The cycle of protests followed by increasingly violent military crackdowns in Syria has resulted in approximately 3,000 dead and more than 10,000 arrests. While the United States and its allies reacted with relative swiftness in calling for regime change in Cairo, Tripoli and Tunis, change in Damascus continues to elicit a politically passive-aggressive response. The Obama administration now recognizes the need for the Assad regime to go but fears the ramifications.
Many in Washington advocating caution argue that because the massive street demonstrations grew organically, without established, public leadership or a consensus political platform — termed “the faceless revolution” — we cannot reasonably predict the ultimate path of the conflict or its destination. To help provide some concrete data, the Democracy Council, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, recently released the second survey of Syrians. The results reflect face-to-face interviews with 551 Syrians collected between Aug. 24 and Sept. 2, 2011. An earlier survey of more than 1,000 Syrians took place in January and February 2010.
Professor Angela Hawken of Pepperdine University, the survey’s primary author, concluded that eight out of 10 Syrians surveyed won’t be satisfied with mere reform but want the Bashar Assad government to go. The two opinion polls documented the same angst and frustration felt by citizen revolutionaries in neighboring countries. The corruption, nepotism, political extremism, disregard for basic rule of law and lack of public participation has, and will continue to, fuel revolutionary fever throughout the country. The fact that no single opposition factor controls or commands the civil society does in fact argue that the embers of democracy already exist.
Privately, decision-makers speak of the unlucky timing with which the Arab Spring came to Syria. The political bandwidth for regional policy-making is chock-full in terms of dealing with an unending war in Afghanistan, prosecuting terrorist sanctuaries in Yemen, withdrawing from Iraq, a revolution going badly in Egypt, a revolution going well in Tunisia, a revolution ongoing in Libya, a nuclear Iran attempting to blow up Saudi diplomats in Washington, and a lifeless Middle East peace process, not to mention the global financial crisis.
Experts agree that the consequences of regime change in Syria could alter the strategic balance in many ways. I continue to hear top Israelis detailing the benefit of killing off Iran’s primary ally, the pipeline to Hezbollah terrorists while, at the same time, expressing fear that Assad and company, should they feel threatened, might effectuate a regional conflict by instigating terrorist attacks against Israel from their Hamas and Hezbollah clients in Gaza and southern Lebanon. Henry Kissinger repeating that there could be “no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria” was as apropos then as it is now.
The survey reinforced my conclusion from previous trips to Syria that the anti-Assad fever and dedication to change permeates almost the entire mosaic that is Syrian society. However, the possibility of an Iraqi-style civil struggle that forces another Western intervention further frightens Washington. Given that both countries contain a mosaic of tribal, cultural, religious and social divides, the possibility of a faceless revolution morphing into violent sectarian violence is all too real.
Frustration at the relative ambivalence of regional and global powers, the Syrians themselves have recently moved to address the issue of ensuring internal cohesion. The Syrian National Council (SNC), which “includes competent national figures to serve as a political umbrella for the Syrian revolution in the international arenas and support the just cause of the Syrian people, who yearn to be liberated from tyranny and create a civil democratic state.”
The SNC, a political coalition that includes the gamut of the political and sectarian spectrum, from grass roots to exiled leaders, representing such organizations as Damascus Declaration, Muslim Brotherhood, local coordination committees and Kurdish opposition groups, has been called extraordinary. In response, the Syrian foreign minister threatened “tough measures against any state which recognizes this illegitimate council,” thus immediately conferring legitimacy onto the group.
Just as important, the SNC’s platform, reflecting the demands of its brethren in the streets, calls for substantial change that moves the country from extremism to the center, with a focus on improving the people’s quality of life. This contrasts with the Assad dynasty’s extreme anti-West, pro-Iran autocracy.
If we learned anything from the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Arab Spring it is that: 1) Arab autocrats can no longer take their public for granted; the people’s will wins out in the end. 2) The process of moving a country from a half decade of dictatorship, genocidal action and extremism toward democracy will, no doubt, be a very rocky road. 3) More democratic and legitimate public administrations are in the interest of the global community. The anti-West and anti-Israel incitement of unpopular dictators such as Mubarak, Gadhafi and Assad is the outcome of failed domestic policies and corrupt leadership.
James Prince, president of the Democracy Council (democracycouncil.org), is a leading expert in Arab civil society.