For Syrian optimists, now is the time to reconsider

Special to The Daily Star

If the last five years in Syria have shown anything, it is that the country’s Baath regime cannot accommodate serious reforms – economic, political or structural. As such, the lackluster nature of the recent Baath congress and its recommendations were not surprising. If anything, the Baath simply lived up to its, by now, well-established reputation as the party of missed opportunities and disappointments. 
What is surprising, however, is the continuing proliferation of people, average citizens and dissidents alike, still willing to think that true reform is possible in Syria; or that the regime is strong and viable simply because it is capable of cracking down on its opponents.

If the definition of viability – not to mention legitimacy – that Syrians are willing to embrace is still based on power and the unwieldy, unruly, undisciplined and unprincipled exercise of that power, then the regime is merely Syria’s mirror. If the people don’t like what they see, they should take a hard look at themselves. Unless Syrians engage in a serious questioning of their basic assumptions about the state and its role in their lives, they will not be able to produce a veritable alternative to the current system. The best that might happen is that one form of autocracy will be replaced by another.

Indeed, the real question that the Syrian people should address is not whether political reforms should precede economic ones, or vice versa, but whether this regime is capable of delivering on what it has promised.

Syrian officials might utter the right words and promises every now and then, but right actions have never followed, or they have come much too late to have the desired impact. If this is not a sign of ineptness, then what is?

For this reason, those who still “believe” in the Baath regime, other than its members and immediate beneficiaries that is, seem to do so more as an expression of despair rather than of true faith. In other words, continued support is premised on the inability to envision an alternative, or a fear that the alternative could be chaos or an Islamist government.

Indeed, change could bring with it the unexpected and will likely flesh out many of Syria’s long-neglected internal contradictions. But isn’t that better than clinging desperately to the current political stagnation that is, in reality, further radicalizing popular sentiments in many quarters – as evidenced by the recurrent clashes between different communities in the country. Isn’t it time we began dealing with our real national problems rather than insisting on continuing to use those in power as a blindfold?

Avoiding engaging in bold political and socioeconomic experimentation is not an expression of patriotism but of cowardice. Moreover, Syrians, by using the proliferation of foreign pressures on the regime (brought about by the latter’s own mistakes) as an excuse for rallying behind it, are entering a dead end. This behavior is tantamount to accepting poverty, backwardness and authoritarianism as a normal state of affairs.

Do people really think that occasional pay hikes – which still do not prevent many people from having to work in two or three jobs to make ends meet – are signs of economic improvement and growth? Do they feel that a few more restaurants in the sinewy alleyways of Old Damascus or Aleppo are examples of economic progress – notwithstanding the presence of galloping inflation, corruption, incompetence and Syria’s demographic explosion?

For those Syrians who desire to safeguard their country from imminent collapse, the alternative at this stage is to accept the necessity of politics and the imperative of activism. This is crucial at a time when our future is being decided for us, on our behalf and in our name, by a number of external and internal actors, without any real regard for Syrian interests. But this is what silence, reticence and apathy produce in the final analysis.

If Syrians want to avoid the same future as Iraq (for that seems to be what’s in the back of their minds these days whenever they attempt to think of what could happen if Syria were to see fundamental change), they have to do exactly what their fears tell them not to do: they have to become politically alive again and tell those in power “enough is enough.” Failing that, the country will surely implode, and the result could be much worse than Iraq.