It began with an incident in March in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. It could have ended right then and there were it not for the arrogance and mismanagement of the local authorities. What followed was a demonstration in Daraa calling for the removal of the local authorities. Here again, a quicker response could have managed and contained the situation; but that was not to be.
Once the age-old "complex of fear" was broken in Daraa, the contagion quickly spread to other Syrian cities. Within a few weeks, the uprising developed into a "weekend ritual", with Muslim worshippers demonstrating following the conclusion of their Friday noon prayers. The "viral" breakdown of the fear element was shocking. In fact, merely days before the uprising in Daraa, the answer to the seemingly obvious question as to whether what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia could happen in Syria, was an unequivocal "no".
This "weekend ritual" lasted for a couple of months. What the demonstrators called for, as indicated by their chants and placards, were basic civil rights and political reforms and not the regime's demise. They specifically wanted, as I noted in a prior analysis entitled "Weathering the storm" published in bitterlemons-international in April, "less emergency law and more freedom, less corruption and more transparency, less security and more liberty, less of one party and more of multi-party, less nepotism and more competency".
In retrospect--and hindsight of course is "20-20"--had President Bashar Assad, having succeeded in cultivating an image of a humble, civil and likeable person, pro-actively taken the initiative and dealt with the responsible opposition leadership, crisis might have been averted. Assad acknowledged that mistakes were committed; probably one of these was the regime's slow response to the responsible opposition's original demand for freedom and reforms. In essence, it was a case of the leadership catching up with the opposition rather than leading it.
With the passage of time, the system's slow process of enacting reform measures compounded growing international pressure on the regime to speed up the reform process, emboldening the opposition along the way. The street's calls for "freedom and reforms" evolved into demands for "the removal of the system". The transformation was marked by daily confrontations in many Syrian cities. The opposition has become an irresistible force colliding with an immovable object, the system.
Although both sides in the conflict--the system and the opposition--are suffering, the biggest loser by far is society-at-large: the silent, helpless and anguished majority that is watching the daily casualties and destruction caused by this collision. When the elephants fight, the grass suffers. No one is certain of the desires of the silent majority. There is a definite longing for the old days, actually not so long ago, when people could move about day and night, feeling safe and secure. But there is also a desire for a fresh breeze of liberty--more precisely, a balance between security and liberty that is the essence of reform and that was missing in the past.
This balance is unattainable if the present violent deadlock continues and each side seeks to impose its will on the other. Although they have spilled a lot of blood, both sides have to recognize the greater need for a compromise. The outcome cannot be zero-sum because that would be a prescription for continued and escalating violence, threatening not only the social structure but ultimately the state itself. The outcome has to be win-win, which requires both sides to marginalize their respective radicals and accept the reality that neither side will achieve maximum expectations: the system won't crush the opposition and the opposition won't bring down the system.
Several reform laws have been enacted, of which two are particularly notable: a multi-party law and an election law. Yet the opposition considers these to be cosmetic changes so long as the one-party system enshrined in Article 8 of the constitution remains intact. For the opposition, the litmus test of the real intention of the system is the removal of Article 8 and related articles from the constitution or, better yet, rewriting the entire constitution to signal a genuine desire for reform.
Once that happens, the silent majority represented by credible religious and community leaders and intellectuals would become matchmakers for an urgently-needed dialogue. They would become more active and vocal in support of the enacted reforms. This in turn would hopefully help the country side-step the trials and tribulations of violent change and instead launch a peaceful transition to a modern Syria.
A fairy tale? Definitely doable.-Published 25/8/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org