Last January Syria seemed to belong with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as the least likely candidates for revolution. If President Bashar al-Assad had run in a real election, he may well have won. It’s difficult to remember today that most Syrians did credit, if grudgingly, the regime with ensuring security and prosecuting a vaguely nationalist foreign policy. It’s that desire for security, the overwhelming fear of Iraq-style chaos, that keeps a section of Syrian society loyal to the regime even now.
To start with, although they were inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, most protesters didn’t aim for regime change. The first demonstration, in the commercial heart of Damascus, was a response to police brutality. That ended peacefully, but when Deraa protested over the arrest of schoolchildren the regime spilt blood. Outraged, communities all over the country took to the streets and met greater violence, swelling the crowds further. A vicious circle began. All the intelligence and nationalist pretensions peeled away from the government to reveal a dark and thuggish core.
Worse still, the president spoke of reforms, of ending the state of emergency and abolishing the hated state security courts. Even as he spoke the slaughter intensified. There was no surer way of destroying his credibility. The torrent of horror stories – children tortured to death, women shot, residential areas shelled – destroyed the regime’s legitimacy.
The state’s extraordinary stupidity suggests either panic or dissension in the inner circle, of which Bashar may only be the figurehead. Syrians debate which arrangement of Assads and Makhloufs (Bashar’s mother’s family) composes the actual power structure. In any case, Syria’s leaders can count on support from the Republican Guard and the army’s upper echelons. Yet lower- and middle-ranking defections will increase as the regime seeks to crush the provinces.
So what next? There is a roadmap to a happy ending. The grassroots local co-ordination committees call for the president’s immediate resignation, and a joint civilian and military council to oversee a six-month transition to a pluralist democracy. «The new Syria will be a republic and a civil state that belongs to all Syrians,» reads the LCC statement, «and not to an individual, family or party. It will not be inherited from fathers to sons. All Syrians will be equal in rights and duties without discrimination.»
If the transition began today it could work, but the chances of the regime bowing out gracefully are close to zero. This means the chaos will expand.
So far, despite Syria’s often difficult history and the regime’s divide-and-rule tactics, sectarian war appears unlikely. When 100,000 people marched in Hama last Friday they chanted: «From Qardaha to Sanamein, the Syrians are one people.» Qardaha is the home town of the Assads, in Alawi country. Sanamein is a poor Sunni village near Deraa where many have been killed. And the chant was raised in Hama, the city taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, and the site of a massacre when the regime took the city back. Such slogans of national unity show a new level of maturity and intelligence among Syrians, but these qualities will be challenged as the slaughter continues.
Western intervention is improbable – Nato is overstretched and a Syrian adventure requires a commitment to potential regional war – and wouldn’t be welcomed by Syrians anyway. In Iraq intervention triggered civil war.
Turkish intervention is another matter. Celebrating the third-term re-election of his AK party on Sunday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, greeted «those who are focused on Turkey with great excitement … all capitals of neighbouring countries». In light of the Arab awakening, Turkey’s «zero problems with neighbours» policy is about to be overturned. On Tuesday Erdogan again told Assad to stop the repression and implement reforms. The day before he’d expressed willingness to work with Britain towards a UN resolution condemning Syria. But it’s facts on the ground that will count. If many more refugees join the 8,500 who have fled to Turkey, Erdogan may order a limited occupation of Syrian territory to establish a «safe haven». That – the regime’s inability to hold a section of the homeland – may prove a tipping point. It could also offer Syria its Benghazi, a base for organised resistance.
If the first enemy of Syrian democrats is the Syrian regime, and the second the spectre of sectarian violence, the third is represented by external forces seeking to take advantage of events. The Syrian economy may not be far from collapse. Any future government may be particularly easy to bribe in future years.
Saudi Arabia is funnelling cash to Egypt’s ruling military council. It remains to be seen what the catch is. Saudi money could play an important role in the new Syria too, and so could a motley crew of exiles – the president’s uncle Rifaat al-Assad, organiser of the 1982 Hama massacre, and ex-regime figure Abdul-Halim Khaddam, as well as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has an unpleasant sectarian history and agenda. There’s also a contingent of US-based liberals, some of whom play into neoconservative hands.
It’s easy to envisage a Saudi deal with Syrian Sunni officers and the Muslim Brotherhood, and a partially democratic, «moderate Islamist» regime presiding over tame social programmes, untrammelled economic liberalisation, and passivity over the occupied Golan Heights. Israel and the west may tacitly support such an outcome, because a properly democratic Syria alongside a properly democratic Egypt would constitute the greatest imaginable challenge to Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians.
It’s unlikely that Syrians, after sacrificing so much blood, would want to settle for such a deal.