Analysis: Syrian uprising’s cautionary tale

Unintended consequences of the struggle to oust Bashar al-Assad could be a warning to other revolutionaries.

For disaffected populations and communities in the Middle East and beyond who find themselves torn between suffering in silence and staging a full-blown revolt, there is a cautionary tale in the ongoing uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, many experts say.

They say that from Sudan to Uzbekistan and from Bahrain to Belarus, where public discontent simmers just beneath the surface of state-enforced normalcy, organisers of anti-government protests need only to look at developments involving Syria in recent months for evidence of the unintended consequences of a spontaneous political conflagration.

Whether the lessons will be heeded by aspiring revolutionaries down the line, only time will tell.

Inspired by the popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, large numbers of Syrians reckoned in March 2011 that the time was ripe for ending the decades-long Alawite political domination and so joined a peaceful revolution that seemed at least morally bound to succeed.

However, today they find themselves by most measures in a far worse situation than before.

With the conflict’s death toll according to UN estimates exceeding 100,000 and 6.1 million Syrians forced to flee their homes, many of those who rooted for Assad’s overthrow are now understandably questioning the wisdom of choosing the revolutionary road.

In a report released last year, the International Labour Organisation noted that youth unemployment – believed to be one of the chief reasons behind the Arab Spring revolutions – jumped as political turmoil slowed economic growth not just in Syria but across the Middle East and North Africa region.

And a recent study by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia said the Syrian economy contracted by about 31.4 percent in 2012, and that the economy needs years to regain the level it was in 2010.

In practical terms, this means the lives of millions of middle-class Syrians have been upended by more than 30 months of relentless violence; the country has been carved up into fiefs by a plethora of armed groups; those living in camps for the internally dispaced and refugees are dependent on the generosity of international donors; and an economy that was growing between three and six per cent just before the uprising now lies in tatters.

While the dismantling of Syria’s chemical-weapons stocks may have received a boost in the form of the Nobel Peace Prize for the watchdog overseeing it, violence rages on in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Deir Ezzor and Deraa – cities far away from the media’s glare.

Combustible factors 

To be sure, not every popular uprising from now on is doomed to violent stalemate accompanied by slaughter and mass displacement.

The socio-cultural peculiarities of multi-ethnic, multi-confessional Syria, as in neighbouring Lebanon, were a potentially combustible factor long before the Arab Spring reached the gates of Damascus.

“We have seen unrest mostly in countries with a young demographic where leaders raised public expectations of prosperity and freedom, only to be unable to meet them,” Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar in Doha, told Al Jazeera.

“Of course every Arab country has its own constituencies, tribal groups and social mosaic, so the circumstances are not the same. From Algeria and Bahrain to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, different governments have tried to handle the discontent of their citizens in their own ways.”

The ongoing unrest in Sudan, where recent government cuts in fuel subsidies have triggered violent demonstrations against the government, underscores the limitations of viewing the Syrian model as a template.

Sudan, from which mainly Christian South Sudan broke away in July 2011, resembles Syria in that it too is grappling with a witches’ brew of discontent.

Still, Paul Moorcraft, a London-based Sudan specialist from the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story recently that he did not see an Arab Spring immediately.

“The country is not another Egypt, not another Syria … it doesn’t have the religious disputes, it has greater cohesion,” he said, referring to Sudan.

“There is a lot wrong with the government but I don’t think you are seeing a revolutionary process at the moment.”

For all the differences between the conditions in Syria and those in other restive countries, there are uncanny similarities too.

Images of angry Sudanese marching on the streets shouting “The people want the fall of the regime” and demanding “Freedom, peace and justice”, call to mind scenes of Syrians chanting similar slogans and predicting the collapse of Assad.

Two years on, the same Syrians see a leader determined to fight his enemies to the finish and also fend off threats of international intervention.

Indeed, the consensus view is that Assad has been able to retain not only the loyalty of his domestic political constituencies but also the backing of powerful international allies in both words and actions.

By contrast, the people projected as a viable alternative to the government in Damascus have failed to parlay the sacrifices of the early revolutionaries into clear military and political gains.

The Istanbul-based coalition of opposition groups is widely regarded as an unruly talking shop for exiles representing the interests of major Arab and Western powers.

The armed groups on the ground, too, have increasingly turned to outdoing each other in Islamist rhetoric instead of revolutionary fervour and, of late, to picking fights with each other and with secular Kurdish militias.

Casualty of war

Among the casualties of the war is the original idea of a liberal, democratic post-Baathist Syria that fired the imagination of the Damascus Spring intellectuals and much of the West.

“The situation in Syria does worry people in other Middle East countries in the sense that nobody wants democracy to come at the cost of stability,” RUSI Qatar’s Stephens says.

“Many people I have met, in Saudi Arabia for example, have told me ‘We don’t want what is happening in Syria. We want stability’.”

Unsurprisingly, the broad diplomatic response has been influenced by the chaotic outcomes of the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, not to speak of the Syrian uprising’s inexorable conversion into a holy war of sorts.

Indeed, many members of the international community are no longer confident that the Assad government’s replacement will necessarily be an improvement.

While Russia, China and mainly Shia Iran were expected to back the current regime anyway for a mixture of ideological and strategic reasons, their commitment has doubtless been reinforced by the Sunni Islamist domination of the opposition.

Likewise, the disillusionment of Western publics with the objective of toppling Assad has much to do with the unsettling prospect of seeing an al-Qaeda-inspired government taking shape in the heart of the Middle East.

After the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries seen by the US and Britain as places where their “sacrifices in blood and treasure” have failed to alter violent political narratives, it is hardly astonishing that large majorities in both countries oppose military involvement in the Syrian conflict regardless of the moral and humanitarian imperatives.

Cautionary lessons

On balance, from the standpoint of an educated, middle-class Syrian, almost anything that could go wrong with the revolution, has gone wrong. For a more religiously minded compatriot, the verdict perhaps would be only a shade more charitable.

Despite the clear advantages of Arab Spring momentum, access to social media and international sympathy, and the implication of government figures in war crimes, opposition activists had no answer to the regime’s formidable war arsenal and regional support network, two factors that proved crucial to its durability.

While the moral and economic support of the West, Turkey and wealthy Gulf Arab countries for the opposition National Coalition was vital, both on the battlefield and at the UN it was the Assad regime’s backers who prevailed time and again.

Meanwhile, the slow implosion of the moderate fighting units and the attendant ascendancy of al-Qaeda-aligned groups helped bolster the Assad regime’s argument that the uprising was nothing short of a war between secular Syrians and foreign fundamentalists.

As if all these factors were not insidious enough, Assad’s opponents were handicapped by their inability to project a Mandela-like unifying figure who could stand above petty factional rivalries and rally international public opinion to their side.

In actual fact, the Syrian conflict has yet to run its course and, in theory at least, could still culminate in the overthrow of Assad’s regime and the establishment of a representative democracy in its place.

“Revolutions are messy affairs and never run in straight lines,” S Nihal Singh, a veteran foreign correspondent, author and former editor of the UAE’s Khaleej Times daily, told Al Jazeera.

“What the Syrian stalemate tells us is that in a complex ethnic and religious mix, the pain of transition lasts longer but the seeds of revolution will fructify in the end.”

No matter what the outcome of the Syrian uprising, political activists around the world cannot ignore its lasting lessons before sounding the clarion call for another revolution.

Follow Arnab Neil Sengupta on Twitter: @arnabnsg

Source: Al Jazeera