Cradle of Contradictions

Life in Syria has never been simple. The realities, meticulously hidden under a veneer of homogeneity, have always been too complex for even the most discerning of scholars. The peaceful coexistence between the country’s myriad ethnic, religious, and tribal groups is the result of a complex layer of concessions, compromises, tacit agreements, and other pragmatic arrangements perfected over the centuries.

Over the last few months, life has become even more complex, as both the country’s ruling elite and civil society advocates seem more bewildered than ever about the country’s future. Each group is focused on determining its particular privileges while preserving the territorial integrity and national unity of a country growing increasingly fractious and fragile.

These developments, of course, follow from the US-led invasion of Iraq, which turned a vague and distant threat into an imposing neighbors whose intentions towards Syria’s Baathist regime are anything but friendly. Consequently, the need for drastic change in the structure and style of a previously reality-impaired regime has finally begun to sink in.

As a result, Syria’s various political power centers have embarked on a desperate search for a vision to promote change yet allow the existing order to survive. Because Syria’s rulers have neither the ability nor the know-how to produce such a vision, civil society has been granted some leeway for action.

Clearly, this expansion of civil society’s operating arena may even turn into open opposition to Syria’s rulers. The point is to allow for some debate to take place in the hope of producing the sorely needed vision of change. This will give the outside world the impression that serious change is taking place and that the regime should be given the time to see it through. Crackdowns, detentions, and illegal trials thus exist hand in hand with a growing tolerance for creative initiatives.

Over twenty NGOs have been formed in the last few months. Many are charities and often include on their advisory boards one or two members with clear government connections (the daughter of a minister or an army general, or, in a couple of notable instances, the President’s wife). Even so, this development is still significant by Syrian standards, as independent initiatives are traditionally frowned upon.

Of real significance here is the press service, All4Syria (, created by the Syrian engineer Ayman Abdul Nour. The service contains an electronic newsletter that includes Syria-related reports and articles gathered from a variety of sources, often including comments by opposition figures at home and abroad. In its way, All4Syria has provided an indirect conduit for dialogue between government and opposition, which may not have taken place otherwise. Although All4Syria’s Internet site was recently blocked for unspecified reasons, the newsletter continues to be circulated and Mr. Abdul Nour moves in his usual circles unmolested.

I have been involved with the launch of another initiative, the Tharwa Project (, which I have long envisioned as one way for the Arab region to address its problems with religious and ethnic minorities. Although regional in scope and with a colorful international board of advisors, the Tharwa Project (Tharwa means wealth in Arabic) is based in Damascus and will be run from there.

The launch of the Tharwa Project one month ago inadvertently coincided with Kurdish riots that rocked northern Syria. This, together with the prominence of the advisory board (which includes well-known Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, French expert on political Islam Gilles Kepel, and Flynt Leverett, a Brookings Institution Fellow) and the sensitivity of minority rights in general, combined to give the Project national, regional, and international notice.

So far, Syria’s authorities have not reacted to the Tharwa Project. It’s probably still too early in the game for that. But the Project seems to represent the type of activity that can help produce visions for change. Some in the Syrian government could be aware of this.

Nevertheless, fourteen civil society activists who attempted to organize a special meeting to address the realities of the Kurdish issue in Syria recently received various sentences on charges of working to undermine national unity. The authorities clearly wish to control the extent of the thaw in Syria’s political culture. But even as such crackdowns continue, more private independent initiatives are bubbling to the surface.

For my colleagues and me, this is the time for hard and continuous work to expand the space of popular participation in the country and region. We can deliver no judgment at this stage as to where things might be heading. Everything and anything seems possible. Still, it is tempting to think that Syria is witnessing a new beginning, and the end of an era whose sins we all bear. PS

This article was widely syndicated and in a number of languages by Project Syndicate