By Jade Salhab
You might dislike President Bachar el Assad but he is ironically the best-positioned person to steer a non-sectarian transition to democracy in Syria and the Arab world.
If there is anything we learned from the incredible cataclysm in the Middle East, it’s the following: the quest for freedom and dignity is a) universal and b) inevitable. Democracy - the natural offspring of this quest - can be postponed by oppression but it eventually strikes back… sometimes with a vengeance.
And this is precisely the problem.
As a young Lebanese political activist, I have seen first-hand how brutal the Syrian regime can get. It has managed to survive for twenty-five years by oppressing its people with an efficiency that the Stasi would have envied.
Among other techniques, being a member of the Alawite minority ruling over a Sunni majority, Assad’s father used the imposition of a secular state to protect his rule. In 1982, he went as far as bombarding Hamah – much like Gadhafi indented to do – killing 10,000 people in order to repress a conservative Sunni rebellion.
There is a real risk that today’s uprising against the Syrian regime converges into a vengeance against the secular state altogether. Much of the revolts taking place in Syria now are not lead by Tahrir Square-like modern youth, but by orthodox Sunni activists who are pursuing an embedded sectarian agenda. Will the young Assad use comparable violence to repress today’s Sunni rebels?
I doubt he will: he too learned from Egypt and Libya. But this puts us in a dilemma:
What if the success of these protesters leads to the breakout of a radicalized sectarian discourse in Syria? Will this favor true Arab democracy?
Let me be clear, I do not discount the legitimacy of the protester’s action, nor do I plead for the continuation of repression in any shape or form. But I do think that there is a real need, and a real chance, for a third way in Syria.
This third way lies in the hands of President Assad alone.
Bachar El Assad is a young potential reformer who has not (yet) been able to overcome the established authoritarian apparatus he inherited from his father. Despite early attempts, he was first forced to concede to the ways of a rigid and powerful establishment, with which he eventually became too comfortable. But the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt was a game-changer that made the Syrian regime face its unsustainability and provided the reformist instincts of the president with the tangible arguments he needed to counter his own establishment - and hesitation.
The young president has enough political capital with the majority of the Syrian people to propose a third way and stand up to both extremes – authoritarian apparatchiks and regressive Sunni conservatives. Indeed, the Syrian people need their President to lead them towards democracy without having to endure the havoc they are dreadfully observing around them.
As he attempts to find his way to democracy, however, the increased internal and external pressure might put president Assad on the defense again, preventing any ‘orderly transition’.
Two things need to happen for such a transition to still strive:
First, President Assad has to resolutely decide to implement radical democratic reforms without further delays or excuses. This carries a significant but inescapable risk: democracy would give a platform to both divisive sectarian movements and the separatist Kurdish one, which may complicate the building of a truly secular democratic state by undermining his agenda. Still, the president has to take this risk.
Second Assad needs to be accommodated by the international community who will have to choose to stand by him, not against him. To this extent, western policymakers will have to understand that a modern and democratizing Syria does not necessarily mean a pro-western, anti-Iranian Syria. Indeed, the west often confuses long-term interests with short-term politics: a democratic Syria is highly contagious to its neighborhood and could pretty quickly favor similar evolutions in Iran – let alone depriving it from a crucial ally. A democratic Syria, however, will not change it’s stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and should not be required to do so in return of western support of democratization. The west has to learn to accept democracies with which it disagrees: Syria is a good place to start.
If we dare to hope that the concerned leaders will act wisely, President Assad could reform his own pivotal autocratic regime, therefore removing a keystone from a shaking Middle Eastern order. He would, instead, turn Syria into the cornerstone of a new emancipated, sovereign and democratic Arab world.