The trend of events inside Syria these days is toward a troubling increase in organized military operations by both the government and opposition groups, with breakaway troops from the armed forces now attacking state institutions. This is a worrying escalation that may push Syria into destructive domestic strife that could escalate into civil war, and also a more or less routine rite of passage for modern Arab states that find themselves dealing with the consequences of their own contradictions, incompetence and even criminality.
Many Arab countries have endured severe internal strife of some sort, including all-out civil war, because they failed to provide their citizens with other means of organizing national political life. Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, Somalia, Tunisia, Egypt, Oman and Bahrain are examples of Arab countries that have endured some kind of serious domestic strife, sustained terrorism, or outright civil war. Syria now joins that sad list, the last holdout against civil war perhaps because the consequences of this spilling over into other countries are so frightening for the region as a whole.
Whatever the reason, it now seems that what started as a localized protest movement in southern Syria demanding limited political reforms has grown into a full blown national uprising that seeks to remove the regime of President Bashar Assad. The regime has proven unable to deal with the protests in a credible political manner and has emphasized harsh military attacks against protesters, which has prompted resistance to increase and now become militarized. The regime has proved as incompetent in engaging with regional diplomatic initiatives as it has in responding to domestic challenges.
The result has been steadily increasing isolation of the Syrian leadership, a total loss of trust in it by both its domestic challengers and regional interlocutors, tightening sanctions from the international community, and a lack of options all around – which is why the country is now on the path toward increased military confrontation. This is coupled with robust regional intervention in Syrian affairs, designed to protect civilians and stop the killings by all parties and pressure the regime in order to force it to change radically or leave. Actions by the Arab League and Turkey are the most significant in this respect.
A civil war in Syria remains unlikely, though, in my view, because once things start moving in that direction we will see the collapse or defection of one or more of the regime’s five pillars of its incumbency (military, business class, Alawites, minorities, Aleppo-Damascus silent middle classes). This would probably trigger a Romanian-style sudden collapse of the existing order, as the regime’s thin support systems are exposed, as happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Unlike Lebanon, Somalia, Algeria or other Arab lands that endured years of destruction and death, civil war-like strife in Syria would probably be short-lived, as domestic and regional responses quickly would lead to the overthrow of the regime, ushering in a new political era.
Every Arab citizen revolt has had its own characteristics to date, and no two regime changes have been identical. Syria will follow this pattern, reflecting elements of the popular resistance and foreign military or political interventions that defined the regime changes in North Africa, along with some uniquely Syrian and Levantine dimensions. The role of Turkey is the major novelty in the Syrian case, as this powerful non-Arab neighbor explores the most appropriate way to pressure the regime in Damascus and help the transition to a more democratic governance system.
It is not surprising that Syria has reached this point of home-grown military battles around the country, because the grievances of the Syrian people mirror closely those of the other Arab lands where citizens have rebelled. The combination of mediocrity and wide disparities in material conditions, with chronic poverty in political rights, reached the point where millions of ordinary citizens made a simple but fateful calculation, unequivocally believing that it is worth risking one’s life to stand up and demand their rights as citizens and a better governance system. Thousands have paid with their lives, and others will do so in the years ahead.
A fascinating aspect of the situation in Syria today is how local, regional and international forces will combine to drive the process of change, with critical roles being played by the diverse opposition groups that are trying to coordinate and unify, the breakaway military units, the local demonstrators, the Arab League, Turkey and half a dozen other major actors. Their actions and options will continue to evolve, but the direction of their common drama is now clear, as more and more discussion about Syria is only about the question of how the transition to a post-Assad Syria will happen.
Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star in Beirut, is one of the most widely read columnists internationally. This article first appeared in The Daily Star on Nov. 19, 2011