The Arab Spring has provided scholars and analysts with a laboratory to observe radical social change. Tunisia and Egypt taught us about non-violent resistance and the power of the people to overcome regime repression. In Libya, we saw tribal, regional, national, and international actors whose interests intersected to create allies out of discordant ideological and religious entities. The Yemen uprising revealed the limitation of popular will in the face of regional and international apathy. In Syria, one could argue that national and international actors prematurely started an uprising to dislodge a regime that failed to conform to Western dictates. Importantly, one must ask why Assad remains popular despite his suppression of dissent, a topic rarely discussed in western media. Though the Syrian uprising is ongoing, we can learn as much from it as we can from the experiences of other Arab Spring countries.
The path of the uprising in Syria is undoubtedly different from that of the uprisings that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. But its causes are not necessarily different. Before the March 2011 Syrian uprising, Bashar al-Assad predicted that Syria would be immune to the Arab Spring because his regime’s policies were popular among the Arab masses. He was partly right. However, he overestimated his political capital with the Syrians and underestimated the fundamental similarity his regime shares with other Arab regimes: a single clan’s monopoly on power.
Arguably, Assad’s alignment with popular Arab causes has bought him some goodwill. But such goodwill is exhaustible especially in the face of the similarities he shares with the rest of the Arab regimes: Assad’s family, like that of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Salah, and Qaddafi, has ruled the country far too long. The Arab people are tired of leaders who monopolize political and economic power. The Arab Spring, therefore, seems to be about ending perpetual rule, not about rewarding populism or benevolent leadership. Ending perpetual rule, in my estimation, is the cause of the initial Syrian uprising and the key to resolving the conflict.
It is true that regional and global powers are partly to blame for the current militarized conflict in Syria. But it is also true that Assad’s failure to share power deprived him of support that could have helped him withstand foreign meddling. He can rightly claim that foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are overtly interested in toppling his regime, but he cannot deny that he and his family have ruled Syria the same way other Arab dictators have ruled their countries—for decades. Without admitting this fact, the bloodshed will go on and regional players will continue to gamble with the blood of the Syrian people.
Assad could save Syrian lives, end the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and safeguard state institutions by resigning and transferring power to a transitional government. That government must then usher in an era of shared governance beyond clannish, ethnic, and religious interests and control. Simply put, Assad is not the only person who could govern Syria. Surely, there are many other qualified Syrians who could lead their country out of this crisis. To insist that one person and only one person could save Syria from terrorists and foreign enemies is to confirm the authoritarian character of the regime.
Assad and the armed militias are responsible for much death and destruction. Neither of them could govern and heal the country. If Assad retains power, extremists will continue to fight. If armed groups violently take over governmental institutions, civil war will ensue. The quickest path to stability is through a solution that safeguards state institutions. With so much blood and destruction, no leader can afford to be stubborn: nearly 20,000 dead, more than 500,000 refugees, and a wrecked economy should be enough to force any responsible leader to step down. In fact, Assad’s resignation could restore hope for Syria, and isolate extremists and foreign opportunists at the same time.
By contrast, the military solution legitimizes violence and creates space for extremism. Armed militias hijacked the peaceful uprising. They claimed that military resistance was needed to protect civilians. Instead, they risked civilian lives and property. They entered neighborhood after neighborhood, town after town, and then withdrew under fire in what they call “tactical retreat.” Behind them, they leave civilians to the mercy of government troops and their affiliated gangs. Even in cases when regime forces make no reprisals, frightened residents are left to live in terror or are forced to pack and leave their homes. These scenarios alone speak to the virtues of civil resistance, not militarized confrontation.
The eventual fall or resignation of Assad should send a strong message to other Arab authoritarians who think that their financial generosity, cosmetic reform, populism, or religious standing could confer on them a right to perpetual reign. It is evident that a people’s dignity rests on the idea that all citizens are born with the inherent right to participate in public life in meaningful and significant ways. That dignity necessarily includes the right to live without fear, and to run for political office or endorse their peers for positions of power. The era of passive consent to perpetual governance premised on a thin veneer of populism is over.
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