The Syrian opposition’s woeful irrelevance

Special to The Daily Star

One of the major problems of the nascent opposition movement in Syria is its adoption of attitudes and modes of discourse very much reminiscent of the regime it is supposedly opposing.

The Syrian opposition does not seek to justify itself to the Syrian people or gain their support, and it fails to provide a vision for change in the country, be it political, social or economic. No wonder, then, that Syrians continue to be politically apathetic and inclined to pinning their hopes on the ability of President Bashar Assad to deliver on his long-promised reforms.

The state, and behind it the regime, remains Syria’s largest service provider. All important sectors in the country, including oil, agriculture, industry, communications and education, are under the regime’s control. Despite a change in leadership in mid-2000, when Assad took power, the regime has so far failed to deliver a vision for change. The Syrian people are well aware that very little progress has been achieved in the last four years. They tend to blame the coterie surrounding the president for that, and have grown weary and dubious regarding positive developments in the future.

So long as the opposition fails to fill the leadership gap in Syria, the people, though they may not rally behind the regime, will not do so behind the opposition, either. Apathy and obscurantism are the victors in this situation. If it is to have any future, therefore, the Syrian opposition needs to organize so that it can draw out the principles, specific programs and young voices capable of galvanizing popular support. In other words, the opposition needs to seize the initiative.

By merely making demands on the regime to cancel the state of emergency and expand the sphere of political participation, opposition groups are ceding the initiative to a regime and state that have clearly shown themselves neither capable of introducing change nor really interested in doing so. Nothing could be more damaging to the opposition than this minimalist approach.

This gap between words and deeds cannot be filled, and the opposition in Syria will not be worthy of the name, unless certain concrete steps are taken. Holding a national conference on reform, for instance, is one long-overdue step. Opposition parties need to get their act together, and there is no other way but through a process of mutual dialogue, culminating in such an event.

The purpose of a conference would be to facilitate the adoption of a specific platform and a vision for change and reform, one that can satisfy the aspirations of all social strata. Furthermore, this reformist vision needs to be packaged in such a way that it can be understood and accepted by the Syrian people in their religious, ethnic and political diversity.

More importantly, the conference should provide a platform for new leaders to emerge, young leaders armed with specific strategies meant to help them reach out to the Syrian people and build up a following. As is the case in all other countries, and as has been the case throughout history, people do not rally behind ghosts, but behind specific issues, promises and personalities.

As things stand today, the only voices being heard and the only faces visible belong to a generation that is no longer credible or relevant in the eyes of a great majority of Syrians. This is another reason why people prefer to give the regime the leeway and excuses it needs, rather than risk anything by supporting an opposition that does not seem to offer something new or really different.

By continuing to neglect its responsibility to explain and justify itself to the Syrian people, the opposition risks perpetuating its irrelevance. If it continues to take its cues, as it seems, from the existing political establishment, this will only consecrate the opposition’s continued political insignificance.

However, if the opposition wishes to outgrow these limitations, it should be the one reaching out to exiled Syrian communities abroad; it should be the one providing ideas and proposals for specific reforms and policies that could be adopted by the Syrian government or civil society; and it should be the one that shows it can slowly but surely take charge of the country and lead it to a better tomorrow. This is how credibility and popular support are cultivated. This is what democratization is all about. If the opposition is unwilling to take the risks involved in this process, then it is, in fact, not an opposition at all.

But then, perhaps this is why opposition figures are today tolerated by Syria’s regime. Indeed, perhaps this is what the opposition strategy is all about – grandstanding from a safe distance.

Written in Washington, D.C. during my fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.