It is almost a year ago that Syrian citizens, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, courageously took to the streets in protest against the decades-long denial of their basic rights by the Assad regime. The revolution signaled the return of politics to Syria, and the re-emergence of the famed Syrian criticism, satire and wit. The public sphere, long out of bounds to ordinary citizens, has been reclaimed with a vengeance, as Syrians impose their presence on streets and squares, and regain control of their lives.
But they are paying a heavy price for freedom. Thousands have lost their lives, remain in detention, or have been forced into exile. Daily crackdowns on protesters did not stop during the six month presence of Arab observers, who finally withdrew on January 28, 2012.
Most observers agree that the regime’s days are numbered. But it remains resilient, and the question is how long it will be allowed to prolong the conflict and inflict further damage on citizens, the national economy, and the country’s social structures. While the regime’s power appears to be gradually disintegrating, there is not enough information on the scale of internal divisions to forecast the tipping point. For the first time, it is abandoning its narrative that “everything is under control” and admits that it has lost its grip on parts of the countryside and provincial towns. However it seems to be willing to absorb some losses so as to focus its military actions on securing strategic locations elsewhere. Until now, there are no defections of entire military regiments of the army, and security agencies remain cohesive. The army still has the ability to retake ‘liberated’ areas and, probably due to international media attention, has not resorted to other military means at its disposal, such as the air-force.
‘Syria is not only Syria’ is a mantra that has surfaced repeatedly in debates in the Arab media, reflecting the sharp ideological divide on whether with the Syrian regime the last supposed Arab ‘bulwark against imperialism’ will crumble. While the regime’s demise is expected to reverberate widely, regional and international players enjoy only limited leverage. Most Western governments have abandoned calls for reform and now favor regime change, hoping that this will also weaken Hizbullah and Iran. In the meantime, the regime wagers on the support of Russia and China to help ease international pressure amidst political isolation and an increasingly dismal economic situation. Neither the Syrian opposition groupings, the Arab League, nor regional powers such as Turkey seem to be able to chart an effective roadmap that meets international agreement.
As time passes, despair is growing and peaceful solutions are becoming less likely. A collapse of the regime is not imminent and much will depend on a negotiated transition that could prevent the country from descending into a protracted war. After the UN Security Council failed to pass even a watered-down resolution for a political transition that excludes military intervention and punitive measures, Syrians are now convinced that they are left to their own devices. Heightened confrontations during the past weeks indicate that the stalemate is gradually pushing the essentially civil uprising over the brink into an armed struggle. The main locations of the uprising are the provinces and urban suburbs, where militarization could contribute to the growth of local factionalism. The protest movement is trying its best to fend off communal tensions but sectarian conflict is likely if the regime decides that this is its only option to hang on to power.
For the first time, Syria has made it into the daily headlines, with plenty of analysis. Yet, few understand its diverse and complex social makeup, or its seemingly contradictory relations with regional states and sub-state actors. Syria as a topic for research has long been marginalized in cultural, social, and political studies.
The Syrian authors who contributed to this issue of Perspectives Middle East, despite facing obstacles at home, expressed a concern for “helping foreigners understand the Syrian people”. Syrians, whether they are in the country or in exile, are living moments that are marked by both high hopes and deep agony. We wish to cordially thank the authors for their effort and time.
Heinrich Böll Foundation
Middle East Office