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Søren Schmidt: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Syria

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Otto von Bismarck is said to have remarked that the wise statesman listens to the footsteps of history. It seems that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has a different theory.

By **Søren Schmidt**

By arrangement with

Syria-Freedom-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr.

The nineneteenth-century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck is said to have remarked that the wise statesman listens to the footsteps of history. It seems that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is tone-deaf and has not understood that it is no longer possible to rule a country solely by military force. But as a former ophthamologist he at least ought to be able to read. For example what researchers from Pepperdine University discovered about the opinions of Syrians in 2010. Their research showed two things:

First of all that the population is divided into a majority (2/3) that is dissatisfied with the government and doesn’t think that the country is progressing, and a minority (1/3) that thinks the country has a good government and is progressing.

Secondly that corruption and lack of political freedom are the two biggest problems in the country, with the economy only coming in third.

I was in Syria myself around the New Year, and was told by almost everyone I spoke to that about 1/3 of the population in the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, still support the government, whereas ½ supports the opposition. In the provincial cities of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deir Zor and Der’a, almost everyone is against the regime. Several people referred to the bad experiences with “democracy” in Iraq and the vulnerability of the minorities there as the justification for supporting the regime, which they felt was at least tolerable.

But as the regime’s brutal repression of the opposition goes on, more and more regime supporters are being alienated, the number of deserters from the army is increasing and the resolve of the opposition to topple the Assad regime is strengthened. But the balance of power is shifting slowly, and no leading religious authority or anyone from the key military units has gone over to the opposition yet. This means that it may take a long time before the regime is defeated. However, time is on the side of the opposition.

The Pepperdine research showed that only 25% thought that they personally had become worse off during the past year. The rest felt that their situation was either improved or the same as before. Corruption was, however, perceived by almost everyone to have gotten worse, and did not think that they could get a job in the civil service without having connections. During recent years, the Syrian economy has been privatized, but not in a way that ensures everyone a fair chance. Those who benefit are the business people with the right connections to the regime, and therefore it is not without reason that the leading business people have names like Assad, Makhlouf or Shalish—the various branches of the Assad clan.

[Bashar al-Assad] has now been assured a place in history’s garbage dump.

In Tunisia it was the authorities’ ruthless abuse of power against the fruit seller, which led him to set himself on fire and which, in turn, sparked the Jasmine Revolution. Likewise, according to the people I spoke to, it was the authorities’ brutal and meaningless treatment of the young people who had scribbled anti-regime graffiti in Der’a that triggered the revolt in Syria.

Syrians are modern people. Most of them have internet, mobile phone and satellite TV. They live in cities, most have an education and during the economic growth of the last few years, the majority has seen an increase in its standard of living (according to the World Bank, the average income rose from $3,480 in 2003 to $5,120 in 2010).

Although there are, of course, many reasons for the revolt, the predominant reason does not seem to be economic, but rather that people want the social contract between the state and the citizens to change, so that it is based on freedom and fairness. The citizens are simply not willing to put up with being treated like cattle by the regime any longer.

They are tired of corrupt courts and arbitrary treatment by the authorities. They are tired of the fact that lack of democracy means that the state can imprison people illegally for an indefinite period. Lastly, people are tired of the state prioritizing military spending and enrichment of the elite instead of, for example, making sure that children have decent schools (95% think that public schools are bad or mediocre).

It is therefore not collectivist, political ideologies like Islamism or Socialism that inspire Syrians today; rather it is Western core values like freedom and fairness. Freedom made possible by rule of law that protects the individual against abuse by the state or by other people, and fairness in the form of a democracy ensuring that citizens have equal influence on political decisions, equal treatment by the authorities and oversight ensuring that freedoms and rights are respected.

There are basically two possible resolutions of the conflict in Syria: a compromise between the parties or the victory of one side over the other.

Compromise requires, first of all, that both parties realize that neither one of them can win and they therefore willingly accept a compromise as the next best solution, and, secondly, that a negotiated resolution can be enforced; typically through the involvement of a third party. However, there is no real indication that a compromise is possible. While a negotiated solution was possible until a few months ago, the regime, with its brutal behavior, has burned its bridges behind it so that no one in the opposition talks of negotiations anymore. Furthermore, it is difficult for geopolitical reason to see how NATO, the EU, Turkey or The Arab League would be either willing or able to go in and guarantee a peace treaty between the two sides, never mind about intervening militarily to hasten regime change.

What is left is the long hard road ahead before the regime falls. The Free Syrian Army will slowly gain strength and may even be able to establish liberated zones; either in the area near the border with Turkey or in the cities most hostile to the regime, like Homs and Hama. But the Alawi generals in Assad’s key military units already have too much blood on their hands to switch sides.

If, six months ago, Bashar al-Assad had heeded Bismarck’s advice to listen to the footsteps of history, Syria could have been spared much violence and he might even have gone down in history as the country’s first democratic president. Instead he has now been assured a place in history’s garbage dump.


By arrangement with

Søren Schmidt is an Associate Professor at Aalborg University, Denmark.

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