Towards A Jasmine Revolution in Syria
(The paper was also presented during an opposition conference that was held in Washington, D.C. in late January, 2006)
The preceding four decades of the history of our country have been marked by tyrannical rule, unbridled corruption and gross mismanagement on part of the ruling military junta and their civilian lackeys. The last five years in particular have witnessed much political and economic adventurism by our current rulers, the so-called New Guard, with their policies leading to a further narrowing down of the power base of the regime. Indeed, it has become obvious now that the decision-making process was, in effect, reduced to a small and corrupt clique centered on the President and his immediate family members and friends.
Recent developments, however, including the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1636 and 1644 have the potential of helping us change this dismal situation, as they bring more and more international pressures on this regime and as its past and recent record of oppression and violence in both Lebanon and Syria undergo more international scrutiny.
This situation, therefore, has the potential of helping us inaugurate a new phase in the contemporary history of our country, one full of promise and progress, one capable of enabling Syria to finally join the ranks of modernizing and democratizing states.
In order to capitalize on this potential, however, we in the Opposition, regardless of whether we act as members of organized parties or as individual activists and dissidents, can no longer rely solely on the issuance of declarations and manifestos, no matter how brave and ground-breaking they happen to be. Nor can we remain fearful with regard to engaging the outside world and the main powers shaping the region today. True, we cannot peg our hopes on outside support, but we cannot ignore the outside world either. Inability or unwillingness to engage the world beyond will reflect negatively on our abilities and credibility as leaders.
Indeed, we need to adopt a clearer more direct course of action, one that can facilitate the management of the transitional period from tyranny to democracy, pave the way towards a peaceful regime-change, marking at earnest of the onset of the necessary and long-awaited electoral processes and the rule of law in the country, and help renormalize Syria’s relations with the international community. Only this can now help the country to stave off the increasing likelihood of international isolation, sanctions and implosion.
Indeed, it is highly unlikely that the status quo can be maintained for a long time under this extremely brittle regime. Considering the developments of the last few years, it is now evident that it is the regime’s staying in power rather than its outright ouster that is more likely to pave the way for total disintegration of law and order in the country, and a descent into an ethnic and sectarian quagmire, as is the case in neighboring Iraq.
For, more intercommunity clashes took place under President Bashar al-Assad, who came to power in September 2000, than under any of his predecessors since the emergence of the modern state of Syria in 1920, as we may recollect. The clashes have pitted at various times, Druzes against Bedouins, Kurds against Arabs, Assyrians against Arabs, Alawites against Ismailites and, more recently, Arab tribes against each other. None of the basic issues involved have been addressed, not to mention resolved, by the current regime despite repeated promises to this effect.
Meanwhile, the entire country is still ruled under emergency laws first declared in 1963. Still, and ever since the clashes between Arabs and Kurds back in March 2003, the northeastern parts of the country have come to be ruled more directly by the various security apparatuses established by the regime rather than civilian rule, with the Kurdish community suffering the brunt of the crackdown and with inter-community and inter-tribal tensions between the various groups involved rising to new heights.
Still, and rather than imposing their will, the central authorities seem to be playing right into the hands of local politics upsetting the existing local power arrangements. Meanwhile, controls over the long borders with Iraq seem non-existing at this stage. The central authorities are simply not in a position to get local communities to be more cooperative, without cracking down fiercely on corruption and without introducing a whole new socioeconomic package and a whole new political arrangement to regain the loyalty and trust of the various constituent communities in these areas. But our current leaders don’t seem to have a clue as to how this can be done. The necessary will seems to be sorely lacking as well.
This situation where the brittleness of the regime seems to be reflecting and feeding the brittleness of the state itself poses many serious challenges to the continued viability of the state. The existing regime has had ample opportunities to mend its ways and introduce the necessary reform packages that the country desperately needs, but, so far, it has failed to do so. This lends more credence to the argument that the regime, the new President included, is in fact part and parcel of the problem rather than the solution, hence the necessity of brining about its removal, albeit by peaceful means.
This is the main challenge ahead, and the following is intended to offer a few brief guidelines that could help crystallize the necessary action plan that needs to be adopted in order to effectively meet this challenge while ensuring the stability of the country, and bringing about the establishment of a state where democratic norms and the rule of law prevail and the basic civic rights of all its citizens are respected.
The guidelines have been prepared on the basis of an in-depth of review of the experiences of many states that have undergone a similar transition, and are, therefore, based on data derived from actual experiences rather than theoretical frameworks and considerations. It is hoped that these guidelines will prove helpful to the Syrian opposition and will stimulate debate on practical steps and measures that need to be adopted in the difficult yet critical weeks and months ahead.
THE QUESTION OF LEADERSHIP
The issue of leadership is too complex a topic to be given its right due in this context. Still we do need to stress two important points here that are often ignored. The first pertains to the necessity of differentiating between the roles of “spiritual” leaders and ideologues on the one hand, and the role of public leaders on the other.
The “spiritual” leaders, or to be more specific, the founders and ideologues of political movements, may not necessarily be the best persons that can represent their parties to the media and the public at large, especially when we consider the demographics involved, as well as the nature of contemporary media with its emphasis on image.
Projecting, cultivating and maintaining the “right image” is, indeed, of paramount importance these days. Continuous exposure to western entertainment programs and satellite news have led to a situation where our people, despite the lack of democratic experimentations in the country, are not necessarily any less sophisticated or meticulous in their demands and expectations than their western counterparts, at least when it comes to respecting their minds and maintaining certain appearances.
For this reason, opposition groups need to give some serious thoughts to the issue of public image and the necessity of maintaining a two-tier leadership with regard to political movements. Indeed, and while charismatic and inspiring public figures are born and not made, good public figures are made. In the absence of the former, there is no excuse for not providing the latter. People cannot be inspired by a faceless opposition, or by one that fields a group of people whose public image, frankly, is suitable neither for continuous media exposure nor for the tastes of the critically important younger end of spectrum of the electoral demographics.
In order to tackle this challenge, opposition group needs to consult image makers and public relations experts. Providing leaders is a must, and this task cannot be handled in an off-handed manner. It has long become a science in the West, and there are quite a number of international companies who would be willing to offer their help and expertise in this matter.
The second point that needs to be made relates to the critical role that technocrats can play in providing the vision necessary for the establishment of the various platforms of political parties. We in the Opposition are often too focused on surviving the usual cat-and-mouse game with the authorities that we often neglect the necessity of having clear platforms and programs. Unfortunately, however, no amount of public sympathy for our plight and trial can help us generate the necessary popular support that our movements, organizations and parties do sorely need. Obtaining popular support requires organization, vision and a sense and an aura of professionalism.
For this reason, opposition party leaders need to surround themselves with qualified professionals that can help engender popular trust. These professionals should be divided into committees and commissioned to undertake special studies on a variety of critical issues, be they economic, social, political or environmental.
The studies supplied by these professionals can help opposition groups provide what the government itself has only recently begun attempting to provide, namely: specific plans for actions and specific recommendations to meet some of the country’s basic challenges. These plans don’t need to be perfect at this stage, no plan in the final analysis is, but they need to provide a credible challenge to the plans proposed by the government and play on their weakness. Moreover, the specificity of the proposals and the ability to cater to popular expectations and demands could become a major source of attraction, credibility and legitimacy. Indeed, we have to establish a parallel government of sorts and work to get public approval and support for its programs and its overall vision for the country and its future.
THE VISION THING
No forward movement can be obtained without the aid of a vision, no matter how sketchy it could be at first. Visions are necessary to give a sense of context for the people, a sense of continuity and direction, a sense of familiarity and framework with which to identity, a compass of sorts, in brief a real sense of hope for the future.
Most rational observers would agree that this “vision thing” is exactly what was missing throughout the last five years. Before that, the promise offered by the peace process (prior to its implosion in 2000) had indeed helped to provide a vision of sorts for that early period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, our regime’s long-time patron. For the peace process seemed to have come as part of an overall opening onto Europe and the US as well, with all the potential economic rewards that his could bring.
True, the peace process had collapsed before the arrival of Bashar and company to power, but the ruling junta, it appears, failed to understand the implications of this for the national moral. They also failed to understand the implications of brining about the hasty ending of the Damascus Spring in 2001 without any attempt at a compromise and that insisting on retaining full control was simply not commensurate with the spirit of the times, and, more importantly, that it failed to quench the growing thirst for some new hope in the horizon.
For if hope could not be derived from the peace process anymore, it needed to be derived from some vision for internal reforms, economic as well as political. Countries cannot be ruled for long without hope, especially in times of crises when one’s very credibility as a leader seems hinged upon his ability to deliver such a hope, not to mention actually fulfilling it, no matter how partially.
But what the Syrian regime could not deliver then, and what it seems so incapable of delivering even now, we in the Opposition need to deliver. We in the Opposition need to come up with a vision for Syria’s future. If we can do that, then this will constitute a tremendous leap for us along the path of popular credibility and legitimacy.
The vision needs not be that complex. The constitution that our colleague Anwar al-Bunni elaborated not too long ago, coupled with a modified version of the Damascus Declaration so that it can assume the guise of a national covenant of sorts, should provide the necessary theoretical framework for the vision. The vision should also be further explained, defended and elaborated in articles, interviews and public appearances.
Moreover, the vision needs to inspire a semblance of actions, including, as we have noted above, the establishment of particular committees dedicated to tackling specific issues, such as different aspects of economic reforms, social reforms, foreign policy issues, statement on the peace process, Syria’s new role in the region and its relations to its neighbors and the international community, among others.
The work of such committees and the very idea that actual plans for lifting the country out of its current political and socioeconomic quagmire are being drawn could provide the spark of hope that our people are looking for and will help provide the parties behind such endeavors with much needed credibility and legitimacy. We in the Opposition stand much to benefit from this, especially if we conducted our work in cooperation with some international organizations.
The sense of novelty involved in such an endeavor is of critical importance here. People are used to having governments undertake such initiatives, seeing that it’s the Opposition that is undertaking them at this stage will serve to further deepen the crisis of the regime and will serve to discredit it, especially should it attempt to stop or impede such endeavors. In a sense, the Opposition will be setting up a parallel government inside Syria not in exile.
Such activities will also help our different parties and movements come up with specific ideas for our platforms, that is, the very platforms that we need to devise in order to warrant the epithet of political parties.
A specific strategy for reaching out to the various segments of the Syrian people should be developed. The strategy should also include attempts at reaching towards army figures and some of the known reform figures within the regime.
The messages sent need to emphasize different points at different times and depending on the audience involved.
To Syria’s constituent communities, be they Arabs, Kurds, Muslims, Christians, Armenians, Sunnis, Alawites, Druzes, Ismailis, Assyrians, etc., the message should be about acceptance and constitutional rights and guarantees.
There should also be an added emphasis on the civilian character of the state. Support for freedom of conscience and religion should be enough of a guarantee for both secularists and Islamists. Going beyond that, as the Damascus Declaration did when it voluntarily elaborated on the continued relevance of Islamic traditions and values in Syria’s contemporary scene without there being any firm commitment offered by the Islamists in return to the concepts of individual rights, is tantamount to rigging the game in favor on one particular group over all others.
The same argument applies for putting greater emphasis on the Arab character of the state. The fact that the numerical majority in the country is made up of Sunni Arabs does not mean that the Arab Islamic culture should be taken as the norm according to which all things should be judged or the center around which everything needs to revolved. For the norm is the rule of law and the respect accorded of the basic human rights of all. This is the true meaning of the civic state.
Designing a message meant to reach out to army and security officers is extremely important as well, as they remain the backbone of the regime. This message should be centered on forgiveness for past misdeeds and a willingness to open a new page and on the necessity of remaining aloof from political life and not taking sides against demonstrators and political groups, no matter how big or small these demonstrations and groups could initially be and so long as the political ideologies involved call for the respect of the basic individual rights of all.
Reminding people of the fate of Saddam’s regime and its top henchmen should also be deployed, although in a very subtle manner, the point is not to scare but to make these important players think twice before obeying an order from an already decaying regime, a regime that is clearly on its way out.
Indeed, it is quite difficult to clearly identify figures in the army who might be willing to facilitate regime-fall, but it is necessary to believe that they do exist and it is necessary to try to address them through the media in order to dissuade them from taking part in any future crackdown. Such figures could also be identified during the periodic interrogation sessions that we as opposition members and individual dissidents have to go through. There were numerous incidents where frank discussions with interrogators did take place and a certain rapport was reached. It is time to take this rapport to the next level.
For the army needs to be neutralized, and the best way for doing this is to make sure that certain top figures and second-tier commanders are unwilling to cooperate with the regime should it opt to crackdown. Moreover, there could exist now certain ranking officers in the army who might need to hear that a move on their part could receive popular support should it take place and commit itself to certain specific programs of reform. Such development, albeit far from constituting an ideal solution to the country’s problems, may not be such a bad deal for Syria. It might just signal a new beginning, a hope for a real change where none seems to exist now.
Take Mauritania for instance. The military coup leaders there have pledged to hold elections within 15 months and have declared that no member of the current military regime may run for office. A similar situation in Syria could save the country from collapse. Still, this is definitely not the ideal scenario as we just noted, and constant vigilance by both the internal opposition and the international community is required in order to ensure that, once such development takes place, the officers in charge will be willing to comply with their promises and return to the barracks.
The need for reaching out applies to the international community as well, including the EU and the US. Rising above the usual nationalist and leftist ideologies and acknowledging the need for cooperating with the EU and the US and finding formulas for this cooperation is a must. In this world, only large states can afford the mistake of going through an ideological phase, small states such as post-Cold War Syria cannot. Such states as ours need to remain pragmatic and need to make the right calculations and compromises to ensure their survival.
We can be as morally outraged and disgusted as human being as we feel and need to be. This is our right. But at the end of the day we still need to deal with this hateful world, and they need to learn the art of compromise. Making anti-American, anti-western and anti-Zionist statements might still make good sound-bites in some circles, but it is simply not a good policy. In fact, it is an ill-advised one. What we need these days is much more pragmatism and a lot less ideology.
This does not signify, however, turning our backs on our declared principles. Rather, this is about demonstrating a right sense of priority – the viability and prosperity of our country is at stake here and should always come first and foremost on our agendas, much ahead of ideology.
Moreover, establishing public relations with the international community is not the kiss of death, even in the case of the United States. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Given the right spin (hence the importance of spin doctors), such relations could become a source of added credibility and even legitimacy. Let’s not forget in this regard that even the Syrian President, our “Pale Leader” himself, needed to be “endorsed” by his French counterpart in order for him to be considered fit for office by the very inner clique that put him there.
Making such contacts at the very time when the regime leaders, including the President, are being sidelined and shunned by the international community could also be billed to our people as an additional sign of the illegitimacy and lack of credibility of the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, it will continue to raise our credibility and legitimize our position.
Moreover, and in order to reach out to a wider spectrum of the populace, the help and support of well-know artistic and intellectual figures should also be enlisted, especially those of the older generation which still has a lot of popular credibility and respect. This involvement could assume the guise of public endorsement of various activities and programs organized by the Opposition, in addition to giving regular interviews and holding press conferences on the issues of hour.
Getting the support of this group will not be easy, of course, considering their history with the regime and the usual fear barrier which seems to loom more heavily in their minds than those of authors and academics, for instance. Still, no one has actually tried to lobby these figures. But let’s be more frank, none of us has truly tried lobbying anyone, period.
We in the opposition continue to wait for people to come to us rather than attempt to go to the people. This failure is increasingly inexcusable at this stage. Public Relations should now become a more integral part of our activities. The country’s crisis is growing deeper by the day, and the need for an internal push against the regime at this stage is stronger than ever.
Despite the imbalance of power between opposition groups and the regime, there is no excuse at this stage for failing to clearly denounce the regime’s incompetence and corruption as being the main reasons for Syria’s current dilemmas. Rallying behind the regime at this stage and for whatever reason is simply not a good strategy.
In his recent speech, President Bashar denounced the Opposition noting that its actions seem to wax and wane in correspondence to external pressures. Actually, the waxing and waning of our activities seem to take place more in correspondence with the regime’s own internal confusion and contradictory messages than anything else. As such, the initiative is still left in the hands of the regime, no matter how indirectly. Rallying behind the regime will only increase this tendency and will never allow us to develop our own independent “personality.”
On a related note, an argument can also be made for the necessity of acquiring the support of some of the country’s moderate religious leaders from all sects and denominations, and of some of the country’s better known businessmen and entrepreneurs, irrespective of past-ties to the regime. The anti-regime coalition should be as all encompassing as it can be in order to ensure wider popular approval and support.
THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA
In the struggle for the hearts and minds of our people, the media is definitely one of the main battlefields. But, so far, we have not made an effective use of it.
Meanwhile, and despite its reliance on old rhetoric and modes of discourse, including accusing us of being self-serving and ambitious (in a culture that remains overly suspicious of ambition) and working for foreign powers, and despite resorting to old tactics, including organized mass demonstrations and the commissioning of patriotic songs and plays, the regime has certainly had ample chances to get its message across to the Syrian people.
So and despite their better judgment, and as long as this message, this version of the “truth,” remains effectively unchallenged by the Opposition, the Syrian people seem more willing, at this stage, to give the regime the benefit of their doubt and their fears.
For this reason, we need to play the media card much more proficiently than we have so far done.
For this, seeking the services of a public relations firm, as we have noted above, is of paramount importance. A strategy needs to be drawn for taking advantage of the various media outlets out there, including TV, Radio, newspapers, and the internet.
Despite the fact that only a small percentage of Syrians have access to the Internet, this small fraction doe, however, represents much of the educated class in the country. Hence, its influence in shaping public opinion is much greater than its actual size might suggest.
Indeed, many in the Opposition seem to have already realized the growing importance of the internet, and much of their manifestoes and declarations are more often distributed through it. Still, we really do need to put a greater effort in designing and organizing our websites, for so long as these websites serve as the main conduit through which we tend to identify ourselves and communicate with our supporters and sympathizers, the impression that these websites give in terms of how they look and how they are organized cannot be overestimated. The reasoning involved here is very simple really: an opposition that cannot even design a good-looking and efficient website cannot be trusted to run the affairs of a whole country. If we seek to be taken seriously, everything we do, no matter how simple, need to give an aura of excellence, competence and professionalism.
But, there is still much more that can be done here. Blogging, for instance, remains a mostly unexplored tool by Syrian activists, though it has proven to be a very powerful one in many countries around the region, such as Egypt and Iran. The same applies for internet forums, a medium that allows for direct discussion between activists and the public on specific issues and threads.
Moreover, designing websites for various opposition groups and coalitions could serve as a very effective way for introducing the Opposition to the Syrian public. Launching websites on specific issues, such as the Damascus Spring prisoners, among others, or websites where specific issues can be discussed, such as the future constitution of Syria, a national reconciliation pact, intercommunity relations, and so on, would also be of immense help in clarifying our stance on many key issues, and will help expose us more fully to popular stances on these issues.
The possibility of using the Internet for conducting polls on certain specific issues needs to be explored as well.
There is much potential in the Internet, therefore, that remains untapped by the Syrian Opposition, and the next few months should witness more creative activities and projects meant to take advantage of this increasingly important and difficult censor medium.
THE ROLE OF NATIONAL SYMBOLS
People need symbols that they can rally behind. This is true in all countries, be they democratic or not. As such, this is a universal socio-psychological and culture-independent tendency. The symbols involved could be real living symbols, that is national figures and personages, or they could be specific things, such a flags or a holy text, or even a certain memorable event, such as a crackdown or an election.
For us, however, the most likely symbol that can be “exploited” for propaganda purposes are the living symbols. Flags have never acquired such high symbolic values in the imagination of the Syrian people, despite the forced example set in the recent demonstrations, whereas rallying people around a holy text will be a very divisive strategy and could pave the way more for a civil war than civil liberation.
As for events, several opportunities have already been missed in this regard, especially the crackdown that ended the Damascus Spring. Recapturing the moment is no longer possible. If events are going to be involved here, their role is to be located in some future date rather than the past.
For now, this leaves room for resorting to living symbols only. The good news is that we have quite an assortment of figures that warrant elevation to the status of national symbols, including people like Riad Seif, Riad Al-Turk, Aref Dalilah, Kamal Labwani, Suheir Atassy, Anwar al-Bunni, Michel Kilo and many more.
It does not matter in the least what differences exist between these figures, be they ideological or even personal. Nor does it matter that none of these figures seems to have acquired or is likely to acquire the prominence of a Nelson Mandela or a Lec Walesa. The important thing is to design a campaign to elevate the stature of these figures and turn them into household names, symbolizing bravery and patriotism. That will suffice. Day after day, these figures risk their lives and freedom and suffer continuous harassment from the security apparatuses in order to make Syria a better place. Their bravery deserves to be acknowledged by one and all. This should be the basic message underlining all media efforts in this regard.
Strategies should include designing special frequently-updated websites and providing continuous news exposure for them and perhaps help some of them at least maintain their own blogs.
REACHING THE THRESHOLD
In order to make progress along the road to freedom, no matter how idealistic framing matters in such a manner might sound, a certain threshold of popular engagement needs to be reached. The only way for this to happen is through the orchestration of certain public events that can attract larger and larger number of dedicated participants in due course of time.
These events need not be overtly political in the beginning. In fact, and in the first few instances, they might even come in the guise of support rallies for the country as a whole vis-à-vis the growing pressures – rallies against sanctions, but not necessarily in support of the regime. The important thing is to field numbers and to get people in the habit of demonstrating, of holding sit-ins, of talking about the issues publicly and to slowly break through the barrier of fear and apathy.
The Syrian regime is trying to give an impression of openness, which is why it has been willing to put up recently with much fervor in civil society circuits. True, most of this fervor does serve regime stands at this stage, but with proper management, this could be turned into a more rational probe into the nature of the current moment, issues of accountability for the crisis at hand could be raised, and popular discontent, which is already brewing, especially with the regard to the unrelenting corruption of the ruling elite, including members of the President’s inner circle of family and friends, could be channeled back into the right direction, that is, against the regime.
Communication is of the essence in this matter. A certain “catechism” would help immensely. For indeed the process is quite similar to religious conversion, it does require a certain amount of missionary activities and its does require sending in the right caliber missionaries, even as sheep among the wolves. Civilization itself seems to have been built upon the shoulders of such sheep.
Freedom is a cause, and not some hollow word, and it has to be given the aura of sanctity that it deserves. Opposition to the regime, opposition to Bashar & Co. or the House of Assad, is indeed a struggle for freedom, and more, it is a struggle for the soul of Syria and its people. If this lot should continue to define the realities in which our children are to grow, what sort of people will they grow up to be?
We in the Opposition need to shake off our lethargy and our fear in order to give the current moment the right sense of urgency and sanctity it requires. The Syrians have fought foreign imperialism before, now it is the time to fight against the domestic one, that is, against corrupt and tyrannical rule. For it is that latter that has always facilitated the former.
Moreover, and as we have noted earlier, the latter is also facilitating the potential breakup of the state, as it is fostering increased animosity between the country’s various constituent ethnic and religious communities.
The regime is the major obstacle for reform at this stage. True, things would have been much easier had this not been the case and had Bashar turned out to be the smart and capable reformer that everybody wanted him to be. But he obviously did not. It is absolutely ludicrous to still wish him to be so after so many failures and disappointments. It is even more ridiculous to assume that the regime could produce anything but disappointments and failures considering its track records for the past forty years. Forty years. It is time that we began dealing with the reality that is now staring it in the face, namely that the Syrian regime is totally defunct and that an attempt to establish an alternative, no matter how difficult this will prove to be, is now a must.
THE RALLYING CRY: END CORRUPTION OR GO
People never respond to a vague and general battle cry. If we need to rally the people around us, we need to offer them specific sets of goals. Ambiguity has no room here. Rallying people in support of ghost figures and causes does not work. Very few would rally for the general cause of freeing political prisoners. But more people will rally for the freedom of Riad Seif, Kamal Labwani and/or Aref Dalilah, as family members and friends are bound to be involved and they are bound to get other people involved as well. We can get even more and more people, however, when we “embellish” the image of these figures, making them more alive and emphasizing their positive contributions to the country and the cause of freedom.
Also, asking people to just demonstrate against the regime is a simply non-starter, especially considering the brainwashing that has been taking place over the last few weeks and the strength of the government propaganda machine, as well as our people’s lingering credulity and their desire to believe in the easier and less painful answer, namely that, despite the glaring corruption around, there remains a vestigial amount of patriotism that will not allow the ruling regime to put Syria and its people in harms’ way.
Our people are wrong, of course, and, more importantly, they know they are wrong. But we have to let them admit that through a process of gradual involvement in more common sense causes.
A campaign denouncing those who have been implicated in the Hariri assassination and demanding full disclosure of the facts by the Syrian authorities and full cooperation with the international investigators is now more necessary than ever. The justification for such a step is clear. Through their corrupt practices in Lebanon, which they have carried out in the name of the Syrian people, and their potential involvement in the murder of Hariri these people have harmed the interests and the reputation of the country and have brought it international condemnation and dishonor.
The President had promised the people to punish those who were found responsible in the assassination of Hariri and he promised to cooperate with the international probe into this, he should be asked to live up to his words, otherwise he, too, should be considered guilty of brining dishonor and shame to the country. If packaged nicely and reiterated over and over again, the Syrian people should be ale to accept the logic behind this simple argument.
Indeed, the whole campaign needs to be centered on the credibility of the President. Mr. Riad al-Turk, the godfather of the opposition, as some calls him, was more than right and more than amply justified in calling for the President’s resignation. But the Syrian people have not been prepared in anyway shape or form to accept this “obvious” conclusion. For, no one has bothered to make it obvious to them as well. No one has attempted to guide them through the process of discovery.
People should be allowed to reach this conclusion on their own. All we need to do is raise the right questions concerning the prevalence of corruption and remind people of the President’s inability and even unwillingness to do anything about it for the last five years.
Moreover, the Mehlis investigation has made it clear that the issue of corruption was of probably the single most important determining factor at play in the Hariri assassination. The fight against corruption, therefore, should be a national priority now. It does not matter at this stage who will be implicated next by the investigation. So long as Syrian involvement in this matter is now internationally recognized and so long as corruption has been identified as the most critical factor here, a call for an internal shakeup coupled with an attempt to force it by taking matters to the people and taking out to the street is now of more paramount importance than the foolish attempt to defy the international community and international will, a step that can only benefit the cause of the corrupt elite who led us to this.
In this campaign, particular authority figures should be targeted and the President’s performance should be questioned, especially considering that members of his own inner circle of family and friends are involved. The need for ending nepotism should be emphasized, and the need for strong, wise and experienced leadership, especially in these difficult times, should be stressed.
Indeed, this last point could be the clincher. For regardless of what people want to think about the President and his intentions, an argument can easily be made to the effect that he is simply not the right person to be in charge of the country at this stage. Lack of experience is a key factor here. As members of the Opposition, we should keep on harping on this line and we should be able to field figures that can project an image of experience and sophistication to our people and to the world. Hence the importance of making contacts with the outside world. This is indeed one way of showing experience ad sophistication that cannot be neglected. We need to show that we have it takes not only to tackle the issue of corruption, but also to redress Syria’s relations with the international community putting an end to the current crisis.
The recent rumors regarding a potential shake up in the upper ranks of the civilian government in Syria, which would be heralded by some as a major step forward by the regime, will not weaken our position here, as some might think at first. On the contrary, it will only reinforce it. Should the regime make such a commitment it would indeed be doing exactly what we need it to do: it would be committing itself to a reform package that it cannot deliver on, and it would be raising hopes that it cannot possibly meet.
The situation is bound to bring many disappointments within a very short period of time. For so long as the structure of the regime and its security institutions remain intact, and so long as these people remain committed to their own particular corruption schemes, and they will, no serious reform could possibly take place, promises and the personal intentions and abilities of the new kids on the block notwithstanding.
The Opposition must prepare itself to capitalize on this expected outcome in a few months time. The failure of this grandiose reform gesture could generate much sympathy for the Opposition cause, provided we stake our position vis-à-vis these reforms early on, in fact, now. Moreover, we should organize ourselves carefully in order to maximize our ability to capitalize on this sympathy, and mount our campaign at earnest.
The recent defection of Khaddam and his stories regarding the corruption of regime members and the authoritarian predilections of Bashar and coterie, and the counter stories regarding Khaddam’s own corruption will serve to undermine one and all in public imagination. Bashar cannot retain his image of innocence anymore, he is either guilty of being duplicitous in the various corruption schemes or of being inept as a leader. We must not fail to play on this.
A WATERSHED EVENT & THE DAY AFTER
In due course of time, a singular daring step of defiance, or a series of such steps will take place, often in the face of all plans, for and against. This watershed event or series of events, will eventually lead to the collapse of the regime. The collapse could be epitomized by developments such as the resignation of the President, a sudden departure, a move by him against certain members in his entourage, or a move against him by disaffected members of his entourage or by members of the outer circles of the regime.
In all cases, there is a need for a day after plan, one that will allow for popular participation in the shaping of the ensuing phase. It is important at this stage not to be cowed down or let decisions be imposed from the top, even in case of a military coup. Popular demonstrations should be organized immediately to ensure that civilians are ultimately in charge of the process and that opposition elements and not only members of the Baath Party are taking charge of the situation. For this a united front should be formed and a pre-approved transitional council should be fielded, which could then invite members of the Baath Party onboard to help set the guidelines for the upcoming phase.
At that stage, we should avoid any temptation for settling old scores. Priority should be given to preserving the stability of the country and for launching plans for redrawing its current political structure. The immediate goals should be to return the country to normalcy within a reasonable period of time (no more than a year). This means that state institutions should return to full-functioning mode within weeks if not days after the fall of the regime and under existing ministers or their deputies. This should remain the case until such time as elections are held and a new government is chosen in accordance with democratic norms.
Meanwhile, the transitional council should draw up plans for the holding of popular elections to write a new constitution and a bill of rights for the country within a period of three months. Once the constitution is agreed, it should be upheld in a popular referendum. Parliamentary and presidential elections should follow soon thereafter.
The transitional period will pose many critical issues that need to be dealt with pragmatically and with a certain amount of decorum and level-headedness. These include:
• What to do with old regime figures.
• What role the Baath Party can still play in managing transition and in the country’s future as a whole.
• What role the army and the security apparatuses should play in the future of the country.
• How to manage opposition coalitions in the after of the collapse, and how to honor previous agreements between various opposition groups.
These are not easy issues to deal with of course, and no amount of pre-planning can make them any less tricky. Indeed, the details can only be handled at the time. Still, it should be useful to keep certain guidelines in mind for that time:
• Maintaining the stability of the country and a working relationship between the various communities of the country, especially the Sunnis and the Alawites and the Arabs and the Kurds, means that transitional justice needs to be as swift as it is limited to certain key figures only. One cannot punish all the wrongdoers of the Ancient Régime, nor can punishment be reserved for members of certain communities only, regardless of the justifications that can be offered. Justice should not be blind and should not come at the expense of the larger issue of the well-being of the country. Justice needs to be farsighted.
• The Baath Party, regardless of its history of misconducts, mismanagements and corruption, cannot be sidestepped all together. There are still quite a few believers out there, and quite a few people in command in position whose legitimacy is derived from Party loyalties. The new order needs not be established on the corpse of the Baath. Still, the Baath should not be allowed to manipulate power anymore. Regime-fall may not immediately bring about Baath-fall. Indeed, and in the aftermath of regime-fall, we might still find ourselves having to fight against Baath hegemony as well. There are quite a few diehard members around, and they might require more time to be convinced of the fact that the days of hegemony and one-party rule are indeed over. The more the fight against these diehards last, the more credibility the Baath will lose and the more legitimacy we would gain, provided we continue to outsmart the Baathists in playing the media game.
• The Syrian army, security apparatuses and their generals, too, will need to be appeased. They have been playing the key role in managing the country’s affairs for decades now and they are unlikely to quit this habit, especially if the downfall was brought about as a result of their involvement. The lack of a peace agreement with Israel, the ongoing mayhem in next door Iraq and the potential threat of Salafist groups are further arguments as to why the role of the army and security apparatuses should not be disregarded. There is indeed a serious need to reserve a special role for army and security officers, albeit certain restrictions on their activities and mandate and their involvement in public life need to be imposed. Moreover, the number of security apparatuses needs to be revised, their structure downsized and their operations modernized.
• Some opposition coalitions are bound to break down in the days following “victory,” else they would require to be seriously revised. Elections are bound to affect the outcome, and new coalitions will likely emerge after that. It is important here, however, to keep in mind that such developments are part and parcel of the political process. There is no need for these developments to be any more fractious than they have to. The breakup of coalitions and the emergence of others do not necessarily signify a national disaster. The smoother such processes are, the greater the public confidence will be in the democratic process itself. Else, the fanatics and diehards will have more to gain here, and the stability of the country could be seriously undermined.
The struggle for future of Syria has always been an internal one, that is, it has primarily been about defining its identity. Everything else, including Syria’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been nothing but side developments and distractions from this real task. If Syria is to be a state for all its citizens, Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christian, Sunnis and Alawites alike, then fighting against corrupt and tyrannical rule should the first step towards this end. For the Syrian regime has always relied on a policy of divide and conquer to maintain itself in power.
Indeed, despite all its nationalist and secular rhetoric, the Syrian regime has always played on the troubled sectarian and ethnic divides in the country to shore itself up making itself appear indispensable for the security and stability of the country. But in truth, it is the first and most real threat to it. True, the problems of sectarianism predates the regime, but the manipulation thereof by the existing regime has only made it worse. The situation has blown in our faces once before, namely in the late 70s and early 80, we should not allow a recurrence of this tragic development.
For all thee reasons the Assad regime must go. The Syrian people deserve a strong and modern state, a democratic state, a state for all its citizens where the basic civil rights of all are respected, and where the rule of law prevails and state officials are held accountable for their misdeeds. The time to act is now. It is time to show the world that velvet revolutions can take place in Middle Eastern societies and that our people are no less lovers of freedom than any in the world.
TO THE POINT
We in the Opposition should be able to:
• Provide the outline of a vision for the country’s future. More in this regard is the ability to provide a national bill of right a national convent than only a constitution.
• Enshrine the role of national symbols and help them in creating the aura necessary to warrant popular attention and respect.
• Support the emergence of effective public leaders by hiring a professional public relations firm and by making a more professional and effective use of the media, both traditional and electronic.
• Seek endorsements from prestigious and well-known figures from a variety of fields, including the artistic, intellectual and business communities.
• Send public messages to the country’s military and security officers and continue to appeal to their sense of fair play and patriotism, contrasting their interests and those of the country with the kind of adventurist policies that the Assad regime has adopted, and the disastrous course that the House of Assad has been steering.
• Encourage the formation and adoption of specific socioeconomic platforms designed to help address the country’s most serious developmental challenges as a way of garnering greater popular sympathy and eventually endorsement.
• Enlist support of the international community, including the major players in the region. Give contacts with them the right spin, highlighting them as signs of acceptance, credibility, legitimacy and competence.
• Never lose focus of the importance of maintaining a constant media campaign designed to denude the regime.
• Never waiver, or backtrack on our confrontational policies in the face of growing pressures.
• Maintain a united front regardless of whatever disagreements that exist in the background between our various groups. Differences can always be settled later using the desired democratic system itself.
Finally, and throughout the difficult times ahead, we should always remember that we did not choose this confrontation, and that it was thrust upon us. We have invested much time wanting to believe that this President of ours can actually introduce and implement a credible reform package, that he is indeed interested in reform to begin with and that he is aware of how urgent and critical the situation is, to no avail.
Considering where we are today, it is incumbent upon us to believe the reality that is staring us in the face. It is incumbent upon us to deal with our disappointment and to deal with reality and face the real challenges ahead. Now more than ever, it is clear that it is up to us to build the better future for which we all yearn and which we all deserve. This is a very natural situation for people who are still fighting to be truly free.