Syria’s race against the clock

THE SYRIA WE KNEW IS NO LONGER. Together with the rest of the region, it has entered an era of uncertainty and incessant flux. For now it has settled into a slow-motion revolution, as protests both fail to reach a critical mass and prod authorities to successfully respond to far-reaching demands. Two conflicting trends currently coexist. The regime has laid out a body of reforms which have the potential to win over enough popular support to ensure a peaceful way forward.  But it has also failed to bring violence to an end, whether due to senseless scare tactics, well-ingrained habits of the security apparatus, possible provocations staged by the regime’s many enemies (from dissident members of the ruling family to hostile parties abroad to home-grown die-hard Islamists) and the increasingly tense general atmosphere — or a mix of all the above.

Although many view the present through the prism of the past, with memories still fresh of the ruthlessness with which the Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising of the early 1980s was crushed, it is doubtful that all-out repression today would put an end to protests that enjoy a much broader base — even if they have taken on Islamist undertones in some places. Alternatively, quick-fixes, cosmetic changes and empty promises would only postpone an explosion.

This leaves Syrians the choice between two perilous journeys: either radical reform or outright revolution. Neither offers easy answers to the deep-seated issues at stake, including preserving Syria’s fragile secular model, addressing its severe economic predicament and maintaining its regional standing.

The authorities’ initial crude and predictable response did much to push people toward the second option. The dynamics then changed somewhat after President Bashar al-Assad’s speech on March 30. Anticipated as the pinnacle of a strategy blending fear of chaos, a spectacular (albeit partly orchestrated) demonstration of popular support for the regime on the streets, and a package of reforms, the address in fact was an anticlimax — a show of self-confidence and a demoralizing flashback to the ways of yesteryear.

This flop nonetheless had a flip-side: it served as a useful eye-opener to all. On one hand, it dispelled the broadly-shared perception of Assad as a savior who somehow could side with the people against the regime. On the other hand, it convinced many regime insiders that they would have to do better than simply count on the president’s popularity to magically erase the legacy of generalized mismanagement.

The regime thus appeared to adopt a more constructive approach. A variety of officials expressed their realization that deadly clashes, whoever provokes them, create more problems than they solve. They stressed dialogue as a key component of their strategy, and showed an unprecedented willingness to listen. And they figured that the pace of reforms must not only keep up with the speed at which protests spread throughout the country, but beat them in the race for public opinion. Indeed, the regime began acting much faster than announced by Assad during his speech.

And then more blood was spilled when protests picked up after prayers last Friday. Whatever positive trends were apparent lost much of their value. Striving to prove the regime’s innocence —  for example by broadcasting on live state television the misdeeds of so-called agents provocateurs that state security somehow fails to stop — will only add insult to injury for the many Syrians who believe that authorities are at least partly to blame. Worse still, the regime may now attempt to stamp out the more Islamist strand within the protest movement, triggering a vicious cycle of violence in more parts of the country than it can control.

Even assuming violence is contained in the days to come, there are several missing ingredients to what could qualify as a positive dynamic. Authorities have spoken to the public’s craving for dignity only with respect to Syria’s regional interests and principles, but this was achieved at the expense of domestic issues that now need to be addressed. Dignity must also be at the heart of how this is done.

Forthcoming elections to a parliament that is viewed as shameful by the population may have to be put on hold, pending new legislation that ensures the institution is truly representative. The army of cronies singing the regime’s praise in the media and plastering propaganda in the streets must be reined in. Tackling tough economic issues will take time, patience and self-sacrifice, which is hard to expect when the symbols of corruption remain untouched. Most importantly, families of the martyrs will need far more than material compensation; they will settle for nothing less than full accountability.

The regime, pressed for time and seeking to placate numerous constituencies, has yet to define a framework that could lend consistency to its various decisions, lest today’s steps lay the basis for tomorrow’s crises. Before raising expectations, it must ask itself how far it is genuinely prepared to go on the path to political reform. In particular, can Assad’s term be renewed in 2014 through yet another landslide plebiscite? To what extent is the leadership prepared to jeopardize secularism for the sake of containing the Islamists? And what resources is it willing to spend without risking either bankruptcy or a costly dependence on foreign donors?

Finally, the regime’s efforts have been plagued by ill-communication on both sides. Authorities are struggling to identify reliable interlocutors within society even as the protesters are finding it hard to select credible interlocutors within the regime, given the depth of mistrust in its traditional representatives. Citizens currently express their deeply-felt frustrations in the most chaotic ways, and officials tend to respond in kind. There is an urgent need to base dialogue on a thorough and inclusive assessment of the specific grievances that have developed in each part of the country — a legacy of negligence that is precisely what frustrated citizens want to see redressed above all.

Time is running out as every new casualty makes the clock tick faster. To open the space required for a radical reform agenda to take hold, the regime’s top priority must be to ensure a period of relative calm. Prospects will look grim were the country to witness yet another bloody Friday.

Originally published in Foreign Policy, 11 April 2011. 

Illustration credit: total solar eclipse by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.