Syria is not ready for an uprising

The groundwork for Egypt and Tunisia’s days of rage took years. In isolated Syria, there is much grassroots work to be done., Monday 7 February 2011 11.00 GMT.

A “day of rage” called for by Syrian opposition members living abroad and scheduled for last Friday and Saturday came and went: the only mass presence detected on the streets of major cities in Syria was that of security forces.

The sheer size of security presence tells us that the ruling regime was indeed concerned, but obviously so were the Syrian people and the grassroots activists who were supposed to lead the way. The balance of terror that has characterised life in the police state that is Syria over the past five decades continued to dictate the pace of life.

Syria is definitely not Tunisia or Egypt. True, the country suffers from the same problems of unemployment, inflation, corruption, nepotism and authoritarian rule, but structurally Syria is defined by additional facts that need to be taken into account.

Fact 1: Syria has a rather heterogeneous population divided along national, religious, sectarian, regional and socioeconomic lines. The ruling regime survives by manipulating mutual suspicions between these groups and their complex history.

Syria’s ruling family, the Assads, come from the minority Alawite sect, which makes up less than 10% of the population. The elite striking units within the country’s armed forces, especially the Republican Guard, have a membership drawn almost exclusively from the Alawite community. These units are tasked primarily with ensuring the survival of the ruling regime and have no other national agenda to speak of. As such, in a showdown between regime and people, neutrality will not be much of an option – not unless the protesters are completely nonviolent and include critical representation from all communities, especially the Alawites.

Barring such a development, the country could easily be sunk into the kind of showdowns that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which culminated in the famous Hama massacre that left more than 20,000 Syrians dead. Another 25,000 people have since “disappeared”.

Fact 2: Syria finds itself at the intersection of a regional power grab involving Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and, more recently, Turkey. None of these regional players seems necessarily keen on a change of leadership in Syria, especially if this change should come as a result of a popular grassroots uprising.

While Israel’s only viable means of preventing such an uprising from taking place is lobbying its allies in the west to ease off their pressures on the Assads, Iran does not operate under such restrictions. There is nothing to prevent its leaders from supporting their allies the Assads with militias and weapons should the need arise.

Turkey will view with suspicion any regional change that further underscores the need for addressing the Kurdish question in a more drastic manner than has already been done.

As for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s aversion to revolutions and the unpredictability of grassroots-inspired change is well documented and seems to trump any other consideration.

Fact 3: Syria is still suffering from the isolation it has experienced since the 1980s. As a result, the exposure of its people to the world outside their borders is relatively weak, at least in comparison with the situation in Tunisia and Egypt.

Consequently, there are really no independent civil society institutions to speak of: no free unions, no independent student bodies, no active political opposition parties – in short, no structures that could enable people to organise themselves and rally others. More importantly, the international community has little leverage with Syria’s rulers, who have routinely shrugged off mediation efforts by a variety of diplomatic envoys.

Fact 4: Syria has already witnessed a power transition, back in 2000. The current president, Bashar al-Assad, has had more than a decade now to consolidate his grip on power and put people loyal to him in all the right places. As such, this is no longer an ailing regime or one in mid-transition, but one in the full swing of things – one that has already survived a trial by fire in the period between 2003 and 2008, which came as result of American pressure. This regime will not easily fracture now.

These facts, among others, make Syria a tough nut to crack if its glaring particularities are not taken seriously and factored into the thinking of those bent on cracking it.

Personally, and as a Syrian democracy activist who believes that the natural place for our current leaders is a dark and damp prison cell where they can rot for the rest of their lives, there is nothing I would like to see more. But it is for this reason that I should caution my colleagues against getting too caught up in the emotional upheavals generated by the current goings-on in Tunisia and Egypt. For while the events might seem surprising, in reality they come as a culmination of years of on-the-ground preparations and exposure to external realities that played a key role in making young people aware of the possibilities, opportunities and alternatives that exist for them.

If we are to draw inspiration from these events, as we should, let it be the right one: we need to work on charting a clearer vision for the future of our country and adopt effective communications strategies with our people that can enable us to bust the various myths that the regime has spread over the years.

So long as minority communities in the country still believe that the Assads are their protectors, rather than the pariahs who amplify and prey on their fears, and so long as many of our young still believe that the Assads are true believers in resistance ideology rather than manipulators of it, we will have minimal chance to incite our people to rise up.

More importantly, we should also accept that the real leadership role here is to be played by the grassroots activists scattered throughout the country. They are the ones who will have to decide when the right moment has come for us to have our day of anger.