After a period of calm in the first three months of the Arab Spring, protests in Syria have now entered their eighth week. Protests that started in Deraa spread to dozens of towns and cities, and, although the uprising has not yet reached the scope of the Egyptian or Tunisian uprisings, it is proving more costly in human lives. Already over 850 people have been killed and thousands of others have been wounded. And there is still no indication that the opposition or the government will be able to resolve the situation in its favor anytime soon.
The regime initially appeared to be following the Algerian example of pursuing a combination of narrow socio-economic concessions and promises of some reform on the one hand, and limited repression on the other. However, the overreaction of local security officials in Deraa to what was initially a minor infraction by local youths led to a popular uprising there; and events in Deraa then led to sympathetic protests around the country. The youths of Deraa who were abused by the local security forces became the “Muhammad Bouazizi” of Syria, and Deraa became its “Sidi Bouzid.” Bouazizi, of course, is the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, launching the Arab Spring.
The Deraa events—like those in other Arab countries—unleashed long-held discontent against repression, authoritarian rule, corruption, and poor socio-economic conditions. Regardless of how the situation evolves, Syria will not revert to its previous status quo, and any new order will have to take into account the new Arab demands for more accountable and democratic governments, freer societies, and more equitable socio-economic policies.
If observers have learned anything from the Arab uprisings, it is that they are hard to predict. The people have surprised their governments and themselves. Nevertheless, several scenarios in Syria are conceivable going forward.
First, the regime’s attempt to manage the protests by force might work for a period of time, as has been the case in Iran since the 2009 elections, and to some degree in Yemen. However, as the experience of both countries shows, this repression does not resolve the problem but simply postpones the eventual need to grapple with the underlying political issues raised by the protests.
Under a second scenario, President Bashar al-Assad could choose, after this set of bloody clashes, to veer back toward his earlier talk of implementing political reforms. A group of Syrian opposition figures, grouped under the National Initiative for Change, issued a recipe for reform in late April. It included: freeing all political prisoners; conducting a dialogue with protest and opposition groups; disbanding military and field courts; rewriting the constitution to ensure basic citizens’ rights and democratic institutions; passing a democratic political parties law, media law, and election law; forming a transitional government; and organizing fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.
The group argues that the only alternative to reform is a wider uprising that would sweep away the regime; the regime might feel that implementing these reforms would effectively put it out of business. What is possible is that Assad might cherry-pick some of these reforms and hope that a partial implementation might assuage enough of Syrian public opinion to take the momentum out of the wave of protests while preserving the main elements of the regime. However, skeptics argue that even if the president wished to do so—which is far from clear—there are many powerful figures around him who would oppose such a move. Additionally, what might have been enough to satisfy protestors a few weeks ago may no longer be sufficient after so much bloodshed.
If protests continue to escalate, a third scenario could find the regime facing a moment of truth similar to that in Tunisia and Egypt, where ruling elements and institutions decided that they had to sacrifice major elements of the regime in order to save it. In such a scenario, leaders within the armed forces or other influential institutions might seek the removal of major figures associated with repression and corruption. They might also offer the Syrian public a new deal—similar to that in Egypt and Tunisia—based on promises of constitutional reform and elected civilian authorities, but with a continued powerful role for the armed forces. There is no evidence of such a move, although the National Initiative for Change has openly called for the army’s mediation, and there have been numerous reports of some army units refusing to participate in repressive actions.
A fourth scenario involves an escalating spiral of protest and repression that becomes polarized along confessional and ethnic lines, and leads to a drawn-out civil war and the collapse of the state. The most tense fault line is that between Alawis and Sunnis, although Christians are afraid of being targeted if order collapses, and Kurdish-Arab tensions could also escalate if chaos erupts. Civil wars have taken place previously in Syria’s neighbors, Iraq and Lebanon, and they are a looming possibility for Syria as well.
The regime has repeatedly made the case that any attempts to weaken it might expose Syria to the risk of civil war, but protestors have consistently emphasized—in their marches and slogans—the themes of national unity among all ethnic and confessional communities in Syria. Reports from Syria say that Sunni-Alawi tensions are high, but these tensions have not erupted so far into open sectarian confrontations. If that were to happen, it would probably lead to a rapid spiral of violence that the government could not control.
Whatever happens, the crisis in Syria has already cast a wide shadow in the Levant. In Lebanon, uncertainty about the future course of events in Syria has further paralyzed politics. It has put into question the balance of power between the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition and pro-Western March 14 coalition, and slowed the attempts by Prime Minister-Designate Najib Mikati to form a new government. Syria’s allies—who recently scored a victory in securing the support of Druze leader Walid Junblatt and bringing down Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government in January—are feeling vulnerable. And the March 14 movement, which felt roundly defeated a few months ago, is feeling more empowered now. The wider worry in Lebanon is of the risk of civil war in Syria, which, if it starts, could spread to Lebanon with devastating consequences for both countries and all communities.
Additionally, relations between Syria and Turkey have deteriorated dramatically. Turkey had invested much in its relationship with the Syrian government and saw Syria as a gateway to the Arab world. The Turkish government early on expressed support for Assad, but urged him publicly and privately to implement significant reforms. When the reforms were not forthcoming, and were replaced with repression, Ankara expressed its disappointment and disapproval.
The government in Damascus, on the other hand, complained that Turkey was acting in a high-handed manner by dictating policy to Syria. It was particularly angered by the April meeting of the Syrian opposition in Istanbul, which included the exiled Muslim Brotherhood as well as other Islamist and opposition groups. News outlets close to the government in Damascus charged that the ruling Justice and Development Party was trying to build its influence in Syria and Egypt by pushing for the Muslim Brotherhood to play leading roles in those countries; they also threatened that Syria could encourage Kurdish and Alawi unrest in Turkey if Ankara insisted on encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, these tensions could ruin the Syrian-Turkish relationship, which had been painstakingly rebuilt in the past decade after almost a century of hostility.
The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have sent multiple envoys to Syria, publicly expressing support for “security in Syria and the program of reform led by President Assad.” This positive rhetoric probably reflects their gratitude for Syria’s support—in contradiction of Iran’s position—for GCC action in Bahrain, and their general concern that pro-democracy movements might spread from Tunisia and Egypt toward the Arab East and the Gulf. GCC envoys are probably also arguing that, in exchange for their support, Damascus should further distance itself from Iran and its allies in the region.
The events in Syria have already impacted the Palestinians—Hamas declined to take a position on the Syrian confrontations and proceeded with an Egyptian-brokered deal with Fatah without coordinating with Damascus. Hamas has gained a friend in the new Egypt, and is now less dependent on Syria. Jordan, meanwhile, is concerned about events in Syria, fearing drawn-out bloodshed and instability next door, and hoping that the government can contain the crisis—not only through security measures, but by moving forward rapidly with meaningful reforms.
Israel and the United States, for their part, are uncertain about Syria’s future. They have no affinity for the Syrian government, which has opposed Israeli occupation and U.S. policy in the region for years. But they also fear an Islamist turn in Syria if the current regime collapses. Washington was pleased with Syria’s position on Bahrain, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Assad the benefit of the doubt by saying that she believed he could still deliver reform. But the U.S. administration is taking a much harder position as bloodshed continues. In sum, it is clear that Syria’s handling of the crisis so far has cost the country dearly in terms of loss of life, injury, and internal stability and prosperity. It has also damaged Syria’s regional and international relations.
The best-case scenario would be for the president to accept the need for rapid and fundamental reform, and be able to move ahead in implementing many of the reforms enunciated by the National Initiative for Change. But this appears increasingly unlikely. The worst-case scenario is that the situation in Syria spirals downward into the abyss of civil war. One can only hope that Syria finds a way to overcome this dangerous stalemate.
It is not the first time in world history that an authoritarian regime has been pressed by its population to become more democratic. Leaders of the regime can either enable change or stand in its way and risk being swept along by the tide of history.