Paying lip service to resistance does not provide immunity
The refreshing winds blowing from the Atlantic to the Gulf are dealing a serious and hopefully fatal blow to deeply-ingrained western misconceptions about the Middle East. The orientalist dogmas underlying foreign intervention--from Bonaparte's 1798 Egypt expedition to George W. Bush's 2003 Iraq invasion--are shattering. The western gaze will no longer be the same; the times they are a-changin'.
No one can any longer refer to the "Arab street" with condescension. Arab publics can no longer be ignored, described as lethargic, inherently illiberal, fanatical or incapable of taking a hand in their destiny. The Arab revolutions were driven by a moral quest for justice and dignity, and by secular demands that put to rest the theocentric notion that everything that happens in this part of the world is driven exclusively by religious motives.
Recent events also demonstrate that a popular grid of analysis that divides Middle Eastern powers between the so-called "axis of resistance" (mumana'a) and the so-called "moderate Arab regimes," is actually a sinister joke. Whether "moderate" or "radical", the first and foremost priority of every single regime in the Middle East and North Africa region is its own survival. Everything else is negotiable. We have seen that the allegedly "moderate" regimes were among the most ruthless in their repression of political opponents, bloggers, and human rights activists. But while it is true that spineless subservience to Dick Cheney does not equal moderation, it is also true that paying lip service to resistance does not provide immunity from popular anger. Nor can it quell the legitimate aspirations of freedom-hungry new generations.
Herein is the Syrian regime's predicament. Even if many Syrians feel fine about their country's foreign affairs, their wrath over domestic concerns is not appeased.
President Bashar Assad early understood that the United States committed a major strategic blunder by invading Iraq under fallacious pretenses, with disastrous long term consequences. Syria welcomed, assisted and absorbed more than 1.3 million Iraqi refugees, not an easy task for a country of 22 million. Many ordinary Syrians felt this was right. Syria strengthened its strategic partnership with Iran and provided political and logistical support to Hamas and Hizballah, while pursuing indirect negotiations with Israel, even during the July 2006 Lebanon war. The Syrian regime dug in its heels and weathered the storm during the Bush administration's era of hubris. Then Syria broke its isolation thanks to Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" policy, and to France's impulsive and nervy Nicolas Sarkozy, whose Syria policy consisted in doing the exact opposite of his predecessor.
Today, the domestic situation is much more problematic. But once again, foreign powers may allow the Syrian regime to survive or at least gain time.
Cosmetic changes and minor reforms are no longer sufficient. Syria is in dire need of radical political, social and economic transformation. Politically, younger generations need oxygen. The 48-year-old state of emergency is a symbol of oppression. Syrians who work in agriculture or industry can no longer make ends meet. The informal economy is very large and most workers have no social safety nets. The black market is flourishing. A small group of individuals control the telecom industry, agro-business, commerce and real estate. The Syrian economy needs an overhaul. Crony capitalism and remnants of rigid bureaucratic socialism offer the worst of both worlds. Add to this a set of enormous regional disparities that need to be addressed. The riots started in the small underprivileged agricultural town of Daraa. In other regions, masses of disaffected youth are deprived of basic rights and opportunities; they too dream of a better future, inspired by Tunisia and Egypt. Turning a deaf ear to them is not a realistic option. With courageous reforms, Syria can rapidly move toward economic success. It has assets: high literacy, a young population, tourist potential, and little debt, to name a few.
Yet, to judge from history, the regime seems incapable of reform. If it regains momentum, the protest movement can threaten the regime's survival. Syrians reject the specter of sectarian strife but are nonetheless committed to serious change--today, rather than tomorrow. Bashar Assad cannot meet their demands without hitting close to home and facing powerful vested interests, which he seems unable or unwilling to do.
Here, once again, the Syrian regime's hope comes from abroad. To understand why Hillary Clinton calls Bashar a "reformer", it's important to keep in mind that the Obama administration is under intense pressure from Israeli, Jordanian and Saudi allies who desperately want to maintain the Middle Eastern status quo. During the Egyptian revolution, these states lobbied hard to "Save Private Mubarak". When this became impossible, they asked the US for guarantees against further destabilization. Despite differences with Bashar, most if not all of the regional powers support his stability. And this probably will make the difference.
If so, it would constitute a bitter irony and the ultimate paradox: Syria's foreign policy, while appreciated by the public, is not enough to assuage the protestors. At the same time, foreign powers, who resent Syrian foreign policy, may end up saving the Syrian regime in the name of realpolitik, in this case the "devil we know" or the dubious theory of a "lesser evil".