The Middle East Channel

How not to prolong the Syrian agony

The swift collapse of the Libyan regime is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the Syrian conflict, but it provides a serious hint as to its ultimate outcome. Syrian protesters did not need to see the rebels overtake Tripoli to boost their confidence; for months they have shown extraordinary resolve in the face of ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The swift collapse of the Libyan regime is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the Syrian conflict, but it provides a serious hint as to its ultimate outcome. Syrian protesters did not need to see the rebels overtake Tripoli to boost their confidence; for months they have shown extraordinary resolve in the face of escalating violence. They will not give up if only because they know that worse would be in store were the security services to reassert unchallenged control. Colonel Qaddafi’s fall is relevant for a different reason: it provides evidence of the internal frailty of the patrimonial power structures that have plagued the region.

Such regimes ultimately rest on fear and opportunism far more than they do on institutions or a cause. They crumble the moment the army of zealots that form their ranks realize the battle is lost.  One day, they appear strong. The next, they are gone. In 2003, when U.S. troops entered Baghdad, they revealed — much to their own surprise — that Sadddam’s regime was hollow. Tunisian President Ben Ali’s leviathan turned out to be a pygmy on rickety stilts. In Libya, loyalist forces had fought the rebels into a seemingly endless stalemate until they suddenly were swept away.

The Syrian regime is no different. Its compulsive use of thugs, known as Shabbiha, speaks volumes about the state of its institutions, even in the security sector. Its claim to embody resistance against the injustice of Israeli occupation and U.S. hegemony has been shattered by its treatment of its own people. Reforms have been exposed as a charade. And under any conceivable scenario, the economy will not recover under President Assad’s rule.

The only support the regime retains derives entirely from self-serving interests and fear of the future. But that will only work until it becomes clear that the regime belongs to the past. Two unknowns remain: what will trigger this moment of clarity and how much damage Assad will cause — to the cohesiveness of his people, to the sustainability of the economy, and to the concept of resistance — before he falls.

How not to prolong the agony? At a time when the international community is feeling a compulsion to do something, the overriding principle should remain to do no harm. Two significant mistakes in particular should be avoided.

First, beware of far-reaching economic sanctions. They may curtail the regime’s ability to finance repression and convince the business establishment that it is time to bring this costly disaster to an end. But, even if they are restricted to the oil and gas industry, they may backfire. As Syria increasingly turns into a pariah state, banks are curtailing transactions; many companies will voluntarily turn away from a small market causing a big hassle. The regime will pin economic woes on an international conspiracy.

Western countries will find it hard to resist such sanctions, if only given the lack of alternative sources of pressure. Any negative fallout nevertheless can be diminished by publicly explaining the precise scope of the sanctions — what they affect and what they do not — to the Syrian public and to international economic actors. Likewise, the precise conditions and mechanism for swiftly lifting them should be made clear from the outset. Finally, they should be coupled with a credible, proactive plan to revive the Syrian economy in the context of a genuine political transition. Nothing will have a more profound impact on Syria’s business community, which is eager for reassurance that change presents real opportunities and not solely risks.

The second mistake to be avoided is for the West to engage with members of the opposition in an effort to produce and legitimize a so-called alternative. A distinction needs to be made between the protest movement — which has proved to be largely indigenous, cohesive, increasingly organized, and highly responsible, notably by showing great discipline in the face of regime provocations — and the opposition, which comprises dissident intellectuals who have fought the regime vocally but in a disorderly and confusing fashion.

Divided, all too often over issues of personality and ego, members of the exiled opposition in particular have projected the image of an "alternative" all too reminiscent of Iraq. Many have taken initiatives — campaigning as leaders-to-be, convening conferences hosted by partisan states, meeting with U.S. officials, suggesting a future radical shift in foreign policy — that damage their legitimacy on the ground and prompt protesters to reject them rather than agree on a division of labor. In some cases, lack of grassroots support has pushed opposition figures to compensate by overinvesting in their reputation and recognition abroad. This trend, off-putting to most Syrians, ought not be encouraged.

Rather, the international community should press them to provide answers to a range of practical issues raised by the looming transition. How to ensure that the collapse of the regime not provoke or lead to the simultaneous collapse of the weak state? How to deal with a military that has not stepped up to its task as a national army? How to maintain security with an inept and corrupt police force? How to ensure the well-being of the Allawite community, without which Syria cannot be soundly rebuilt? What will be needed to kick-start economic recovery?   

For now, there is no need for prematurely crafting a power-sharing arrangement. The focus should be on thinking through how to manage the transition’s early stages, sustaining basic governance, and reviving the economy. By raising and answering such questions — which the protest movement has little time, space, energy and experience to contemplate — dissident intellectuals could gain relevance on the ground, reassuring both demonstrators who resent their perceived claim to leadership and citizens who currently back the regime for lack of trust in the alternative. The opposition’s critical contribution will not be in riding the protest movement’s coattails but in complementing it.  

Peter Harling is the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon project director with the International Crisis Group. 

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