Syria at a Crossroads: Will There Be a Damascus Spring?
Sadik al-Azm, Visiting Professor, Near East Studies Department, Princeton University
Al-Azm began by saying the Damascus Spring is behind us and a stormy winter lies ahead. The energies and thoughts of the Syrian people are now directed towards damage control—a lot of damage has already been done but expectations are of more to come, he said. In September 2000, Charter 99 started the earlier Damascus Spring by delineating a program that could have prevented Syria from getting caught in the bottleneck it finds itself in now. The requirements of Charter 99 included the lifting of martial law and the state of siege, the release of political prisoners, the return of exiles, and the rehabilitation of the judiciary. Many of the points of the declaration have been included in the more recent Damascus Declaration which was issued by a number of opposition forces. Al-Azm said current debate concerning the declaration reveals fears that if the regime falls or implodes, civil strife may break out.
Relating the current Syrian situation to the experiences of Lebanon and Iraq, al-Azm noted the realization among the Syrian intelligentsia that one of the lessons of the Lebanon civil war that was lost on the Americans is that if a minority regime loses power, it will fight. The Americans did not prepare for that eventuality in Iraq, he said. The Maronite Christians ruled Lebanon since 1920; the Sunnis have had Iraq for thirteen centuries—it is simplistic to think you can take power from these groups without a backlash. While no one is sure whether or not the minority regime in Syria will fight back (current predictions are based on hunches, guesses, and intuition), it is impossible to rule out the possibility of civil strife breaking out if the Syrian regime is "shaken up by one development or another," he said. One potential scenario is for President Bashar Al-Asad to arrest his brother-in-law which could lead to the political situation spiraling out of control. The army's response in such circumstances is also difficult to predict. What were once considered distant possibilities, al-Azm said, are now all on the table.
Al-Azm emphasized the brilliance of the Syrian intelligentsia during the Damascus Spring. After forty years of censorship, repression, and a blockaded news media, the intelligentsia revealed itself as excellent, analytical, and modern. Their ability to maintain an awareness of what was going on in the rest of the world laid bare the ineffectiveness of forty years of efforts to eliminate access to news and information. Al-Azm also highlighted the significance of satellite television in developing the knowledge and awareness of segments of the population that had been entirely uninformed in the past.
Discussions and debates among the intelligentsia in Syria prior to the invasion of Iraq revealed divisions both amongst themselves and within themselves, al-Azm said. On the one hand, you had a horrible regime whose removal would have consequences for the Syrian government and its people. At the same time, the enormity of an Arab country being directly attacked and occupied by the American military left many Syrians conflicted. The opposition democratic forces in Syria were benefiting from the U.S. intervention, whether they liked it or not—external pressure had increased the margin, allowing greater room for debate. Nonetheless, knowing that this increased space was due to American intervention in the region allowed a sense of shame and guilt to remain.
Finally al-Azm examined American interests in the current Syrian crisis. He suggested that the Syrian decision makers operated on the assumption that deep down the United States does not want Syria out of Lebanon. According to this logic, American interests are better served with Hezbollah under Syrian control rather than Hezbollah on its own, he said. Syrian oversight of the Palestinians is better for the Americans than the Palestinians acting on their own and Syrian control over Sunni radicalism in Lebanon is preferred as well. This was all part of the debates and discussions taking place among the Syrian intelligentsia, al-Azm said. He concluded by acknowledging that the present situation is worsening. The current mindset taking hold of the regime imagines "no matter what we do, the Americans are going to get us, so maybe it is best to do nothing." From the perspective of Hezbollah, if you can hold out for another three years, maybe the storm will have blown over.
Drafted by Stephen Hendrickson