The dramatic developments in Libya are raising comparisons with the uprising in Syria. In particular, some are asking what the role of the international community should be. Inside Syria itself, though, there has been no call for external military intervention – the people are opposed to any foreign meddling. This position is tenable because several interlinked factors – «objective» and «subjective» – make the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime inevitable.
First, the objective factors. The uprising has entered a new phase, with the opposition and protest movement widening to include professional groups such as lawyers and doctors. This adds a new dynamic to confrontations with the regime. Doctors have organised themselves into co-ordinating committees to provide medical aid and treatment to protesters. Their logistical and humanitarian support for the injured brought to hospitals or makeshift clinics has made them targets for systematic attack and arrest by the security services, precipitating a collective stand by members of the profession against the regime. Lawyers have organised sit-ins, some of which have been besieged by security forces. This participation in the protest movement is consolidating the opposition on the ground.
And as professionals – once beneficiaries of the ruling Ba’ath party’s educational and employment policies – have become opponents, other key elements appear to be deserting the regime. This is the case with the Sunni merchant and business classes, who represent the regime’s traditional constituency. In cities at the heart of the uprising, such as Homs, these classes joined early on. This week two leading manufacturers in that city were arrested. However, these classes have a greater social and political weight in Damascus and Aleppo – and there are signs that merchants in these two cities are withdrawing support, notably by transferring funds outside Syria and causing a severe liquidity problem.
Additionally, Aleppo traders who were widely believed to be paying their workers to stay away from the protests seem to have ceased this cooperation with the regime. The merchants have historical ties with the religious establishment and have undoubtedly been influenced by the moral support respected religious figures have extended to the protesters in recent weeks. Politically cautious and primarily motivated by their economic interests, merchants have now reasoned that the regime is incapable of maintaining stability.
Although these objective conditions are undermining the regime’s social base, subjective factors will determine its future. These have to do with Syrians’ feelings towards the regime. By publicly expressing their contempt, anger and disdain for the regime and Assad personally, Syrians are self-compelled to persist in their protest until they are rid of both.
It is important to give due consideration to the role that emotions and sentiments, publicly expressed, play in this conflict. Before the uprising, the vast majority of Syrians knew intimately what the regime was capable of, having experienced decades of oppression that involved the persistent arrest and detention of dissidents. As commonly observed, there is not a single family in Syria that did not experience regime brutality.
The public performances of the uprising have broken the people’s forced silence. Their rallying cry of «Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar» («Depart, oh Bashar») and the epithets they have attached to the president’s name («murderer», «shedder of blood») illustrate their disdain and disrespect for his person. The cumulative effect of thousands of daily public expressions of derision towards Assad binds Syrians irrevocably to the goal of removing him.
As the uprising enters its sixth month, the regime has been reduced to a killing machine operated by the security forces, army and thug militias. In effect, Assad’s rule is maintained by a gang. As Syrians persevere and the regime intensifies its violence, a number of possible scenarios emerge, all leading to Assad’s inevitable downfall: increased defections in the army leading to military infighting that could spill over into civil strife; external military intervention with similar consequences; or steadfastness from Syrians in their peaceful struggle, sustained by the expansion of their movement and driven by their unyielding will to see the end of a despised authoritarian regime.
Clearly the third is the scenario that will best achieve the uprising’s goals. It represents a process and an outcome in which Syrians themselves remove the regime and successfully safeguard the integrity of their national political community. To make this scenario the most likely outcome, outside support for Syrians should be limited to targeted economic sanctions and disinvestment, drying up the regime’s resources and hastening its demise.
Salwa Ismail, professor of politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and author of Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State.