On Sunday March 10th, the regime forces reinstated a new bronze statue of late president Hafez Asad in Daraa city, replacing an old one that was taken down by anti- Asad protesters in April 2011. The regime’s message seems to be very clear; the revolution has failed, and Asad will remain at the helm of power. On the same day, hundreds of locals took to the street in the old city of Daraa protesting against the restoration of this statue while chanting ‘life for Syria down with Asad’ and ‘Syria is for us, not for the Asad family’. Their message was very clear; the pre-March 2011 Syria has gone forever.
Regardless of arrests, torture, bombardments, drones, massacres, and chemical weapons that the Syrian people were subjected to for eight years, they are still adventuring on to the streets, because eight years ago the so called ‘kingdom of silence’ was shaken, and the cult of personality that Asad senior had built over three decades was challenged. Although a glance at the Syrian map will indicate military victory for the regime (due to the Russian intervention). Nevertheless, this military victory is subject to a power shift and hence it cannot be guaranteed for the long term. Particularly if the people, whom the regime is governing have a rebellious determination. In this context, the March 2011 Revolution has profoundly changed Syrians from being politicly inactive citizens who do not care about the political sphere, or more correctly who do not dare to care, to active citizens who are eager to participate in governing. More importantly, the political sphere is not limited to the intelligentsias anymore, ordinary Syrians now would speak about agendas, social rights and state building. Locals in rebel-held areas (just like Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus, Homs and Raqqa before ISIS) were practicing governance through the Local Councils or even through wjaha’a, the notables in each district, who played a significant role in striking local truces with regime forces in many parts of Syria. This was a taboo in pre-2011 Syria.
Moreover, since March 2011 until present many civil movements have been established and are playing vital roles at the grassroot level. Yet, there is no doubt that the revolution has had lethal implications on the Syrian society; provoking sectarian clashes, socio-economic clashes and radicalizing religious identities. However, war brings the worst out of people, due to the violence and manipulation by political entrepreneurs. And in the Syrian case, due to a history of failed state- building policies.
Indeed, the implications of the Syrian revolution were not limited to the Syrian people, they went beyond borders being manifested in sectarian tension, deteriorated economy, and the refugee dilemma that were destabilizing an already instable Middle East. Yet, the implications also went far beyond the region even affecting Western nations. Alliances and power balances were shifting according to realpolitik calculations. The Russians found some sincere friends in Ankara after years of enmity. Gulf States were shifting alliances according to their internal rivalries. Mullahs of Tehran are pictured while shaking hands with leaders from the former Ottoman Empire resulting in the power balance swinging in an unpredictable manner. Millions of Syrians took refuge in European countries provoking questions about social integrity and economic value. Islamist cells in Europe have been trained and radicalized in ISIS held areas in Syria. And unsurprisingly, the far-right wings are rising in Europe challenging longstanding parties. In this vein, pictures of Syrian children who were gassed to death, and UN reports about criminal crimes committed in Syria did not trigger Western countries to act; simply because in politics actions cannot be based on morals. Neither did those realpolitik facts (mentioned above) provoke the West to address the conflict. The Western policy was designed to focus on fighting ISIS; and it almost accomplished that (with the help of Kurdish forces on the ground). However, recent footage of some 500 foreign Jihadi brides with their children (who now are being held in a Kurdish camp in Northern Syria while their husbands fled to Iraq or are still fighting) asking to be deported to their ‘homes’ in France, Canada, Germany, UK and other countries serve as a good reminder that bombing from the sky and then exiting the conflict zone is not sufficient to solve the problem. Western policy makers cannot focus on one part of the problem while ignoring the bigger picture. There should be a strategy toward a post conflict era, to avoid the daily radicalization of people that are subjected to ISIS ideology or that of other War Lords.
The truth of the matter is that Syrians do not have the power to draw a road map for the conflict in their homeland, as it involves a myriad of global players each seeking self-interest. While watching protesters in Algeria celebrating their victory, many anti-Asad Syrians wished that the military forces did not shoot at them and did not provoke the rebels to take up arms which was the pretext for all the violence and foreign involvement that followed. They remembered when protesters in al-Ghota handed out white flowers to security forces and shortly after were shot dead or arrested. However, they are aware that Algeria does not have the geopolitical strategy which Syria enjoys, nor the various identity groups for political entrepreneurs to manipulate, and no oil for Western powers to invest.
Hence, the fate of the Syrian war is in the hands of great powers. But the fate of Syria will always be in the hands of Syrians who seek to build a strong democratic state. The brave youth who eight years ago marched in the heart of Damascus, breaking the silence of their fathers and grandfathers should bear in mind that revolutions do not necessarily bring democracy and social justice. History is full of examples; the late Khomeini carried out a successful revolution overthrowing the Pahlavi monarchy but did not build a democratic state. Abdul Nasser also led a successful revolution against king Faroq and established a republic, which he later turned into a police state. Even the iconic leader Napoleon Bonapart established what many historians call a ‘dictatorship by plebiscite’. Hence, it’s about evolution more than revolution. Evolution of the society. For four decades now, many state and non-state actors have sought to hinder the evolution of the Syrian society because it would challenge their interests. Yet, once the process starts, it will never stop, and it started eight years ago.
*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.