Friday, September 7, 2012

Syria: enter the worst-case scenario



Bassem Hassan

 
Well over a year ago – 16 months to be precise –shortly after the start of the Syrian revolt against the Baathist regime, I made the prediction on this blog that the regime’s violent response was the sort of grave error that would put what was then still largely a peaceful popular uprising at a point of no return.

Truth be told, that was more hope than insight, and an optimistic bet that the fires of the Arab Spring would not be quelled in Syria. Today, no more than 18 months since the start of the Syrian uprising it has potentially reached a second point of no return. This prediction however, is the product of fear and a gut-wrenching pessimism, rather than hope. The revolt in Syria is going to triumph, to be sure and the regime will, sooner or later, fall. The question is what comes next. Judging by the current situation, the outlook is far from rosy. It is rather crimson: the color of blood. Many areas in Syria today are in a veritable state of civil war. Encounters with many Syrians living in Lebanon reveal tales that are eerily familiar. Neighbors with whom one shared one’s life, are suddenly turning into mortal enemies simply because they are of a different sect. The burning of houses and the killing of innocent civilians is going on in Syria at two levels: the horrendous atrocities committed almost daily by the regime, and the “spontaneous” attacks among the population on the basis of sectarian and ethnic differences. This does not bode well for the post-Baathist era and the long term future of Syria, as a chilling New York Times report from a Syrian refugee camp reveals. We would argue that a sectarian civil war is in fact a greater danger to the Syrian revolt, than the power of the regime’s security forces.

There is, however, a second, equally profound, threat to the Syrian revolution: its lack of unity. Every popular revolt is made of an alliance of different factions. This is inevitable, and not necessarily a threat in and of itself. However, if the different factions do not resolve their disagreements through a political, ideally non-violent, mechanism, the consequences can be dire. It can be argued that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, although they brought to power the Islamist parties that were certainly not among the leaders of the revolution, did so by institutionalized mechanisms (elections) that can be in turn used to unseat them from power. This is a highly advanced achievement, that should be recognized as such, but one that is in fact rare in the history of revolts. The norm for revolutions is that they devour their children. The violent struggle after the French revolution (arguably the mother of all modern revolutions!) brought a period of oppression and dictatorship that resolved only slowly and over a significant amount of time. Closer to home – literally – the Iranian revolution resulted in the violent oppression of liberal Islamic and leftist parties that initiated the revolution, and the establishment of a veritable theocratic dictatorship of fundamentalist Islamists. That is precisely what the Syrian revolution is at risk of.

It is no secret that the Syrian rebels are currently a collection of factions with little in common other than the immediate goal of the fall of the Asad regime. The rise in sectarian tensions is strengthening the hand of the islamists, particularly the more virulent fundamentalists among them, as is the active involvement of Saudi and Qatari money and Turkish logistical support. Although much of the resistance to the regime stems from the heroic fighting of local, self-organized citizen militias, it is easily imaginable that the islamists with foreign financial and military support will grab the reigns of power, particularly if the fall of the regime brings with it a widened sectarian civil war. It is very unlikely that their rule will be any less violent and oppressive than that of the Iranian clergy. The repercussions for neighboring Lebanon and the region at large could be dire.

 In sum, the Syrian revolution today is facing a serious double-edged risk. While it will certainly end the Baathist regime, as it stands, it is likely to end up plunging Syria into a nightmarish civil war that is likely to end with the rise of a fundamentalist Salafist take over. This might yet be the worst legacy the Asad-led Baathist regime leaves behind!

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