Syria: a tale of missed opportunity

The intellectual ground for an Arab democratic revolution was prepared in Syria a decade ago. But Syria’s leadership wasted the chances for a soft transition, says Carsten Wieland.

Syria as many have known it for decades ceased to exist in March 2011, and no matter how the present upheavals end that country will not be revived. The protests that are shaking the the Ba’ath regime under Bashar al-Assad and its delicate fabric of explicit and implicit rules - now approaching their eighth month - have forced tectonic political concessions that years of civil-society activism were unable to win. The rooted fear of the security state has given way to nationwide bursts of anger and hope.

President al-Assad is no longer dealing with a group of mostly elderly intellectuals calling for political pluralism and civil rights, and he may yet regret having treated them like a bunch of criminals when they founded debating clubs and discussed a smooth landing for Syria’s transition. Many of them even shared the Ba’athists’ pan-Arab and anti-Israeli stance.

The president may come to miss being confronted only with elaborate declarations, lists of signatures and critical articles in the Lebanese press that were meant for domestic Syrian consumption; to regret the days when the civil-society movement could have become secular partners and bridges in negotiating change with more radical and/or Islamist forces;  to yearn for cosy Damascus days in which discontent meant debates in teahouse backrooms among the smoke of water-pipes - not conflict in the streets among the smoke of guns.

What went wrong?

The beginnings

In May 2003, just after the Iraq war, Syrian opposition supporters were surprised to hear a central regime figure commend the opposition for its prudence and even for its goals. Bahjat Suleiman, the former powerful head of the Syrian intelligence service - of all people - wrote in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir:

“in Syria, the regime does not have enemies but ‘opponents’ whose demands do not go beyond certain political and economic reforms such as the end of the state of emergency and of martial law, the adoption of a law on political parties, and the equitable redistribution of national wealth.”

By contrast, the project of forced regime change was on the agenda of United States politicians and exiled Syrian opposition groups.

Against this background it is not so surprising that soon after the start of the Syrian protests of 2011, representatives of the civil-society movement were approached by the notorious security service. Those mukhabarat officers who normally invite them for a conversation in order to arrest them or send warning-shots now asked them to somehow revive their opposition movement. But it was already too late for even these kinds of elaborated games. No safety-valve seems of use anymore, especially after the experiences of Arab north Africa.

Even now, after more than seven months, nobody knows how the Syrian conflict will end. Syria, after all - its foreign-policy setting, ideological constitution, social composition - differs from Tunisia or Egypt. The minimal outcome is that power relations will be renegotiated. The maximal outcome is a regime change, meaning that Bashar al-Assad would have lost his balance in the long manouevre between piecemeal (and sometimes cosmetic) reforms and the need for more fundamental change.

The start of the protests resembled others in the Arab world. There are minor incidents such as the spraying of anti-government graffiti by kids in the southern town of Dera’a. The lower-level security forces are not used to civil protests and de-escalation strategies, and thus overreact. Anger rises and triggers wider protests, countered by more brutal force.

The president keeps a low profile, while his advisers and ministers appear before the cameras to explain the situation. When force does not suffice to suppress the agitation, the regime (or parts thereof) attempts to criminalise the protests or taint them with sectarianism. With further escalation, it tries political accommodation. The monarch (actual or republican) reshuffles the government and sacks those responsible of the regional hotspots. If the pressure continues to rise, painful political concessions follow. These that come a few days or weeks late tend to lose their reconciling effect.

As late as 31 January 2011, Bashar al-Assad spoke (in an interview with the Wall Street Journal) of a “new era” in the middle east in which Arab rulers would need to do more to accommodate their people's rising political and economic aspirations. "If you didn't see the need of reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it's too late to do any reform", he said. Then al-Assad - routinely referred to by the WSJ as “Syria’s Strongman” - assured himself and his listeners: "Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence…you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances."

Al-Assad thought then that he still had time to sit out the Arab revolutions and portray himself as a popular Arab leader and reformer. He had several grounds for this belief: among the strongest that he had never allied with the US or Israel and was thus closer to Syria’s public opinion, that he maintained order in times of turbulence in Iraq and Lebanon, that his regime safeguarded a tolerant coexistence of religious and ethnic groups, and that the young leader always kept a rather humble image (in contrast to other sons of dictators like those of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi). In addition, among some circles he managed to keep the image of a reformer blocked by a quasi-“old guard”.

There was also a degree of progress in the ten years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule since the death of his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, in areas that do not directly touch matters of democracy or human rights. The media became more diverse and free as long as they did not cross the red lines (especially in politics, religion, and sex); spaces of freedom of expression increased in literature and arts; Syrians had more access to information, from satellite TV to blogging sites and foreign media, and more had access to cellphones and other modern equipment; women’s organisations gained strength and more space to manoeuvre, even if they are not legally registered or supportive of the government.

Bashar al-Assad also had some support among the population, even if only for fear of worse. The early pro-regime demonstrations (especially in Damascus and Latakia) may have been orchestrated but were also emotionally real for participating Syrians. Many members of religious minorities in Syria such as Christians and Druze have watched the  upheavals with uneasiness and alarm; even more so adherents of Alawi tribes who are afraid of a backlash from the Sunni majority. But the moderate Sunni merchant also kept its alliance with the al-Assad regime.

Together, minorities and moderate Sunnis compose far more than 50% of Syria’s population and political constituency. Here is the first big opportunity that al-Assad lost, shortly after he took power. If he had had the courage to confront vested interests and obsolete Ba’athist structures in the early years, he could even have called for free elections and won them.

Then, as a genuinely popular leader he could have confronted the militarist policies of George W Bush with much more credibility, without retreating to dusty pan-Arab Ba’athist or even Islamist rhetoric. When Turkey’s parliament rejected US demands to use Turkish air-bases for the Iraq war, Washington had no choice but to accept it since this was the democratically legitimated will of the people.

The three waves

It didn’t happen, leaving the old Syrian opposition to reflect that they were the intellectual pioneers of the Arab revolutions of 2011 - whereas the Tunisians turned out to be the champions in practice. In the middle of the short-lived “Damascus spring”, in September 2000, Syrian oppositionists (under Michel Kilo’s lead) wrote the Manifesto of the 99; this was followed in December 200 by the Manifesto of the 1,000. This was the heyday of the young civil-society movement, made up mainly of intellectuals and academics. Their aim was (as as Alan George put it) both bread and freedom,

Riad Seif, a member of parliament and an entrepreneur, went furthest. In his companies, he held up social standards and proposed social-democratic ideas; in political terms, he called for a constitutional state, a fair market economy, an independent parliament, independent courts, and a free media.

When Seif announced his intention to found a party, he crossed the red line and was arrested. The Damascus spring was crushed and the debating clubs closed. A new party law that was meant to break the monopoly of the Ba’ath lay in the drawers for many years of al-Assad’s rule; so did various other promises such as tackling legal discrimination against citizens of Kurdish ethnicity and granting NGOs a reliable legal framework for their activities. In official rhetoric, the lifting of martial law was always tied to the end of hostilities with Israel and the liberation of the Golan heights. The events of 2011 have deprived the regime of one political trump card after the other.

The massive protests reached Syria precisely at a time when the regime was in a phase of increased suppression of oppositional forces, be they old and secular ones or the new breed of internet activists. This increased repression came while Syria had been, since 2008, able to ease its international isolation and diversify its foreign policy.

Those successes lay in a series of decisions that reflected a break with previous ideological and foreign-policy paradigms, reflecting both raison d'état and desperation about an environment that put the very existence of the Syrian regime in danger. But the hope that Syria would adopt domestic reforms once it did not feel threatened from abroad did not materialise. Rather, despite a relaxation in international affairs and Syria’s re-emergence on the Arab and international stage, the suppression of political dissenters and human-rights defenders continued and even increased in 2009-10.

Al-Assad’s decade in power shows three waves of suppression. The first was in 2001, a clampdown on the mushrooming debating clubs of the civil-society movement. Soon after the Damascus spring was suppressed it became clear that, after political and administrative reforms had been discarded, economic reform remained the smallest common denominator. Al-Assad tried to embark on the Chinese model.
In the context of American threats of regime change, no democratic experiments could be expected.

Nevertheless, hope for change persisted even through 2003-04 when the Syrian Ba’ath regime was entrenched in harsh ideological opposition to the Iraq war. The increasing pressure on Syria to leave Lebanon (especially from Saudi Arabia, France and the United States, underlined by United Nations Resolution 1559), even more after the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, were expressed domestically by greater pursuit of Syria’s opposition.

Yet the obvious weakness of al-Assad’s regime at the time allowed the secular opposition to catch momentum, encouraged by western diplomats and politicians. A historic step toward a more unified opposition was achieved through the “Damascus declaration” of 16 October 2005. For the first time, all major opposition groups - from the secular civil-society movement to Kurdish activists, moderate Muslims, and even the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in London - issued a broad call for democratic change in Syria.

The lengthy document called for an end to the emergency laws and other forms of political repression, for a national conference on democratic change, and for a constituent assembly to shape a new constitution “that foils adventurers and extremists”. The declaration was composed by the head of the civil-society movement, the Christian journalist Michel Kilo.

All these documents were moderate and responsible; no radical positions were found, no statues toppled, no voices of regime change heard. Al-Assad could have still have been part of the solution instead of sitting out important changes and protecting the vested interests of his family clan and other constituencies.

The second wave of suppression followed suit in the first half of 2006 when those who had been spared in 2001 (like Kilo and human-rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni) were arrested. The hunt for signatories of the Damascus declaration was linked to accusations that they were pursuing a pro-western agenda.

Both repressive spasms followed a certain logic where domestic and foreign-policy events interrelated. The third wave of suppression against secular opposition and human-rights activists started in late 2009 when Syria had already celebrated its re-emergence onto the international stage. Its signal was the arrest of senior human-rights advocate Haitham Maleh, head of the Human Rights Association of Syria, in October 2009; it continued in the following months with various travel bans and intimidation of intellectuals.

In the three waves of suppression, the Ba’ath regime silenced above all the moderate and secular voices that have called for a pluralisation of Syrian society and piecemeal reforms.  Islamist currents gained ground, partly due to the general trend of Islamisation in the Arab middle east from which Syria could not insulate itself. Yet there were other reasons for the growing influence of Islamists: the ruling-class strategy to let the Islamist danger simmer and present it as a deterrent (“it’s either them or us”); the use of violent Islamists as a convenient instrument to weaken the US occupying power in Iraq; Damascus’s foreign-policy links (despite its secular orientation) with Islamist partners like Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas, which have a domestic effect).

The democratic heart

The three waves of suppression were foreshadowed in the selective view of democracy already apparent in Bashar al-Assad’s inaugural speech in June 2000: “We cannot apply the democracy of others to ourselves. Western democracy, for example, is the outcome of a long history that resulted in customs and traditions, which distinguish the current culture of Western societies. […] We have to have our democratic experience which is special to us, which stems from our history, culture, civilisation, and which is a response to the needs of our society and the requirements of our reality.”

Even some western politicians and diplomats bought this discourse of a “cultural path to democracy” when it was politically opportune. Michel Kilo uttered his frustration over the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who on his visit to Damascus in September 2008 tried to reinforce good relations with Syria and reiterated al-Assad’s message that as the west had created its democracy according to its history and culture, so would Syria. The opposition intellectual reminded the French ambassador in Damascus that it was the French who had created the notion of universal human rights. The Syrian secular philosopher Sadiq a-Azm too warned against the effort to recycle the notion of “Asian human rights” as Malaysia or China have, or its partners “western human rights” or “Islamic human rights”.

The movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and other Arab states have proven at least four things:

* The aspirations of people have proven very similar and universal. They oppose poverty, corruption, censorship, intimidation, the absence of rule of law, perceived social injustices and a lack of personal freedoms. Thus the call for accountability, freedom and political pluralism has no “cultural colouring” or religious impetus - it is wholly compatible with demands elsewhere in the world

* From its origin, these grievances and aspirations are articulated against their rulers without any foreign spark or intervention. This does not exclude foreign influence in the course of events, such as on Egypt’s military or Syrian or other oppositional figures in exile

* The high degree of civility, creativity, articulacy, restraint, peacefulness, communitarian spirit, and solidarity (social, religious and ethnic) during the protests have shown in a remarkable way that Arabs are mature enough for democracy. True, the protests of necessity became militarised in Libya and a sectarian tinge may be inevitable in a highly diverse country like Syria. But these repercussions have to be considered separately from the original impetus of the uprisings

* The carriers of the revolutions come from different strata of society, including the very active ingredient of a modern but politically subjugated middle class that is exposed both to economic shocks and to fears of socio-economic decline. Most protesters in the Tahrir Square and its equivalents across the Arab world have not been inspired or even impressed by the ancient slogan “Islam is the solution”.

Bashar al-Assad had so many possibilities and opportunities and missed them all. Now, after the months of intense protest and repression in 2011, Syria has changed beyond return. In November 2010, Michel Kilo reflected on the failure of the civil-society movement. He complained that the movement was stopped in its first phase without being able to trigger the foundation of parties or broaden the circle of supporters. But Syria’s educated middle class had acquired new awareness by being sensitised to revolutionary patterns in Europe. “Once the spark ignites the younger generation we can withdraw”, Kilo said in a reflective mood. “At least we have paved the way.”

For his part, Bashar Al-Assad’s words in January 2011 still sound almost prophetic: “Is it going to be a new era toward more chaos or more institutionalisation? That is the question", he said. “The end is not clear yet.”

About the author

Carsten Wieland is a political consultant and journalist, specialising in the middle east. His latest book is A Decade of Lost Chances: Repression and Revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring (Cune Press, 2012). He studied history, political science, international relations and philosophy at Humboldt University (Berlin), Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and Duke University (North Carolina), before working as a research fellow at Georgetown University (Washington). He is the author of Syria - Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism and Secularism in the Levant (CUNE Press, 2006) and Syria at Bay: Secularism, Islamism and ‘Pax Americana' (C Hurst, 2005). His website is here

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Carsten Wieland is a political consultant and journalist, specialising in the middle east. He studied history, political science, international relations and philosophy at Humboldt University (Berlin), Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and Duke University (North Carolina), before working as a research fellow at Georgetown University (Washington). He is the author of Syria - Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism and Secularism in the Levant (CUNE Press, 2006) and Syria at Bay: Secularism, Islamism and ‘Pax Americana' (C Hurst, 2005). His website is here

This essay, with some variations, is also published by the Middle East Research and Information Project (Merip)

Also by Carsten Wieland in openDemocracy:

"Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel" (9 November 2006)

"The Syrian conundrum" (16 April 2007)

"The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting" (27 May 2008)

"The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009) 

"Turkey's political-emotional transition" (6 October 2009)