by Shakeeb Al-Jabri
The revolution in Syria is now in its second year and questions are being raised about the likelihood of its success. Syrian activists attest that the persistence of the revolution against all odds is proof that it cannot be defeated. Their detractors argue Assad’s continued grasp on the country supports their argument that he is too strong to be removed. The international community is similarly divided with most Arab and Western countries saying Assad’s fall is only a matter of time. Meanwhile Russia, China and their allies insist Assad is here to stay.
The Syrian revolution has evolved over the past year from a singular protest in Damascus’ traditional Hamidiyye Market spreading to cover almost every square mile of Syria’s land. The rising number of defectors has also led to the creation of the Free Syrian Army whose self-proclaimed priority is to protect protesters from the regime’s violent oppression.
The increase in defections is helping the FSA become an independent actor in the Syrian opposition. The media’s thirst for blood also helps the FSA grab more of the Syria headlines than the peaceful protests ever did. As a result many observers have taken to measuring the success of the revolution in terms of ground held by the FSA, or lost to Assad. This overshadows many of the accomplishments of the revolution.
What’s happening in Syria is a popular revolt and by no means a military conflict. The Syrian people are protesting because they desire to practice their right to self-determination. The Assad regime had imposed on its subjects a seemingly convenient formula, which can easily be summarized by “do whatever you want, just don’t threaten the regime.” Any dissenters were promptly silenced in a mysterious yet public manner that spelled out the consequences for speaking up. This culture of fear ruled Syria for five decades.
The Syrian Revolution is changing the psyche of most Syrian people, dissenters and supporters alike. In the few cafes that are still open in Aleppo and Damascus customers openly discuss the crisis in Syria, often omitting discreet terms. In March a group of youth, regime opponents and supporters, gathered in Damascus to participate in a convoy delivering aid to Homs in a sign of solidarity with those affected by the regime’s onslaught. The convoy was prevented from leaving Damascus and the youth responded by staging a sit-in. In June of last year Assad hosted a delegation from Jobar, a Damascus neighborhood that was among the first to revolt. One of the participants leaked his notes from the meeting. They revealed that the guests openly talked back to the president. The leak alone is an act of defiance unheard of before in Syria.
“The wall of fear has been broken” may sound to many as a hollow statement however it is the most significant realization of the past year. This small development is changing the very nature of the relationship between the Arab people and their governors.
Shattered Houses, Shattered Economy
Assad’s biggest mistakes are in his attempts to quash the revolution by means of military conquest. He sent troops into residential neighborhoods to occupy them and prevent protests, as a result many have defected. Assad then turned to a more destructive strategy. In an effort to minimize defections and increase destruction through collective punishment, the army has taken to shelling entire neighborhoods with mortars and rockets from a distance, eroding support for defectors holed up in FSA neighborhoods. This has caused enormous amounts of damage to infrastructure, utilities, schools, businesses and left thousands of people homeless and displaced.
The Syrian economy is suffering from enormous damage. Shabbiha, the local thugs, raid and loot any shop that participates in strikes leaving owners without a means for livelihood. Regime opponents who are uncovered are routinely fired, even from private businesses. In cities where major military operations are taking place life is at a complete standstill. To make things worse, the regime has virtually shifted to a war economy. All resources are diverted to the security forces and army. The regime is failing to deliver on basic needs. Food and fuel shortages have caused inflation to skyrocket even in the least affected cities. Even in the capital, Damascus, many residents are without electricity for up to 12 hours a day.
Help from the regime’s allies is failing to sustain the economy. Cash injections from Russia and Iran are doing little to prevent the fall of the Syrian Pound which is almost at half its pre-revolution value. Fuel shipments from Venezuela are delivered to the military, leaving the Syrian population immobilized and in the dark.
The Revolution Matures
Meanwhile the revolution is building its own economy. Local committees, tasked with organizing protests, are growing into revolution councils that manage each city’s internal affairs. Local committees are groups of typically 20 activists each. They were conceived as activist groups responsible for organizing and documenting protests. Their responsibilities are growing to cover services usually handled by the government and NGOs. They enlist citizen journalists to report on the regime’s actions as foreign journalists are barred from the country. They document cases of deaths, disappearances, and torture.
These councils are merging into city-wide “revolution councils” and taking on the additional responsibility of humanitarian relief. Revolution councils survey needs, receive aid and redistribute it. They arrange shelter and aid for the internally displaced. Revolution councils have also taken over local city services such as trash collection. They are replacing all forms of local government to the extent that some regime-controlled local directorates have fallen completely outside its tutelage. On a visit to Binnish, the late Anthony Shadid suggested their council could serve as a model for the future Syria. It already is.
If Assad Wins
Questions arise over what could count as a win for Assad. The regime’s lack of any serious reforms suggests that it hopes to roll back the revolution and all its consequences. In the best case scenario all dissenters would go back to their homes and shut up, surrendering their lives to Assad. But it is significantly more complicated than that, not least because many of these dissenters no longer have homes.
To reverse the clock the regime will have to restore the quality of life of the Syrian people, at least to what it was on March 14, 2011. It will have to rebuild entire neighborhoods, including houses, schools, hospitals, shops, and public services buildings. It will have to repair the economy and find jobs for all unemployed. The sheer level of destruction will make this a monumental task. During its war against its opponents the army destroyed life-sustaining infrastructures such as dams and granaries. It torched thousands of acres of farmland which will need treatment before any new crops can grow again. The regime will have to regain the confidence of the people in its ability to manage the country.
Assad’s allies are arguing for what they see as a more realistic scenario, a negotiated settlement where power is shared between the regime and its opponents. Their hope is that this will vent dissent while allowing the regime to remain in control. The current compromise plan endorsed by Assad’s foreign allies and foes includes withdrawal of all military units, a daily humanitarian ceasefire, release of all detainees, and access for foreign journalists. The regime here hopes to give only enough its allies to alleviate the pressure from others in the international community, without ceding any ground that would tip the balance against in favor of its opponents.
Both scenarios are highly unlikely. Dissent in Syria is at an all-time high and still rising. The regime lacks the funds it needs to buy back the people’s trust. It is unlikely that the sanctions imposed on Syria will be lifted soon or soon enough to rectify the situation. The amount of help the regime is receiving from its allies is not clear but it has so far failed to stabilize the economy. Assad will need much more to rebuild what he destroyed and stifle dissent. Iran, the regime’s closest ally, is struggling with its own sanctions. China withdrew several employees due to deteriorating security condition and Russian residents are reporting cases of threats and harassment. Even Assad’s staunchest allies will be wary of investing in a country where their citizens feel unwanted.
The UN-brokered ceasefire took effect on April 12, yet the regime’s military machine continues to grind on in every province in Syria. It continues to demonstrate complete intolerance to any dissent. This fatal equation has locked the country in a war of attrition. The more Assad kills, the more dissent is spread. The wider the dissent, the more Assad kills. For Assad to “win” he will need to adopt policies so repressive they will make life in North Korea feel like a walk in the park.
Assad’s obsession with his military (the security solution) will be his demise. The army is behaving as a foreign occupation force rather than “Guardians of the Homeland” as they are called in Syria’s national anthem. It is being used as a tool to punish the people rather than protect them. Slowly but steadily Assad is losing his grasp over everything in the country. He is neglecting everything other than the military, leaving local governance to activists. Revolution councils are increasingly responsible for managing all aspects of civilian life.
Assad is on a path with only one logical end. His. The army, like civilians, require services to function properly. Soldiers are already being sent on missions without rations. As they become more dependent on the revolution councils they will defect in larger numbers. Assad will lose his only card.