The best thing you'll read on Syria

 Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime | Middle East Research and Information Project

This, by Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, is by far and away the best piece I have read on Syria (and why you should really subscribe to MERIP — not to read it, because it's free, to support it as a platform). It stands out among all the hare-brained intervention plans, the letters from Syria, the impassioned calls for action and all the rest. I really urge you to read the whole thing, but here are some selected highlights.

The regime's calculus:

Events have aided the regime in its attempt to dismiss the protest movement and further tip the balance from nominal reform to escalating repression, fueling a vicious cycle that has turned sporadic clashes into a nascent civil war. In a sense, the regime may already have won: By pushing frustrated protesters to take up arms and the international community to offer them support, it is succeeding in disfiguring what it saw as the greatest threat to its rule, namely the grassroots and mostly peaceful protest movement that demanded profound change. In another sense, the regime may already have lost: By treating too broad a cross-section of the Syrian people as the enemy, and giving foreign adversaries justification to act, it seems to have forged against itself a coalition too big to defeat.

On the SNC's mistakes:

For its part, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group that is composed mostly of exiles, has failed to offer an inspiring alternative since it was formed in September 2011. Its mainly unknown and inexperienced members have done little to counteract the regime’s propaganda. Unable to agree on any positive political platform, the SNC has refused any negotiation with the regime and called for “international intervention” that is conveniently left undefined, leaving to their anxieties the many Syrians who simultaneously loathe the regime, dread foreign interference and panic at the idea of a high-risk transition. It has estranged, among others, Kurdish factions, who fear a Turkish agenda, and petrified Syrians distrustful of Qatari and Saudi influence. It has most notably failed to reach out to the ‘Alawis, many of whom are poor and disgruntled but afraid to change sides lest they suffer a backlash due to their association with the security forces and army units responsible for much of the violence. By abandoning all these people to their dark forebodings, the SNC’s members have missed an opportunity to hasten the decline of the regime and ward off civil strife in the event of Bashar’s fall. On the international level, the SNC has displayed political naïveté by putting all its energy into lobbying for support from Turkey, the Gulf monarchies and the West, all of whom are already sympathetic, while ignoring and alienating the regime’s allies.

On where Syria fits in in the Arab uprisings:

There is a distinctly Syrian character to the crisis. Unlike Libyans, who in a matter of hours defected en masse, took up arms and called upon the outside world to step in, Syrians took months to resort to weapons or cry out for international intervention. Unlike Egypt, where revolution was a sublime but somewhat shallow moment of grace, the Syrian uprising has been a long, hard slog: The protest movement has gradually built itself up, studied the regime’s every move and mapped out the country to the extent that small towns such as Binnish in the northwest are now known to all.

On the organizers of the protest movement:

Alongside actual demonstrations, an expansive albeit largely invisible civil society has emerged to render them possible, by offering numerous forms of support. Businessmen have donated money and food; doctors sneak out medicines from hospitals and man field clinics in the most violence-ridden areas; religious leaders, by and large, try to keep a lid on sectarianism and violence. Over the course of the uprising, Syrians have articulated a now deeply rooted culture of dissent and developed sometimes sophisticated forms of self-rule by setting up local councils: Homs, which is also home to unruly armed groups, has developed a revolutionary council with an 11-member executive that presides over committees responsible for different aspects of the crisis, from interacting with the media to procuring medical supplies. Within revolting communities there is a greater sense of purpose, solidarity and national unity than at any time in recent Syrian history.

On external intervention:

Finally, as increasingly desperate protesters call for help, there is a danger that the outside world will make matters worse as it plays at being savior. Calls for aid are somewhat worse than a pact with the devil: They entail pacts with many devils that do not agree on much. The Gulf monarchies, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, the US, Iran and others all see geostrategic stakes in the fate of the Asad regime. The greater their involvement, the less Syrians will remain in control of their destiny. Crying out for foreign intervention of any kind, to bring this emergency to an end at any cost, is more than understandable coming from ordinary citizens subjected to extreme forms of regime violence. Exiled opposition figures who pose as national leaders have no excuse for behaving likewise, when what is needed is a cool-headed, careful calibration of what type of outside “help” would do the minimum of harm.

Close to home, another Middle Eastern experience -- Iraq -- serves as an example on all three fronts. A political process excluding even a relatively small minority within Iraqi society led to a collective disaster. A group of returning exiles, without a social base but enjoying international support as the only visible, pre-existing “alternative,” quickly took over the transition and agreed only on splitting up power among themselves on the basis of a communal calculus. Their division of the spoils gradually contaminated the entire polity, and ultimately led to civil war. And the US, presiding over this tragedy, succeeded only in turning Iraq into a parody of itself, a country that now fits every sectarian and troubled stereotype the occupying power initially saw in it.

Peter saw what happened in Iraq firsthand, and lived in Syria for the last five years. I respect his insight into Syrian society, and his wisdom in trying to avoid an Iraq 2.0.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.