- By May Akl
More bloody days seem to be ahead for Syria. Security forces have apparently decided to crackdown on what they call "Salafist armed groups", while protesters who call themselves "freedom fighters" seem to have become bolder since the first Deraa incident. But in the euphoria of the so-called Arab youth revolution, assuming and even hoping that unrest in Syria will eventually lead to the collapse of the Assad regime is not only an unrealistic assumption, but a naïve theory betraying a faulty knowledge of the Middle East — and specifically the dynamics of Syrian politics.
Similarly, assuming that the events unfolding in Syria are of the same nature as the ones that rocked the Arab world, and led to the collapse of dictatorships long supported by the West, is also a misreading of reality. The latest April 10 ambush against a Syrian army patrol in the coastal town of Banias is proof that a Jihad-like approach is a force behind the movement demanding reforms. Despite atrocities the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Bahrain perpetrated against freedom demonstrators, there was no significant act of violence against national armies in these countries. More importantly, to be able to conduct such a successful ambush killing nearly 10 troops, one needs to be armed, organized, and well-trained. Indeed, this scenario does not resemble anything we are witnessing in the above cases.
In the context of these leaderless revolutions that stemmed from rightful social, economic, and political demands, the only organized and well-structured group has been the Muslim Brotherhood. For 83 years now, the aim of this widespread movement has been to instill the Quran and Sunna as the sole reference for ordering the life of the Muslim family and state. Whether it will finally succeed in doing so by claiming to embrace the hopes and dreams of the Arab youth is not to be ruled out. As such, the real beneficiaries of Arab regime changes are yet to be discovered.
While this theory has yet to be proven in Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen, it is easier to note in Syria, where the last Muslim Brotherhood uprising was brutally crushed by Hafez Assad in Hama in 1982. But the Brotherhood in Syria, under claims of demanding reforms, does aim at overthrowing the Syrian regime. The latter has been struggling with the international community for quite some time now. And although deeply shaken by the investigation into Lebanon’s Hariri assassination, the Assad regime has managed to survive tough years from 2005 until now. All of these ingredients make Syria’s story a more complex and delicate one.
On April 1, a few days after the beginning of turmoil in Syria, and while on a visit to Turkey, the secretary-general of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, Riad Al-Shaqfa, in a joint press conference with the Brotherhood’s political chief, Mohamed Tayfur, said repeatedly that they didn’t believe Syrian President Bashar Assad would carry through with promised reforms and predicted that protests would continue (the two men also reportedly called on the Syrian people to take to the streets). The statement proved so diplomatically costly for Turkey that its foreign ministry issued a statement a few days later, making it clear that the country did not adopt calls for instability in its neighboring country, even if such sentiments were voiced from its capital: "It is impossible for Turkey to tolerate and to approve any initiative which will harm the reform will of friendly and brotherly Syria and disrupt its stability along this critical period."
Earlier, at the end of March, Qatar-based Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, a fan of Nazi anti-Semitism who has said that Hitler was "Allah’s divine punishment for the Jews", incited Sunnis in Syria on an Al Jazeera broadcast sermon to revolt against the Assad regime, and said that Assad was "a prisoner of his own religion." Giving the Syrian unrest a religious identity, it was not much of a surprise when, on April 1, Qaradawi further described demonstrators in Syria as "Jihadists."
Put in such perspective, the dynamics of the Syrian uprising are radically different than elsewhere. To the surprise of the Syrian authorities, cities where relatively significant demonstrations were held were not mainly Sunni strongholds or regions known for their historical abhorrence of the Assad regime. These demonstrations happened in multi-religious areas like the province of Deraa, considered to be the reservoir of high-ranking Baath military and state officials, such as the vice-president Farouk al Sharaa. This shows that the uprising seems to be fed by pockets of protesters rather than by a large popular movement. While in Tunisia, the largest popular protest gathered nearly 10 percent of the population, the largest combined protests in Syria have amounted to barely one percent of the population. Indeed, the so-called opposition essentially failed to mobilize the Syrian population.
This might be due to the fact that the Syrian people have not yet forgotten the Hama massacre and that they have not yet managed to break the barrier of fear. But that is harder to understand since, if there was a good time to break the barriers of fear, it would be now — with the domino effect sweeping across the Arab world, and with a Syrian regime already partly ostracized by the international community and struggling to restore good international relations. And when freedom is so badly sought as we have witnessed in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, oppression does not stop the crowd. Various "Khaled Said" phenomena are only supposed to fuel large-scale public anger rather than hush its voice.
But just as popular revolutions cannot be stopped, they cannot be provoked, either. As such, the groups that masterminded the Syrian turmoil might have placed a wrong bet, as their assumption that the Syrian people would be quick to join them has not been borne out in fact. Ultimately, this failure could be what motivated them to resort to other tactics — such as the ambush — which are more likely to make these groups lose their credibility as democratic freedom fighters and foster instability.
If the fear factor is only partly responsible for preventing a fully-fledged revolt in Syria, then the Syrian people must be apprehensive of another possible reality: the unknown of a post-Assad period. As it stands, most Syrians simply think that there is no better alternative to the current regime. Despite its history and much contested policies, Syria is — pragmatically speaking — a country that has managed to maintain its political stability in the region. It is an indisputable key player in the region: no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the situation in Iraq, or to the crisis with Iran or Hezbollah can be conceived without the involvement of Syria, one way or the other. This strength has fostered a nationalist feeling throughout the country. Further, Syria is a secular country where minorities are protected, and as much as they might want to see a regime change in their country, the majority of Syrians cannot accept their country becoming another Iraq — in terms of security — or another Saudi Arabia — in terms of religious rule.
Another factor is that the Syrian people are generally proud of, and have high hopes for, their president. It is true that they are dismayed at the high level of corruption surrounding the president’s old guards, but they do believe that he can make gradual change (which he has already started) with economic reforms to be followed by the recently announced new wave of media and political reforms, in addition to today’s commitment to lift the 48-year-old emergency law. As such, they can view a gradual and smooth opening of the Syrian political system as a better and safer guarantee for a regime transition — even as this remains a long-term project.
At the regional level, the fall of the Assad regime is very likely to have critical consequences on neighboring countries. From Turkey to Israel, going through Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, this fall would mean a radical alteration of the political, and more importantly religious, map of the Middle East. The question lies in whether these states want to see Syria fall into the hands of the Brotherhood.
At the international level, policy-makers should be able to learn from their mistakes, especially in the U.S. In its bid to cut its losses when the oppressive and corrupt regimes it supported for so long fell apart, the U.S. found itself obliged to let go of their old allies and embrace the people’s movement. But in Syria, such a movement does not exist.
While exhorting Arabs to embrace reforms, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last Tuesday that President Barack Obama would lay out a U.S. policy toward the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks. Hopefully, this policy will for once refrain from falling prey to its own rigid categorization — to the black or white approach — and rather try to understand the subtleties of situations in different contexts. Hopefully, it will also acknowledge the fact that democracy and people power can actually be used as a cover for extreme groups to access power. Indeed, extreme Islam does not always come with a turban; sometimes, it comes with a tie.
After all, Clinton hinted in late February that the U.S. administration would not oppose the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt. It would have been more accurate to say that the US won’t be able to do anything to oppose the Brotherhood’s arrival to power since the group is so involved in the Egyptian people’s uprising. But it would be outrageous — to say the least — to think that in Syria, the U.S. position will be aligned with that of Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi; unless American realpolitik sees al-Qaradawi as a "reformist" and "freedom fighter" opposing the "dictatorship of Bashar Assad".
May Akl, a 2010 Yale World Fellow, is the press secretary of Lebanese MP Michel Aoun. She has contributed opinion essays to the Daily Star and YaleGlobal online magazine.