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The Real Tragedy of the Arab Spring

Ever since Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation unleashed the seismic shifts of the Arab Spring more than one year ago, the ongoing carnage in Syria has been the most unsettling political revolution. To deny that what is going on in Syria is an armed civil war with major sectarian dimensions is deluded. Although the minority Alawite Assad regime is severely weakened and facing the biggest domestic threat in its modern history, Bashar al-Assad is still hanging on tightly and his notorious military-security apparatus has not suffered any considerable cracks. The prospects for military intervention are unlikely. The recent constitutional reforms are farcical, and the odds that the divided Syrian opposition will topple the regime are also low. The truth is that Syria – not Libya or Egypt – is the real tragedy of the Arab Spring. A sectarian civil war in the geo-strategic Levant mosaic could seriously undermine the regional balance of power.

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Clearly Sectarian

Those who refuse to look at the Syrian crisis from a sectarian prism are misled and misinformed. Ever since the predominantly Sunni rebellion in Hama in 1982 was ruthlessly crushed by Hafez Al-Assad’s armed assault and three weeks of systematic shelling, Sunni strongholds have been particularly restive and although historically scarred from Alawite repression, prone to rebellion. When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, demographic realities were determinative. Sunni Arab urban quarters were the most receptive to the chants demanding Assad’s downfall. The uprising started in Dara’a, a provincial town in the south, before diffusing to Hama, Homs, Rastan, Idlib, and many other areas and villages. Kurdish and Druze areas, which comprise Alawite strongholds, were mainly spared. Homs has seen the most intense violence, mainly because of its demographics: two-thirds Sunni, one-quarter Alawite, and one-tenth Christian. Despite the post-populist authoritarian economic privatization of the 1990s, which created a new business-merchant ruling elite of Sunni technocrats, rents did not trickle down beyond the Sunni business elite, leaving most Sunnis more dispossessed and disaffected than the Alawite, Christian, Circassion, Druze, and other minorities that make up Syria’s eclectic social fabric.Furthermore, combined with economic disinheritance, the Baath Party’s secularist ideology also alienated the more pious and conservative elements of Syria’s Sunni demographic. Such disaffection, exacerbated by the Arab Spring’s regional cascading effects and the breakdown of the political infrastructure of fear is an all-out revolt with indubitable sectarian underpinnings.

The Syrian regime – despite that it hangs on and still enjoys the support of important segments of the population – has lost all political and moral legitimacy, reaching a point of no return due to the estimated 7,000+ deaths according to the United Nations (UN). Diplomatically, the Assad regime is more isolated than ever. What was once the “beating heart of Arab nationalism” has been suspended from the historically irrelevant (and recently rejuvenated) Arab League, dealing a huge blow to the regime’s Arab credentials. Turkey, once Syria’s regional ally, has rhetorically distanced itself from Syria and has imposed official economic sanctions, in addition to hosting refugees and opposition activists. Qatar’s flying-carpet diplomacy has even called for troops to intervene in Syria, while Jordan’s King Abdullah has called for Assad to step down. Russian and Chinese diplomatic support at the UN, vetoing any opprobrious resolution, has been ironclad but is not insensitive to the international tide. Russian support, in its determination not to lose its only foothold in the Middle East (for historical, ideological, military, economic reasons) has been the main impetus behind Bashar’s relentless campaign of terror, giving him unwarranted impunity. China, however, has become less ironclad in its support for the embattled president. Iran’s own domestic turmoil and economic problems, including the possibility of an Israeli strike, has made it retreat from the Syrian alliance. Even Hamas has expressed its support for the Syrian opposition. The fact that Syria has no more friends has dealt the regime fatal blows.

It is imperative that Bashar al-Assad steps down because genuine reform is long overdue. Gadhafi’s murderous campaign against the Benghazi-based rebels pales in comparison to Assad’s brutal crackdown. The regime has reached a point of no return. But to forcefully remove him from power would be increasingly sanguinary, leading to a protracted civil war infused with religious and sectarian impulses; something that could easily spillover to fragile Lebanon or Iraq. Although the best-case scenario would have been a phase of internal political reform, the egregious violence, torture, arrests, and daily bombardments of neighborhoods have made any chance of peaceful transition impossible. The Syrian people can no longer trust Bashar and his Alawite clique.

Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has been the symbol of Syria’s violence. Anti-government rebels controlled swaths of the city before the recent Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) tactical withdrawal. The city has been besieged and systematically bombarded for weeks, pulverized by rockets, artillery, and indiscriminate firepower, overwhelming the light ammunition and guns that army defectors have been using against the regime. The border town of Zabadani, which was rebel-controlled for almost a month, surrendered to government forces in February.

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With particularly vicious sticks, Bashar has also offered carrots. He revised the constitution, after overwhelming approval via referendum, ending single-party dominance, and enshrining other civic freedoms. The revision also instituted two seven-year term limits for the president. These reforms have no credibility, however, and have come too late in the game. Assad believes the interplay between reform and repressive shelling town by town, rather than an all-out assault, is the strategy that will effectively keep him in power and maintain Russia and China’s support at the UN. Although his hold on power is still intact, Assad’s days are clearly numbered. The question now is how to get out of this murderous impasse in a way that doesn’t destabilize the entire region with sectarian flares.

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No Intervention on the Horizon

Many have argued that there is a responsibility to protect the Syrian people. The international tide is turning against the Syrian president, but any chances of intervention are extremely slim. Whether we are talking about a Western military intervention, humanitarian corridors, or a Turkish-GCC led operation, the ramifications could be ugly. Syria is not Libya.

First, a sizable minority of Syrians still support the Assad regime. Many minorities, including Christians, Druze, and Shi’as fear that a Sunni rebel victory would be vindictive and not much less ruthless than Assad’s crackdown. Chaos in Syria could also spill over to neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, or Turkey. This could reignite an insurgency not dissimilar to the one we saw in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

Second, Syria’s army is more powerful than Gadhafi’s. Despite the fact that it has obsolete Soviet weapons, the army’s high-ranking officer corps is still loyal and is still a professional fighting force with combat experience. Intervention, would likely lead to a merciless escalation of violence that risks prolonging the civil war. There is a big difference between Libya’s sparsely populated desert and the urban suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo. Besides, the Syrian opposition does not control any territorial strongholds like the National Transitional Council (NTC) did in Benghazi, which would make the flow of arms and coordination much more difficult.

Because of its pivotal role in the region, Syria might become a playground for different powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to flex their muscles and exert their clout along sectarian lines.

The last troubling facet that complicates military intervention is the Syrian opposition. It lacks unity, and their operations from Paris and Ankara have made them detached from the FSA’s reality on the street. The Syrian National Council is a fractious and divided collection of exiles, grass-roots organizers, militants and army defectors who have yet to agree on a method for overthrowing the Syrian regime. Not only is Assad’s opposition divided , but what’s more the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – the most repressed branch in any Arab country – could become increasingly extreme thus threatening further violence.

All talk of “humanitarian corridors” or rebel-free zones is shortsighted and serves no practical purpose, since that would only embolden the Syrian regime and legitimate the army’s crackdown, playing into the hands of Bashar, possibly creating a “rally around the flag” effect. The moderates who represent the bulk of the populace could easily be brought to the regime’s side in the event of any violation of sovereignty. There is also very little political will in the West and in the Arab World for another military adventure, since the Middle East and Western Europe has its own share of domestic priorities and internal problems.

Thus, there is no way to intervene in a minimalist, humanitarian way that does not risk going wrong. The situation in Syria right now would pale in comparison to the possibility of an unsuccessful military intervention.


What to do then?

Getting out of the current impasse is not easy, but a few conditions must materialize before we can think of a post-Assad future. First, Syria’s disputatious opposition must unite. This way, more robust diplomatic links with the outside could be established, and money, logistics, and humanitarian aid could flow in more smoothly. If a leader emerges within the opposition, those nervous about change – the Christians, business elites, Kurds, and other minorities – could have their fears alleviated.

Russia will not back Assad forever. As the Assad regime crumbles from within, due to economic sanctions and military defections, Russia will not be as comfortable and its naval base in Tartus will become threatened. Business elites are sending their capital abroad and the Syrian pound is undergoing devaluation. Global norms have changed as well. Although the international response to the Syrian crisis has been feeble, at some point – even if it means costing lives – Russia will distance itself from its Syrian ally and follow the international current. The Arab League should take on a more active role, in rhetoric and in actions, and pressure Russia and China to abandon Assad; this could compel Assad to engage the opposition to find a way out of this bloody debacle. Assad’s days are obviously numbered, but the answers to how exactly he will exit and when will bring more bloodshed.


–  Jaïs Mehaji


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