by Peter Harling , Sarah Birke | published February 24, 2012
Syrians are approaching the one-year anniversary of what has become the most tragic, far-reaching and uncertain episode of the Arab uprisings. Since protesters first took to the streets in towns and villages across the country in March 2011, they have paid an exorbitant price in a domestic crisis that has become intertwined with a strategic struggle over the future of Syria.
The regime of Bashar al-Asad has fought its citizens in an unsuccessful attempt to put down any serious challenge to its four-decade rule, leaving several thousand dead. Many more languish in jail. The regime has polarized the population, rallying its supporters by decrying the protesters as saboteurs, Islamists and part of a foreign conspiracy. In order to shore up its own ranks, it has played on the fears of the ‘Alawi minority from which the ruling family hails, lending the conflict sectarian overtones. All these measures have pushed a growing number of young men on the street — and a small but steady stream of army defectors — to put up an armed response, while impelling large sections of the opposition to seek financial, political and military help from abroad. Loyalist units have taken considerable casualties from the armed rebels, and the regime has hit back with disproportionate force.
Events have aided the regime in its attempt to dismiss the protest movement and further tip the balance from nominal reform to escalating repression, fueling a vicious cycle that has turned sporadic clashes into a nascent civil war. In a sense, the regime may already have won: By pushing frustrated protesters to take up arms and the international community to offer them support, it is succeeding in disfiguring what it saw as the greatest threat to its rule, namely the grassroots and mostly peaceful protest movement that demanded profound change. In another sense, the regime may already have lost: By treating too broad a cross-section of the Syrian people as the enemy, and giving foreign adversaries justification to act, it seems to have forged against itself a coalition too big to defeat. At a minimum, Bashar al-Asad has reversed his father’s legacy: Through tenacious diplomacy over three decades (from his takeover in 1970 to his death in 2000), Hafiz al-Asad made Syria, formerly a prize in the regional strategic game, a player in its own right. In less than a year, Bashar’s obduracy will have done the opposite, turning actor into arena.
At the start of February, the regime stepped up its assault by using heavy weapons against rebellious neighborhoods of Homs, the third-largest city in Syria and the most religiously mixed one to become a hub of the uprising. The escalation was bolstered by Russia and China, which on February 4 blocked the Arab League-inspired, Western-backed attempts to pass a resolution at the UN Security Council condemning the violence and suggesting a plan for a negotiated solution by which Asad would hand over power to a deputy, who would form a unity government ahead of elections. The assumption in Moscow, which fears instability and views the struggle in Syria as a contest with the West, is that the regime will succeed in defeating both the ongoing protest movement and the emerging insurgency. In so doing, runs Russian reasoning, Syria’s regime will reassert its control over the country and compel at least significant parts of the opposition to negotiate on its own terms — preferably in Moscow.
This outcome seems unlikely. Behind all the bloody, one-off battles lies a picture of this country of 23 million slipping out of the regime’s control. Over a period of 11 months, the regime has altogether failed to cow protesters through its mixture of violent intimidation and offers of paltry reforms.
Time and time again, the regime has proved its promises to reform, already grudging and tardy, to be largely empty as well. The lifting of emergency law in April 2011, for example, did not stop the shooting or arbitrary detention of protesters. Pulling in the leash on the security services, whose harassment of citizens fed the anger of the uprising, is off the table, for fear that it would weaken the regime’s hold on the country. Any measure that could jeopardize the ruling clique’s unaccountable reign is equally out of the question. What can be changed is what matters least. The Baath Party’s role will certainly decrease, but Syria is a one-party state no longer: It is a state of a few families and multiple security services, who have long used resistance to US imperialism and Israeli occupation as a substitute for clear political vision. Participation in the legislative branch of government will be opened to the tamest of oppositions and perhaps in the cabinet as well; real decision-making happens in the presidential palace, anyway. The regime has set the ceiling on reforms low. Its calls for “dialogue” are designed only to legitimize this course of action.