foreign interference.
The opposition met at Antalya in Turkey some weeks ago, and then more recently in Istanbul, but no forceful leadership or clear programme has emerged, let alone anything which might look like an alternative government. The opposition movements that have declared themselves — the National Democratic Grouping, the Damascus Declaration signatories, the National Salvation Council formed last week in Istanbul, the local coordination committees in Syria itself — are loose groupings of individuals with little structure or popular base and few clear ideas.
The truth is that, as Tunisia and Egypt have discovered, it is exceedingly difficult to bring about a transition from an autocratic, highly centralised, one-party system to anything resembling democratic pluralism. In Tunisia, no fewer than 90 political parties are planning to contest next October’s elections in conditions of great confusion.
In Syria — and for that matter in most Arab countries — there is no experience of free elections, no real political parties, no free trade unions, no state or civil society institutions, no separation of powers, no independent judiciary, little real political education. The Syrian parliament is a farce. And, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the problem of how to integrate Islamic movements into a democratic political system remains a puzzle.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — renamed the Freedom and Justice Party in preparation for the elections — and Tunisia’s Al Nahda tend to frighten the western-educated middle and upper classes. That is why many worried secularists across the region look to Turkey as an inspiring model because Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP has proved that Islam is compatible with democracy.
In Syria, everything will have to be rebuilt from the ground up — including the ideology of the state. The old slogans of anti-colonialism, Arab unity and Arab nationalism, Baathism, radical Islamism, Arabism itself, all will need to be rethought and redefined for the political challenge ahead.
Since the task is so vast, and since any viable transition must inevitably take time, some observers have come to the view that a dialogue between the regime and the opposition is the safest way forward. Creating a new political system is not the only problem. Equally urgent is tackling the huge social and economic problems with which countries like Syria are faced: an exploding population, rampant youth unemployment, an impoverished middle class and a semi-destitute working class, a soaring cost of living, policies of economic liberalisation which have gone wrong and benefited only a tiny and corrupt elite; the neglect of workers’ rights whether on the land or in shops and factories. Syria needs a new social contract.
The rich monarchies of the Gulf can spend their way out of trouble. Saudi Arabia, for example, has announced plans to spend $70billion (Dh257billion) on low-cost housing. Syria, with about the same size of population, can only dream of such figures. If the Syrian economy is not to collapse, it will no doubt need bailing out. Iran may have to come to the rescue.
No one should suppose that the Syrian regime will go down without a fight. Most regimes seek to destroy their enemies. China had its Tiananmen Square massacre and Russia its bitter war in Chechnya. Iran crushed the Green movement. In 1982, Israel killed 17,000 people in Lebanon in an attempt to destroy the PLO and install a pro-Israeli vassal in Beirut. The use of live fire is an Israeli speciality, as Lebanon discovered in 2006 (1,600 dead), Gaza in 2008-9 (another 1,400 dead) and the Palestinians for the past 60 years.
When America was attacked on 9/11, that great bastion of democracy invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. Millions were displaced or forced to flee abroad. Many were tortured. Was it 160 times or 180 times that Khalid Shaikh Mohammad was water-boarded? Syria still plays host to about a million Iraqis, victims of America’s war.
A sectarian civil war on the Iraqi or Lebanese model is every Syrian’s nightmare. There must surely be another way out of the crisis.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, including Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.