20 Jun 2011

The Syrian Uprising: the Prospect of a Protracted Stalemate and Western Intervention

Note: A German version of this article has been published at Novo Argumente

Three months on and it’s clear that the Syrian uprising is not lacking in stamina. While it may have seemed for a while back in February that Syria was immune from the uprisings that swept across the Arab world, it didn’t take long for a minor spark to set in motion a series of demonstrations across the country. The Syrian regime’s authority was quickly undermined as the Syrian people took to the streets demanding freedom and political reform. The harsh retaliation has not succeeded so far in putting down the protest movement that comes alive every Friday in Syrian cities and towns. But it is also clear that the Syrian Uprising has failed to attain the critical mass required to stage large-scale demonstrations in the capital Damascus or the largest city Aleppo. The sporadic nature of both the uprising and the government’s retaliation points to a protracted struggle that is likely to go on for some time. As the prospect of a stalemate becomes more evident, calls for external intervention are becoming more persistent. Such calls represent a real danger to the prospects for  change.

Much has been made of the 'leaderless' nature of the Arab uprisings and the absence of political ideologies spurring them. Such claims were repeated uncritically in the aftermath of Mubarak’s departure, reflecting primarily the biases of observers who wanted to believe that the Egyptian uprising was organic and spontaneous. As an Al-Jazeera documentary subsequently illustrated, the April 6th Movement played a significant role in organising the demonstrations and orchestrating the logistics of the mass uprising. While movements like Kefaya and April 6th did not represent conventional political movements, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in galvanising mass support was largely and conveniently ignored. This naive interpretation of the events failed to acknowledge the important role that organisation played in Egypt and, subsequently, the role that the lack of political organisation is playing in Syria and Libya in particular.

It would be wrong to assume that political organisation on its own is the decisive factor in the success or failure of uprisings, but the presence of a ‘revolutionary infrastructure’ in the form of political movements and organisational mechanisms has been a very important factor in taking the uprisings to the national centre stage. For a variety of historical reasons, the Syrian uprising was the least prepared for this challenge. Firstly, political association has been strictly controlled in Syria for decades, with many activists spending decades in and out of prison. The relative freedom that the Muslim Brotherhood had in Egypt, despite the official ban, was unheard of in Syria. The crackdown on the Islamist movement in the early 80s in Syria pushed it underground where it remained since then. In parallel, the Egyptian press had far more freedom and Mubarak’s regime tolerated much higher levels of criticism than its Syrian counterpart. Thirdly, the crackdown on the ‘Damascus Spring’ at the beginning of the previous decade made many activists wary of publicly confronting the regime. Crucially, a large number of the ‘opposition’ figures were forced into exile where they have little influence on the ground. Those factors resulted in a lack of a centralised organisation leading the uprising, leaving ordinary Syrians to push it forward purely through their determination.

As a result of this lack of centralised organisation, the Syrian uprising has so far taken the shape of sporadic demonstrations on the ‘margins’, albeit with some reportedly attracting as many as 100,000 people. It is evident by now that regional organisation has become very effective, but nation-wide coordination has not yet been able to mobilise centralised mass demonstrations. The regime has managed so far to keep its ‘strongholds’ in Damascus and Aleppo reasonably under control and occasionally stage a show of popular support. But while some have interpreted this as indicative of significant levels of support for Bashar Al-Assad’s rule, it is equally probable that the fear of uncertainty is an even bigger barrier towards encouraging more people to join in with the demonstrators. This is particularly true of religious minorities who fear not so much Sunni-domination in case of the current regime’s collapse but the prospect of a long civil war. Given Syria’s geographic position between Lebanon and Iraq, such prospect is inevitably present in people’s minds.

There have been attempts  at creating organisational mechanisms to articulate the demands of the Syrian uprising and propose transitional strategies, but they have largely failed to draw consensus. At the beginning of June, a number of dissident groups operating mainly outside Syria gathered in Antalya in Turkey for a three-day conference and issued a declaration asking for president Assad to step down and a number of subsequent measures concluding with parliamentary and presidential elections. The conference was boycotted by several groups, such as the Kurdish parties, while many Syria-based activists declared the conference unrepresentative of the people. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria has emerged as a credible grassroots coalition, but it’s still not clear how much influence it has on the ground nor how much popular support it enjoys. It could be just a matter of time before legitimate representation of the uprising prevails, but as time passes it seems that there is further division among the opposition.

A clear sign of this was an unprecedented opposition conference held in Damascus on the 27th of June under the slogan "Syria for everyone under a democratic civil state." The meeting was attended by a number of opposition and ‘independent’ figures such as the writer Michel Kilo, a long-time critic of the Syrian regime whose vocal opposition of the regime landed him in prison several more than once. Several of the attendees are also high-profile intellectuals with a varied history of opposition to the regime. Despite that, the meeting had been clearly endorsed by the government allowing the meeting to take place publicly in the presence of the media at a Damascus hotel. The Syrian news agency SANA reported on the conference in uncharacteristically transparent language, reflecting the level of official endorsement.

While the participants were critical of the government’s response to the protests, which they called a "popular peaceful Intifada", their apprehension about the uprising was clear in their reference to "all forms of sectarian instigation". In fact, the guardedness of the older generation of intellectuals about the uprising has been apparent for some time and has been often expressed in the form of anxiety about the sectarian motivations behind it and the fear of civil strife. But what this indicates primarily are the extent to which the elite that should have played a leading role in the uprising finds itself in the position of an external observer. Accepting tacit official endorsement has no doubt undermined the credibility of the figures involved in the meeting, reflecting the wide gap between them and the uprising’s grassroots. In all likelihood, the participants will lose any influence they might have enjoyed over the uprising, but their initiative will certainly create more division among the ranks of opposition.

With the balance of power unlikely to change any time soon, the prospect of a protracted ‘war of attrition’ remains very plausible. At this moment, it seems plausible that either side could seize the initiative. But judging by the speech that Al-Assad gave on the 20th of June, it doesn't seem that he has formulated a plan of action that could allow him to end this challenge to his rule. Al-Assad effectively undermined his own case by listing a number of political, administrative and security failures that have arisen during his 11-year rule. He did not take responsibility for those failures nor did he propose meaningful reforms. For its part, the uprising faces the tough challenge of convincing the rest of the population to join its ranks and mobilise for action in Damascus and Aleppo. This is not a purely organisational question, at the moment no one is sure what the political alternative to the Baath's rule is and vague generalities won't suffice in this situation. Syria is in a different situation to that of Egypt and Tunisia and the prospect of the army pushing Assad out is neither likely nor desirable for the Syrian people. The political alternative has to be built convincingly, a process that cannot be created from the void.

Against this backdrop and the deepening unease with the prospect of a stalemate, calls for outside intervention are completely misplaced. Much like in Libya, there’s a desire to transform how we view the Syrian uprising, changing it from a political conflict into a humanitarian crisis. Little notice is paid to the fact that this process was accompanied by the virtual defeat of the Libyan uprising, once it failed to expand into Tripoli and entered a ‘defensive’ stage. While the West seems to have little appetite for military intervention in Syria at the moment, its attempt at assuming moral custodianship of the Syrian uprising is still deeply problematic. Turkish involvement is increasingly welcomed as an acceptable form of intervention, providing a vehicle for international action. In reality, it would be equally problematic. It would be a cruel irony for the Syrian people to exchange national authoritarian rule for external custodianship. Both are encroachments on their autonomy and desire for self-determination. This might be a long struggle, but it should be left in the hands of the Syrian people. They have paid far too heavy a price for that to be taken away from them.

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  1. I think a main point why the protests are not the 'critical mass required to stage large-scale demonstrations' is simply: live fire!? The army in Egypt and Tunisia didn't fire on the protests, so a fair question would be: how the protests in Syria would look like, if the security forces were more 'neutral'? surely, you would see more people in the streets.

    You indicated to the relative quietness in Aleppo and Damascus; true, but I think there is an economic reason here that's relevant. These cities are trading and economic hubs, and the inhabitants are protecting their businesses and interests. In other words, this uprising has turned into a 'class struggle' rather than sectarian.

  2. I don't want to seem like I'm not aware of the danger that the Syrian demonstrators are facing, but in a way it would be more difficult to shoot at much larger demonstrations than what's happening at the moment. In fact, the small-scale marginal nature of the demonstrations makes it easier to repress them.

    The economic factor plays a role in Damascus and Aleppo, but this is not true of ALL the inhabitants of those two cities. There are significant numbers of impoverished people in both cities. I think it's neither sectarian nor strictly along class lines, it's much more about freedom.

  3. So good post
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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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