With the outflanking of the Egyptian revolution by the unholy rapprochement of the military and the antediluvian Muslim Brotherhood, Syria has become the focus in the great Arab rebellion against autocracy. Sadly, Egypt seems likely to follow the French trajectory during and after the European revolutionary year of 1848, when the overthrow of the Orléanist monarchy led to the election of Louis Napoleon, who was himself crowned “emperor” in 1852. ?
Even after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt vacated their presidencies within two months of the popular explosions ignited by the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouaziz on December 17, 2010, no one dared to believe that the revolutionary wave might reach Damascus, the ultimate Arab citadel of fear. Almost half a century of stifling emergency rule and relentless Baathist brainwashing had to all appearance submerged the Syrian people.?
In March, however, it took very little for ordinary Syrians to begin releasing their volcanic frustrations as the arrests of Daraa school children in the impoverished south for spraying political graffiti brought protests, murderous regime reaction and spreading street repudiation of the bankrupt prevailing order.
The Syrian uprising is taking place in a chillingly barren, hostile environment. Bashar al-Assad’s regime is something beyond the standard authoritarianism of the Arab world; it is a throwback to the totalitarian European states of the 1930s. The dictator is a rigid ideologue cocooned by sycophants and gangsters; he sports a massive secret police machine, established under his father in the style of the East German Stasi. Unlike Egypt, where Mubarak’s National Democratic Party specialized in packing parliament but did not have ideological aspirations, the Syrian Baath can still mobilize crowds – hirelings, coerced school-children and those who have surrendered their minds to state propaganda – to bay their adulation for the leader.?
The ruling Assads have failed abysmally to deliver a decent life to most Syrians and are viscerally hostile to demands for basic freedoms. They have no hesitation in unleashing the security apparatus, rooftop snipers and gangs of thugs to kill and maim their own people, demonstrated in the prompt resort to the indiscriminate use of live ammunition in Daraa and Douma. The only constraint is the continuous external exposure of the regime’s bestiality made possible by Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media. This constraint, however, is desperately fragile and requires buttressing through vigorous expression of solidarity with the Syrian people.
But Western governments, which have always had a soft spot for the Syrian dictatorship, cannot bring themselves to support liberty for the Syrian people, preferring the deceit of identifying Bashar as a “reformer.” Put in a tight spot by a courageous uprising, the regime will resort to fake concessions, such as revoking “emergency rule” while refurbishing all its teeth and claws under other cover – or floating a fraudulent “parties law,” finessing restriction and intimidation. Such cheap tricks will no doubt excite the dictatorship’s battery of useful idiots in Washington. They will not, however, touch the entrenched reality of a fascist combine whose single fundamental law is the law of the jungle.??
What must disturb the Syrian authorities is the spontaneity and persistence of the street demonstrations demanding a real new Syria, and their spread through the country. So far the burgeoning resistance to the regime has to all appearance been relatively peaceful and non-sectarian. There is no wish for external intervention – only the morale boost of external empathy and solidarity. If ordinary Syrians can be steadfast in demanding their new Syria in the face of the ruling clique’s brutality and con artistry, the base of the dictatorship will eventually shatter; already its legitimacy is in shreds.
The loyalty of the regular armed forces will destabilize, and many Alawites and Christians will gravitate together with Sunnis. The ruling clique may be substantially Alawite, but much of the Alawite community derives no benefit from this. Only systematic arrests and a flood of secret police still keep a lid on the centers of Damascus and Aleppo. Disturbances in the far north, in al-Qamishli and elsewhere, indicate that Syrian Kurds may not be so easily neutralized by blackmail over citizenship for tens of thousands who have been carefully kept stateless for decades.
The most likely alternative regime for Syria is a coalition, with opposition secular and Islamic elements coalescing with less tainted inhabitants of the present power structure who might see the light or at least their better interests. The notions that the present ruling clique will be replaced by a “black hole” or a fanatic Sunni Islamist theocracy are scare stories propagated for self-serving reasons by the Syrian regime and its Western fellow travelers. Of course there is always a danger that regime repression may stir sectarianism and service self-fulfilling prophecies.??
Obviously, the suddenly uncertain outlook in Syria must be a worry for Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian and Hezbollah allies. A new Syria would have no reason to be friendly to Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which have both fulsomely declared their backing for the Syrian autocracy and therefore for its murders, its criminality and its savage treatment of popular protest. Indeed, crowds of Syrian demonstrators have already chanted «No Hezbollah, no Iran.» A new Syria will also not quickly forget those Lebanese who have hastened to comfort Bashar al-Assad and to endorse the dictatorship in Damascus and its stability of the gulag and the graveyard.
William Harris ?is Professor and head of the politics department at the University of Otago, New Zealand?
Originally on 8. of April in
Document graciously thanks the editor for permission to republish this article.