I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a workshop on the Syria uprising last Saturday where Paulo Pinto and Bassam Haddad, Professor of Middle Eastern studies at George Mason University, offered their insights. Since I wrote about another KEVO event headlined by Pinto (see above link), I will focus solely on Haddad's remarks.
The last thirty years have marked a period of transition in Syrian Ba'ath history from a leftist alliance with labor to a rightist tilt toward business. This privatization has led to diffuse regime power which is more pervasive in society.
Economic policies have shifted from public sector to market-focused. And the beneficiaries have been private and regime officials who left government for business. A consequent has been polarization between rich and poor, countryside and city.
Haddad then outlined what he termed "stubborn facts":
- An opposition born out of decades of oppression and brutality, but does have problematic aspects. We may no longer take the uprising at face value. Started as legitimate uprising against dictatorship, but now less about democracy. Much more sectarian and anti-democratic, whether Islamist or not. Opposition today is not the opposition of yesterday. Vulgar sectarian currents are present, much of it animated by the fierce brutality of the regime. Also the opposition has failed to be transparent or independent (influenced by regional players).
- But no matter how problematic the actors on the other side, this does not mean that the regime should not be overthrown and opposed. A reason not to uncritically support the regime, but to demand the opposition step up.
- Americans, Saudis and Qataris are engaged in real politick. The United States does not have historical credibility to speak in the name of the Syrian people and Saudi Arabia and Qatar are far from democracies to be midwifing the revolution. Self-interested foreign intervention will cause much more bloodshed (just look at Libya - Syria will be a lot worse. And arms may go to al Qaeda, regional powers will intervene, and America will not benefit). Thus no nation wants to intervene and whatever on-the-side intervention exists is not about the welfare of the Syrian people, but the regional game of politics.
- Returning to point one: Revolutionary leadership in the future may no longer be taken for granted.
Dynamics of the uprising.
1) Structure and Causes - There have been decades of oppression and economic pauperization, but brutality, repression and authoritarianism do not on their own produce mass mobilization let alone revolutions. There is the matter of dignity of individuals in the mid-to-late 1990s. After Tunisia's uprising, the similarly extant problems and structural issues collapsed into a moment of collective consciousness. Suddenly, going to the street in 2011 is different than 2010. In the end, the uprising was imminent, just cannot predict when.
2) Regime Resilience - A question of structural factors: coherent and cohesive institutions have been emptied of meaning and autonomy as a result of a strategy. Military, for instance, does not have independent leadership. Thus there is no regime schisms: if ship falls, all sink. That cohesion stiffens regime resistance (all fall or stand together) and even if there is a coup will not have legitimacy because it will be internal to regime. Regime policies have also focused on supporting the minorities. This leadership creates fear (among minorities) of a majoritarian-led opposition. Anxieties not without some serious concern although not true that they would, say, slaughtered. And much of the urban middle class has assets intertwined with the regime. Even if they wish the regime to fall are nonetheless wary about a new social order, especially considering rural revolt is not a middle class uprising. So there is a class dimension. Thus a lot of the middle class is on the sidelines, which allows the regime to benefit. Lastly, oppositional fragmentation also aids regime.
3) Impasse - On the ground there is a stalemate caused by the fact that no party is able to limit the other: regime cannot decimate opposition and opposition cannot kill regime. But time not on regime's side: lost its ability to govern expect by brute force. Can rule but not govern. Thus shelf life is limited.
4) Where are we going? Transformation from domestic and legitimate uprising to an illegitimate (i.e. sectarian with undemocratic trends) and international reality. Syria is being played by foreign powers in an effort to redraw regional political map. A complex picture that requires us to think along layers of reality. Many Syrians, for instance, are opposed to the dictatorship but also opposed to the opportunism of the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar who, if allowed to guide a post-regime era, may produce an equally awful reality.
In sum, Syria is stuck been bad and catastrophic. But there is hope in the Syrian people. Many Syrians are charting an independent course in the form of communal meetings away from regime and foreign machinations in an effort to secure a future, if the regime falls, that is rooted in the aspirations of the Syrian peoples - discussed and debated in a manner befitting a liberal polity.
May the well-being of the Syrian people prevail.