Authoritarian regimes do not satisfy. Today Syria is a country where a tug-of-war is going on for the right of some citizens to disengage from the despotic regime. But as in other dictatorships that have recently collapsed in the Arab world, the rulers simply give their people two options: “Either I rule or you die!” Well, they are dying to attain their usurped freedom and the will to govern themselves. It seems this unresolved conflict has brought Syria to the verge of a sectarian civil war. Communal strife is eating away at the feeling of whatever solidarity there was so far.
While the European Union and the United States, together with some Arab countries and Turkey, want regime change in Syria, Russia, alongside China, has opposed a foreign-inspired regime change that could lead to a shift in power in the eastern Mediterranean region against them. But this time Russia is also concerned because its protection of the Assad government, despite the increasing bloodshed, looks morally bad and possibly unproductive after the collapse of Assad’s rule.
Some commentators liken the situation in Syria to Bosnia when inter-communal, inter-confessional strife broke up after the collapse of the Yugoslav unity held together with a heavy-handed central authority back in the 1990s. However, the Assad government is steadily losing ground and the Russians are watching closely. It is no wonder that they are getting ready to call for an international conference on Syria where they are preparing to make a strong statement for violence to cease and to implement belated reforms to appease the people. The expectation is to revitalize the Kofi Annan plan that was violated by both the government and the opposition in return.
If that does not work either, then the UN Security Council will be called upon for more drastic measures on the relentless Syrian government, and the Syrian opposition will be further supported to overthrow the government and hopefully to establish a more popular one.
The confounding issue for outsiders is the puzzle of how the Assad government can still survive in the midst of so much bloodshed and foreign pressure. One way is an overarching party (Baath) propaganda that is a mixture of nationalism and socialism that has permeated all sections of society. The ruling elite has also tried to legitimize its grip on the state as the champion and defender of the besieged and beleaguered Palestinians suffering under the throngs of Zionism despite the fact that the Assad family has systematically refrained from confronting Israel for decades. The Golan Heights are in Israeli hands and will probably never be returned.
The bureaucratic setup of the country is based on concentric circles of intelligence and a security apparatus that control the people and each other and that are loyal to the ruling cabal at the center that is composed of the Alawite (Nusayri) minority. Everything is centrally controlled.
A third factor is the existence of a sundry of “regime defenders” drawn from different professions and social cohorts not only in Syria, but also in other Arab/Muslim countries. These people range from politicians and bureaucrats to artists, journalists and prominent role models for different social groups.
Their function is not only to praise the Assad regime and to scare people about the impending fundamentalist threat behind the door, but also to slander people who criticize its violence and dictatorial character. Domestic critics face much more than slander: torture, mutilation and death.
The Assad government sees no constraint in exporting the conflict it is in to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, some Gulf States and even to the Palestinian communities. Here, the conflict between Assad’s supporters and critics continues in various forms, verbally and physically. These conflicts have the capacity to destabilize such countries to differing degrees. In the case of Turkey, Syria has done this by stepped up Kurdish terrorism at a time when this country is close to reconciliation with its Kurdish citizens.
By creating dissonance in the “near abroad” the Assad government aims to do two things: to ease the pressure brought to bear on itself by mellowing the official and popular criticism in these countries and to push the governments of neighboring countries to come to the rescue of Damascus so that its exportation of violence and disorder will be stopped.