Why Did Syria Explode? |
Al Hayat - 27 July, 2012
Author: Ghassan Charbel
In recent weeks, I asked several officials and politicians familiar with Damascus and decision-making circles there the following question: Why has Syria exploded, when it once considered itself immune to the winds of the Arab spring? There were different answers, but they all pointed to a thread connecting what one of them called “stops on the path to explosion”. Here, I shall summarize these, in the hope that they will help us understand the reasons behind the Syrian event.
- In 2001, there was a discussion in the Syrian leadership concerning how to best deal with the “Damascus Spring”, where several figures called for “simple and shy” reforms, concerning openness, freedoms and respect for the law, without demanding a change to the regime or for it to be toppled. But the generals of the security services and the leaders of the ruling party succeeded in portraying this movement as a potential threat to the regime, and claimed that the Islamists may take advantage of it to make their comeback, after two decades of having been successfully uprooted. Here, President Bashar al-Assad adopted in the end this point of view, and squandered a chance to open some windows and curtail the influence of the generals and party leaders, which was possible due to his popularity at the time.
- In 2003, American troops invaded Iraq and uprooted its Baathist regime. The Syrian authorities became distracted away from internal issues, and focused on fighting the threat at the border. Syria thus embarked on a decision to thwart the U.S. invasion in coordination with Iran, despite the fact that their Iraqi calculations were not identical. Syria thus opened its borders to the jihadists wishing to go to Iraq, and did not accept the advice of an Arab visitor who warned Syria against playing this game, “as the jihadists are there now but may come here tomorrow”. Syria succeeded in undermining the U.S. presence in Iraq, but the political process that the Americans started continued, with tacit encouragement by Iran which felt that the process will help its allies to reach power. The Syrians saw on satellite television channels the Iraqi violent chapters unfolding, but they also saw the Iraqis go to the polls, freely choosing their representatives on the ruins of the one party that led the state and society.
- In 2005, following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. It succeeded in absorbing this setback, and the wave of international accusations, but its position in the alliance with Iran was greatly weakened. This imbalance was further exacerbated after the 2006 war in Lebanon. True, the majority of the rockets that fell on Israel were made in Syria, but the actual outcome was that the Iranian-Israeli frontline was consolidated in south Lebanon, a frontline that became under the control of international forces with an international decision. Thus, Hezbollah became the primary player in Lebanon, and Syria now had to exercise its role in Lebanon through the Party of God. Amid the euphoria that followed the July War, Syria considered that the time has come to retire the Syrian-Saudi-Egyptian triangle in favor of another where Doha replaced Riyadh, and Ankara replaced Cairo.
- In the following years, Syria succeeded in returning to the international scene, thanks to efforts by Qatar, Turkey and France. However, it misread the situation. Instead of considering this to be an encouragement for Syria to reassess its hardline choices in the region, it took them to be a proof of ‘the others’ need for Syria’. It made the same mistake in reading the Saudi initiative for reconciliation. This would go on to crystalize at two junctures: First, with Damascus’s support for Nuri al-Maliki remaining in office, after promising otherwise, and supporting the toppling of Saad Hariri who was forced to leave his office, after promising to facilitate his mission. In both cases, Syria lost regional relations that it hitherto considered part of its strategic relations.
- At that time, Damascus underestimated the deterioration in Sunni-Shiite relations in the region, and also lost the possibility to balance the picture with Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah, with one with Hamad bin Khalifa and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
- Syria has put political reforms on hold for years. People became increasingly disenfranchised, because of the lack of seriousness in the talk about combatting corruption. Then the process of economic liberalization led in no small part to exacerbating the people’s economic problems, especially in the countryside which is witnessing rapid population growth.
- The Arab spring erupted, and Damascus thought that the rhetoric of resistance that relies on a tight security system will immunize it against it. But Damascus failed to realize that a new and different generation has emerged, demanding a new and different life, away from the statements of the ruling party and the watchful eye of the security services. When the first sparks erupted in Daraa, the authorities squandered their chance to extinguish the fire by punishing those responsible and sending the ruling party to retirement, while launching a political solution that prevents the fire from spreading to other cities and villages. Hence, protests evolved quickly, from demanding reforms to demanding an end to the regime. The fire then spread to the rest of the country. Syria drowned in internal killing, and Arab and international isolation. The scene portends many more pains. Syria has exploded.