Sunday, September 11, 2011

Syria’s Arab Spring: Phase Two of the Crisis

Guest writer Ghaidaa Hetou has conducted extensive research in Syria during the past year. She is currently writing her PhD dissertation on alliance behavior in Syrian foreign policy and the determinants of Syrian foreign policy making between 1970 and 2010.

It has been six months since protests erupted in Syria. The current political sluggishness in Syria, where calm has not been completely restored by the government, nor have the protests gained traction in major cities such as Damascus and Aleppo, has ushered in the next phase in the ongoing crisis.

During the first six months, various opposition groups have insisted on the peaceful nature of the protests. However, violent clashes that have occurred in Jisr al-Shughur, Homs, Hama and other towns. In addition, the declarations of the armed Syrian opposition committee have marred the efforts of thousands of Syrians who have continued to peacefully brave the wrath of the totalitarian apparatus of Bashar al-Asad's Ba’thist regime.

The conflicting efforts of protesters and armed rebels mirror the ideological competition among the various opposition groups. From the secular left to the religious conservatives, such as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the contrasting political agendas of the Syrian opposition are impeding its ability to develop a united front. It has now become the norm for these various opposition groups to send their delegates to Washington, Europe and Moscow to meet separately with government representatives. A number of Syrian opposition conferences - in Turkey, Qatar, France and Germany - have tried to narrow the gap between the opposition group’s conflicting ideological agendas, but with little success.

On the domestic front, two minority groups in Syria, the Kurds and Christians, have adopted a position of neutrality towards the uprising. Their position has been reinforced, especially after recent chants of some demonstrators of “" عربية, عربية “"عمر, عمر” and “ المسيحي على بيروت أو للتابوت”, the first saying that this is solely an “Arab movement,” the second using the slogan of “Omar” in an effort to underscore the Sunni nature of the movement, and the last chant stating that the Christians have two choices, either to leave Syria for Beirut or in a casket. These chants prevail among groups that are calling for armed confrontation. In a demographically diverse society, social movements can easily, in an effort to garner popularity, alienate minority groups who might have otherwise tipped the scale in their favor.

What has ushered in the next phase in Syria’s crisis is precisely the country’s stagnant situation, with neither the government nor the opposition able to achieve their objectives. It is clearly a time of reassessment of means and ends by both sides in the conflict. Recent statements by opposition figures, like Ammar al-Qurabi in Moscow, indicate that they are ready for a “conditional dialogue with the regime.” From its part, the Syrian government has recently encouraged its allies, especially Moscow and Iran, to host these negotiations. Dr. Nabil al-Arabi, head of the Arab League, visited Damascus today to hand the Syrian president an Arab endorsed proposal containing 13 provisions to end the crises.

Due to lack of a unified opposition, any perceived attempt by one opposition group to negotiate with the government is sidetracked by another group, accusing it of treason and short selling Syrian sacrifices to date. Unfortunately, the stagnant situation, characterized by protests, bloody crackdowns and confrontations, will continue, until a number of opposition groups are able to consolidate their positions and form a majority in order to coordinate and legitimize their strategies.

The dust that has been stirred up by the sudden political awakening in Syria is settling. The euphoria that the protestors created by breaking the wall of fear and silence is being replaced, among many Syrians, by a frantic search for a political outlet, reflecting decades of frustration. The political upheaval that was silenced in 1962 has reawakened with the same political fury that prevailed in the 1950s in Syria, namely the struggle between conservatives and progressives, large urban areas and their suburbs, and between more prosperous cities and smaller towns that are outside the economic mainstream. This struggle manifests itself in a dispute over political identities and loyalties, which are all symptoms of a painful and ongoing process of state formation and the slow evolution of what it means to be a “citizen” in post-colonial Middle East.

Nevertheless, one thing is absolutely clear. Syria is on the road to transition and there is no possibility of a return to the status quo ante.

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