Syria’s leading poet Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, better known by his nom de plume Adonis, spoke for many in his country when he said recently: “I’m against the regimes of [Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine] Ben Ali and [Syria’s Bashar Al] Assad and against the Islamist opposition, because I don’t want to fight one despotism for the sake of another.”
The young dissidents risking their lives in Syria’s streets are not doing so to bring in a new form of despotism, but that does not mean it won’t happen anyway.
Syrian dissidents, most of whom are genuine democrats, see themselves as part of that tidal wave of revolutions that began a year ago in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain.
The Tunisian revolution, which of all the Arab Spring uprisings suffered the least foreign interference (apart from a French attempt to rearm the old regime), is doing well. The secularist president, Moncef Marzouki, is governing under an accommodation with the Islamists that so far suits the country. The outcome in the other Arab Spring states has yet to be decided, so Syrians cannot rely on them as guides to their own destiny.
Earlier revolutions in the Middle East have gone wrong, among them the Lebanese, Palestinian and Iranian. In 1975 young Lebanese, every bit as idealistic as their Syrian counterparts today, began a revolution against corruption and pseudo-democracy. It produced a 15-year war, foreign occupation and devastation. The Palestinian revolution sold out, making the lives of the people it claimed to represent more wretched in the Israeli occupied territories and in exile (most obviously, in Lebanon and Kuwait). The Iranian revolution, begun as a coalition of hope in 1978, led to a regime more brutal and corrupt than the one it replaced. Revolutions produce surprising outcomes, and those who start them must be prepared for the unintended consequences of success as much as for failure.
The predicted futures for Syria are many and contradictory. One is that the opposition will take power, as happened in Tunisia, and install a democratic and secular future. Another is that, as in Egypt, the military will be left as arbiter of a new order. Yet another posits power devolving to the Muslim Brotherhood with its claims to represent the Sunni majority. Some columnists in the Lebanese press suggest that Mr Al Assad is preparing the ground for retreat into an Alawite state centred on Latakia in the north-west that would bring about the Balkanisation of Syria.
This happened once before. In 1920, when France occupied Syria, it divided the country into separate states: Damascus, Aleppo, Jebel Druze, Alexandretta, Greater Lebanon and the Alawite State. Each was given its own flag, postage stamps and governor. Uprisings burst forth immediately, and by 1936 most of Syria had been reunited. Lebanon remained apart, and France ceded Alexandretta to Turkey in 1939. (Syrian-Turkish animosity ever since must be seen against the background of this imperially-imposed loss.) The Alawites in 1920, as now, preferred Syria over a sectarian enclave.
In the current uprising, neither side appears capable of a swift military victory. The escalation of violence produces a loss of trust among communities within the Syrian body politic. In Homs, at the moment the heart of the rebellion, kidnapping has become a fact of life. Sunnis and Alawites venturing into each other’s neighbourhoods suffer captivity. As in Lebanon when it cracked in late 1975, and in Iraq after the American-led invasion of 2003, kidnappings lead to sectarian exodus and ghettoisation. This is not what most Syrians want, but foreign intervention would push Syria in this direction.
The “new military humanists”, the term Noam Chomsky coined in a 1999 book to describe those who seek local conflicts as excuses for armed western intervention, are calling for the United States and western Europe to do battle for the Syrian rebels. There is talk of armed force to impose a no-fly zone or to set up an enclave on the Turkish border for the opposition to mobilise, train and launch raids.
While some in Nato question the feasibility, as well as the wisdom, of such action, it cannot be ruled out. Repeating the quick “victory” of Libya, while ignoring the numbers killed in Nato raids and the current instability, might tempt a US president taunted for weakness by his Republican opponents.
Appeals to “the West” to take action, like the calls by the Arab League for the United Nations to intervene, are based on the premise that the only solution for Syria is military. Yet an attempt to impose a military solution will increase the death toll, demolish infrastructure, further divide the country’s communities and send many of its people to seek refuge across their borders as so many Lebanese and Iraqis did during their long conflicts. Surely, “the West” (a euphemism for the US) and the UN could find a better way.
At the moment, the Assad regime and the opposition refuse to negotiate. The opposition says, correctly, that the government arrests and tortures its members. The government claims, with considerable evidence, that outsiders hostile to Syria are supporting the opposition. Russia sends arms to the regime, while Nato arms and trains its opponents.
No one is acting to bring the two sides to meet, arrange an end to the state of siege and set a date for internationally supervised parliamentary and presidential elections. That requires time and subtle diplomatic skills of which the US, so long reliant on armed force, may no longer be capable.