Gjesteskribent

Den syriske opposisjonen oppviser en sjelden bredde og samhørighet. Det har utviklet seg en syrisk nasjonalfølelse under baathismen, og den fortjener omverdenens støtte, skriver Amir Taheri.

Last March, when the people of Deraa, a town of 200,000 inhabitants in the southernmost tip of Syria, rose in revolt, the conventional wisdom was that the uprising would not last more than a few days. Of all regimes challenged by the «Arab Spring» that of President Bashar al-Assad is the most brutal and thus was supposed to be most capable of retaining power. In 1982, Bashar’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, survived a similar revolt in Hama with a week of massacres that claimed thousands of lives.

Eight months later, however, the current revolt has not only continued but has spread to virtually every town and village across the country. Since March, more than 3,000 people have been killed by security forces and a further 15,000 arrested or «disappeared.» Thousands more have fled to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

Yet as the profile of a different Syria takes shape, the balance of power is clearly shifting against the Assad clan. What will this «other Syria,» as the revolutionaries call it, look like?

The Assad clan built its image around the claim that it alone was able to protect Syria against ethnic and sectarian feuds. They also harped on the theme of «secularism» and claimed that their fall would mean the seizure of power by the Muslim Brotherhood and a dark age of religious terror.

However, it is now clear that the Syria portrayed by the Assads no longer exists, if it ever did. Since independence in 1946, Syria has transcended its ethnic and sectarian divisions and evolved a sense of nationhood as strong as that in any other Arab country.

The pro-democracy movement has revealed a Syria that wishes to base its unity on its diversity. All of its 18 ethnic and religious communities are taking an active part in the uprising; all have experienced brutal repression and made sacrifices. Unlike 1982, the uprising is not confined to the majority Sunni Muslims, some 70% of the population. It is equally supported by Christians, some 12% of the population, and heterodox Muslims including Ismailis, Yazidis, Druzes and even the Assads’ own Nusairi sect. Ethnic communities such as Kurds, Turkmen and Circassians have also joined the revolt.

Unity in diversity is not the only feature of the emerging «other Syria.» This putative new Syria is led by a burgeoning urban middle class open to the modern world.

A key feature of the uprising is its initially spontaneous character. For the first time in Syria, we have a popular movement, with a real prospect of winning power, that has not originated in mosques, army barracks or cabals of conspirators backed by foreign powers. It has no charismatic central leader, a «Zaim» (providential leader) or a «Murshed» (supreme guide). The movement clearly is seeking a break with the tradition of rule by a strongman.

Initially promoted by 19th-century Islamic reformers such as Jamaleddin Assadabadi (aka al-Afghani), the idea of a strong state was used by successive autocratic regimes across the Arab world as an excuse for destroying traditional interfaces such as tribal councils, trade guilds, professional associations and Sufi fraternities in order to concentrate power in the hands of a despot.

But the weakening of civil society did not produce genuinely strong states. Despotic regimes led the Arabs to the edge of bankruptcy and, on a number of occasions, to humiliating defeats in wars they provoked against Israel.

In Syria, the pro-democracy movement’s literature indicates a determination to create instead a strong society, with the state recast to become a servant rather than a master of the people. The idea is to establish a «modern, civil and democratic» state. That determination is also reflected in the way the uprising is organized, with a decentralized leadership structure in which countless local committees operate with a high degree of autonomy. This is one reason why the regime has so far failed to extinguish the fires of revolt.

The passion for autonomy is also reflected in the long negotiations concerning the Syrian National Council, created earlier this month. The 190-member SNC, a coalition of seven parties and more than two dozen associations, represents all of Syria’s ethnic and religious communities. For the first time, it has brought together the Muslim Brotherhood, democratic and liberal groups, dissidents of the ruling Baath Party, and even Kurdish parties seeking independence, under one umbrella—with the local coordination committees in the driving seat. Next month, the SNC will form a General Assembly and seek official recognition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Discarding abstract ideas such as Arab unity, socialism, or the revival of the caliphate, the Syrian movement is concentrating on bread-and-butter issues. This is partly due to the massive role played by women in the uprising. Focused on issues that matter to most Syrians, the movement has steered clear of traditional slogans against Israel, the United States and the «Crusader West.» Instead, its leaders speak of a «Mediterranean destiny» for Syria.

The movement’s literature is replete with a new political lexicon that includes newly minted Arabic words for the rule of law, transparency, pluralism, consensus and human rights. If such terms are on their tongues, one can hope that they are also in their hearts.

Remarkably, the movement has not adopted any of the old hateful slogans once directed against the Nusairi minority that dominates the Assad regime. In fact, Nusairis, who are also known as Alawites, have emerged among the most passionate elements of this revolt.

With their morale boosted by the fall of several Arab despots, especially Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, the Syrian people thirst to join the modern world as a democratic society. The least that the democracies could do is to help protect them against Assad’s massacre machine.

Mr. Taheri is the author of «The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution» (Encounter, 2009).

Syria’s Resilient Revolt
The uprising that began in March is supported by virtually all religious and ethnic communities.

By AMIR TAHERI

Wall Street Journal