The notion of a modern political awakening in the Arab world was first whispered more than a decade ago in Syria, when an assortment of intellectuals, artists, writers and activists lit the spark of what would become known as the Damascus spring. Having risked carefully crossing the regime’s red lines in the last years of Hafez al-Assad‘s reign, they continued to push the boundaries after his son Bashar inherited power in July 2000, willing themselves to believe that he would support a gradual transition to a more pluralistic political system.
The Damascus spring was abruptly cut short with the Syrian regime’s usual brutal methods; by 2001, civil society forums had been forced shut, and the main protagonists were charged in state security courts and given long jail sentences.
When they emerged years later, all pretence of political reform had already been abandoned by the regime, save for vague promises (also never kept) made after Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Most Syrians don’t believe that Assad’s latest vows to reform, made under great pressure, will materialise. As the violent repression increases with every passing week, the notion of a post-Assad Syria is slowly forming inside and outside the country. Even those who hang on desperately to the illusion of stability, marketed by the regime for more than 40 years in exchange for their obedience, agree that the regime, for all intents and purposes, has already fallen. The possibility of real change having been established, the regime can only try fuelling panic.
Regime cronies, unenthusiastic about losing their privileges, tirelessly recite Assad’s mantra of “after me, the deluge,” but their visions of civil strife and regional horror are at complete odds with Syria’s recent history. Some may be suffering from an acute Stockholm syndrome, or are weary of neighbours’ experience in hasty changes, but most Syrians know that the country can produce a very decent system.
Nostalgia for Syria’s independence period has driven many protesters to carry its flag, abrogated by the Ba’ath party after its March 1963 coup. From 1946, spoiled by the US-sponsored coup of 1949 which first brought military rule to the region, Syria witnessed a shortlived parliamentary democracy, a vibrant civil society and a brief period of a free press, and it elected leaders whose names remain embedded in the national memory as examples of the Syria it can be, and it should be. While perhaps initially elitist in nature, unlike the current varied spectrum of opposition groups and revolutionary committees, it is a logical inspiration for the future.
In fact, the opposition’s unwillingness to unite after nine months of upheaval could be a testament to Syria’s potential in the post-regime era. Instead of pretending to agree, Syrians are laying the basis of a stronger democratic foundation, slowly merging the grassroots, the traditional opposition and the diaspora. Doing this before the collapse of the regime may help Syrians organise themselves better when they are faced with the transition.
Regime supporters alarmingly brandish the spectre of fundamentalist Islamist rule as a hellish scenario for minorities, but this would be a first in Syria, blessed with peaceful coexistence long before the Assad regime’s claim to fame on secularism.
For all the attempts to flaunt it as a dangerous party, the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship in Syria is far-fetched; it is impossible to know how much support the party enjoys, but few Syrians supported its past violence. Moreover, while religiosity and conservatism may be increasing in some Arab societies, this happens in parallel with a secular lifestyle that has become the norm in Syria. Youth-led revolutions are paving the way, demanding civil society and free expression, and making fundamentalist rule redundant.
Syria post-Assad will probably have similar positions on issues of national interests, including on Palestine and on occupied Syrian land. Indeed, the regime sought legitimacy in espousing causes close to people’s hearts, but it has been blamed for its empty slogans on the issue of the Golan, even though foreign policy is not the main popular concern.
One major issue may change in the post-Assad era: relations with Iran and Hezbollah. The strategic alliance with Iran since the Islamic revolution flourished under Bashar al-Assad’s reign, especially following the invasion of Iraq, but Iranian support in repressing the current protests won’t easily be forgotten. Likewise, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s support for the Syrian regime has incensed many, especially after his praise for every other Arab uprising; only last year, it would have been unimaginable to see Hezbollah’s flag burned in Syria, as it has been recently.
Considering the Arab League’s belated support of the uprising and the position of both protestors and opposition, it is likely that the new Syria will gradually move back to the centre of the political Arab world as it slips away from the Iranian embrace.
Many of these changes are expected to follow Assad’s reign, but the central bedrock of society will remain intact, as Syrians desperately try not to throw out the baby with the Ba’ath water; the sooner they get their long-awaited democratic system, the more likely they can reach the right balance.
Rime Allaf is a Syrian writer and a board director on The Day After project.