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(17, 533 Words)

Source: [PDF] The Syrian Uprising: Dynamics of an Insurgency / Syria Studies

Carsten  Wieland studied  history,  political  science  and  philosophy  at Humboldt University in Berlin (PhD in 1999), Duke University in North Carolina, and at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Since 2011, he   works   in   the   German   Foreign   Office.   Before   he   entered   the diplomatic career he worked as a political consultant, analyst, author and journalist  and  spent  several  years  in  the  Middle  East.  Being  a  Syria expert for more than a decade, he published numerous articles and books on  the  Levant,  amongst  them Syria  at  Bay:  Secularism,  Islamism,  and “Pax Americana”, Hurst, London in 2006. Carsten previously worked at the Goethe Institute in Cairo and Munich and as a country representative for   the   Konrad   Adenauer   Foundation   in   Colombia.   He   was   a correspondent for the German Press Agency (DPA) in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Colombia, as well as DPA head of corporate communications and  public  affairs  in  Berlin.  He  is  guest  professor  for  international relations  at  the  Universidad  del  Rosario  in  Bogotá  and  was  a  fellow  at the  Public  Policy  Department at  Georgetown  University  in  Washington D.C. (www.carsten-wieland.de).

[This chapter of the Syria Studies issue [PDF] The Syrian Uprising: Dynamics of an Insurgency “is based on Carsten Wieland, Syria: A Decade of Lost Chances: Repression and Revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring, Cune Press, Seattle, 2012.”]

Asad’s Decade of Lost Chances 

By Carsten  Wieland

The  autocrats  who  were  toppled  during  the  Arab  Spring  persevered  for some 30 or 40 years before their power structure imploded. After only a decade of rule, the Syrian regime under President Bashar al-Asad seems to  be  nearing  its  end.  The  country,  its  morale  and  social  fabric  are  in ruins.  Born  in  1965  he  is  the  youngest  among  the  Arab  autocrats  and already politically paralyzed -no matter with which scenario the bloody revolt in his country will end. How has this happened after Asad started his  rule  with  so  much  anticipation  and  high  hopes  in  June  2000?  The story  of  his  political  career  is  a  chain  of  missed  chances  and  practical failures.

We can assess how far Asad has fallen when we compare to where he  came  from  after  the  death  of  his  father,  Hafez.  For  this  purpose  I would  like  to  quote  a  passage  from  my  book  “Ballots  or  Bullets?”  in which I reflected the mood in the streets of Damascus some eight years ago:

Although his nimbus is fading, the young president possesses an image that,  from  the  point  of  view  of  most  Syrians,  is  neither  stained  with blood  nor  corrupted  by  radicalism  or  incompetence  (though  some would  say  more  the  latter  than  the  former).  He  has  successfully  been able  to  distance  himself  from  his  father’s  political  Stone  Age.  Most Syrians tend to look for faults in Bashar’s surroundings rather than in Bashar himself.2

After 2011 the president will never be able to revive his former image. He has chosen bullets instead of ballots.

Usually,   any   assessment   of   Bashar   al-Asad   starts   with   his personality, although this approach fails to explain developments in their complexity. “Bashar  is  not  the  regime”, traditional  oppositional  figures used to reiterate. This was different under Hafez al-Asad. The regime is a  complex  web  of  direct  or  subtle  influences,  priorities,  jealousies  and power   struggles.   There are indications   that   at   times Bashar   was incapable  of  enacting  decisions  of  his  own  or  even  fulfilling  given promises,  because  others were calling  the  shots.  A leading  and  well-informed oppositional figure said at the end of 2010 that Asad had been left to act freely in foreign policy only, whereas domestically the secret services, the Baath Party, his clan and big business representatives were controlling the sinecure.3

Without further evidence it is hard to prove if the observations also held  true a  few  months  later.  In  light  of  this  thesis  it  remains  an  open question  as  to  what  extent  the  cruelty  of  2011  and  2012  and  the numerous  technical  mistakes  committed  in  suppressing  the  popular protests  are  due  to  the  plurality  of  power  centres  in  the  Syrian  polity under Asad or if they can be directly attributed to him and his personal strategy.  Whether he is  personally  responsible  for  each  and  every  shot that  was  fired,  for  each  child  that  was  tortured  and  mutilated,  for  every armed  attack  of  the shabbiha Alawite  gangs to  incite  sectarian  hatred, for  cattle  and  fields  that  were  burnt  to  starve  dissenting  villagers,  does not  really  matter  in  the  end.  Since  2000 the  president has  reshuffled almost  all  important  positions  in  the mukhabarat,  the  military  and government bureaucracy. He is the president and thus responsible for the so-called security  solution.  The  protests  triggered  typical  reflexes  of  a thoroughly  authoritarian  culture  with  a  cruel  history  of  civil  wars  and crackdowns. Survival is a zero-sum game where the winner takes it all.

This outcome was far from inevitable as the following pages show. Asad  had  a  plethora  of  opportunities  that  he  missed  one  by  one, domestically  and  internationally.  Many  Syrians  pinned  their  hopes  for the young president as a reformer (as their fathers and grandfathers had already  projected  their  hopes  on  Hafez  al-Asad  as  a  “liberalizer”  and “pragmatist”  in  1970-1971).  From  the  beginning  of  his  rule  in  2000 Bashar  faced  a  very  moderate  and  intellectual  opposition  that  did  not pursue  the  priority  of  toppling  the  president  but  that  tried  to  press  for incremental  change  and  gradual  pluralism.  Bashar did not reach  out  to them   but   launched   three   major   waves   of   suppression   against   the oppositional Civil Society Movement between 2001 and 2008-2009. The noose   was   tightening   around   the   neck   of   the   opposition   despite increasing relaxation of international relations from 2008 onwards. Syria was  by  no  means  on  a  path  of  reform  when  the  Arab  Spring  hit  the country.  Nevertheless,  the  international  community  was  ready  to  listen to  Bashar’s  promises  and  to  appreciate  the  certain  stability  that  he embodied  until  he  was  rolled  over  by  mass  protests  from  March  2011 onwards.   Bashar   led   his   country   into   international   isolation   and traumatic destruction.  Stability and secularism, the Asads’ main assets, are   no   more.   Asad   destroyed   his   political   legacy,   his   family,   his religious  community,  Syria  as  it  used  to  be  and  probably  himself.  The decade  of  his  rule  is  a  tragic  story  because  it  could  have  ended so differently.

The Loss of Projected Innocence

The  trained  ophthalmologist -often  described  as  western  in  outlook because  of  his  studies  in  the  United  Kingdom -differs  from  the stereotype of a brutal dictator. In his youth he is described to have been relatively  humble,  honest,  and  even  “non-ideological”.4 He  did  not display  anything  similar  to  the  arrogant,  dissolute,  and  excessive  life-styles  of  the  sons  of  the  former  Iraqi  President  Saddam  Hussein  or Libya’s Revolutionary Leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. Asad is no natural leader and did not intend to get involved in politics. He had to follow his father’s will after the premature death of his elder brother Basil in a car accident   in   1994.   Asad   was   more   interested   in   the   internet   and computers  than  in  conspiracies  and  arms.  In  one  of  the  most  sealed  off countries ruled by the “Sphinx of Damascus”5, his father Hafez al-Asad, he  became  head  of  the  Syrian  Computer  Society  from  which  he  later recruited some of his personnel.

Contrasted  with  the  unscrupulous  “security  solution”  against  the mostly peaceful street protests of his own people in 2011, the following statements  of  Asad  in  his  inauguration  speech  a  decade  earlier  appear almost surreal:

I  am  not  after  any  post  nor  do  I  avoid  any  responsibility.  The  post is not  an  end  but  a  means  to  achieve  an  end.  And  now,  and  since  my people  have  honored  me  with  their  choice  of  me  as  president  of  the Republic  […]  I  would  like  to  say  that  I  have  assumed  the  post  but  I have  not  occupied  the  position  […].  I  feel  that  the  man  you  have known […]will not change at all once he assumes his post. He came out  of  the  people  and  lived  with  them  and  shall  remain  one  of  them. You may expect to see him everywhere whether in the work place or in  the  streets  or  at  your  picnics  in  order to  learn  from  you  […].  The man  who  has  become  a  president  is  the  same  man  who  was  a  doctor and an officer and first and foremost is a citizen.6

Indeed, Asad was seen at times in the lanes of old Damascus or Aleppo without visible bodyguards and dined in restaurants.

If  assertions  of  Sheikh  Ahmed  Badr  al-Din  Hassoun,  the  Syrian Grand Mufti, reflect the truth, Asad confided in him more than once that in his dreams he would like to return to his profession one day and run an eye clinic. This was the first time that a confidant of the president had spoken  of  the  possibility  of  a  voluntary  and  premature  end  to  his  rule (although the remarkable utterances may have had tactical reasons in the tense political situation of November 2011).7

Indeed, Asad had not been known for his brutality and extravagance but for precisely the   opposite: his restraint   in   private   matters, awkwardness in  public  appearances, and even  political ineptness up  to the  point  that  during  the  gravest  crisis  of  his  political  life  the  media described  him  as “the  dictator  who  cannot  dictate.”8 A  member  of  the opposition  reported already  years  ago that  some had complained  about his “weak character.” “He holds the opinion of the person he last spoke to,” said an oppositional journalist who preferred to remain anonymous. His  sister  Bushra reportedly  called  him  “stupid  and  nervous”  when  he allegedly was  among  a  circle  of  relatives  after  the  turbulent  events  in Lebanon in early 2005.9

Certainly,  Asad  has  made  a  plethora  of  technical  and  strategic mistakes.  After  a  decade  of  his  rule  everything  pointed  to  the  fact  that despite  his  differences,  he  ended  up  sharing the  other Arab  autocrats’ cynicism, loss of reality and –contrary to his and Hassoun’s statements –an  autocrat  with  an  apocalyptic  outlook  will  to  cling  to  power  at  any cost.

The cynicism is reflected in his readiness to accept an unexpectedly high blood toll and to give carte blanche to the security forces and Alawi militias. A researcher close to the Syrian opposition said that during the uprising  Asad  calmly  explained  that  his  strategy  was  to  get  not  more than 25 to 30 people killed per day, on Fridays maybe more, in order to avoid upsetting international public opinion.10 With several thousands of people killed since March 2011 as well as tens of thousands arrested and held under torture and abysmal conditions in cramped dungeons or sport stadiums  (estimates  from  fall  2011  range  from  20,000  to  50,000),  it  is possible that the number will equal the toll of the notorious massacre in Hama in 1982. The cruelty of tortures, rapes, collective punishment, the barring of wounded from treatment, and the cold-bloodedness of civilian killings  in  the  streets  of  Syrian  towns  that  are  documented  in  countless amateur  videos,  despite  the  technical  obstacles  and  personal  risks, exceeds what the world had witnessed in the Libyan civil war that led to the  fall  of  Qaddafi.  Even  worse,  the  displayed  degree  of  atrocities against a widely unarmed population is not at all necessary to suppress a rebellion.  Technically  speaking,  it  is  counterproductive.  But  we  will come   back   to   bad   management   and   political   mistakes   during   the upheaval later in the article.

Asad’s   increasing   loss   of   reality   is   well   demonstrated   in   an interview  that  he  gave  to  the Wall  Street  Journal on  January  31.  The president said   that   Arab   rulers   would   need   to   move   faster   to accommodate  the rising  political  and  economic  aspirations of  Arab peoples: “If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt  and  in  Tunisia,  it  is  too  late  to  do  any  reform,” he  chided  his fellow   leaders. Then   Asad   assured   the   interviewer   (and   perhaps himself):

We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there  is  divergence  between  your  policy  and  the  people’s  beliefs  and interests,  you  will  have  this  vacuum  that  creates  disturbances.  So people   do   not   only   live   on   interests;   they   also   live   on   beliefs, especially   in   very   ideological   areas.   Unless   you   understand   the ideological  aspect  of  the  region,  you  cannot  understand  what  is happening.

In  the  lengthy  interview  the president also reflected on his  people who were not yet ready for reform:

We still have a long way to go because it is a process. If I was brought up in different circumstances, I[would]have to train myself and, to be realistic, we have to wait for the next generation to bring this reform. […] If you want to be transparent with your people, do not do anything cosmetic,  whether  to  deceive  your  people  or  to  get  some  applau[se] from the West. They want to criticize you, let them criticize and do not worry.  […]  I  do  not think  it  is  about  time  [for  faster  political  reform, representation of people, and improving human rights], it is about the hope,  because  if  I  say  that  in  five  years’ time  or  ten  years’ time  may be,  if  the  situation  is  going  to  be  better,  people  are  patient  in  our region.11

Not   even   two   months   later, the   people’s   patience   ran   out   and confrontations between protesters and security forces across Syria shook the  Baathist  regime more  than  any  challenge  since  the  1980s.  And  the first   public   appearance   was   a   smiling   president,   surrounded   by parliamentarian claqueurs,  who  made  a  surreal  speech  in  the  Syrian parliament  at  the  end  of  March. Meanwhile,  the Syria known  for decades had already ceased to exist. The protests have torn asunder the delicate  fabric  of rules,  explicit  and  implicit,  that  for  decades  had determined  the  relations  between  the  regime  and  the  citizenry. In  the end, the nationalistic discourse, the antagonism with Israel and the West in  general,  and  the  pro-Palestinian  rhetoric  did  not  outweigh  the  daily social and economic grievances, the wish for the end of tutelage, and all this combined with the loss of fear after the successful popular uprisings in  Tunisia  and  Egypt.  The  internal  enemy  overshadowed  the external one to the surprise of many observers inside and outside Syria.

Ironically,  it  was  Asad  himself  who  made  this  form  of  upheaval possible in the first place. He became victim of his own modernization. By  allowing  satellite  dishes  and  by  fostering  a modern  communication infrastructure,  albeit  all  in  the  hands  of  his  clan,  he  created  a  modern form  of  protest  movement  that  exchanges  videos  via YouTube and organizes itself via Facebook and SMS. Though several internet sites are permanently  blocked,  Syrians  have  far more  access  to  information and the  outside  world,  through  satellite  TV,  blogs  and  foreign  media. Precisely these visible signs of modernization caused hope among many young  Syrians  for  further  changes  and  at  the  same  time  nurtured  the yearning for more freedoms when Asad took power.

The country has indeed made some progress during the ten years of Asad’s rule  in areas  that  do  not touch  upon  matters like democracy  or human rights. Syrian media outlets are more numerous and plainspoken than  under Hafez,  provided  that  they  do  not  cross red  lines related  to politics,  religion  and  sex. Arts  and  letters  have  benefited  from  more freedom  of  expression.  Cell  phones  and  other  modern  equipment  have become  accessible  to  a  wider  range of  people.  Women’s  organizations have gained strength and are granted room to maneuver even if they are not legally registered or explicitly supportive of the government.

Clearly,  the  development  of  the  country  under  Asad has  been an asymmetric one. Whereas reforms have become visible especially in the macro-economic realm, a stand-still or even reversal can be observed in the  political,  administrative,  and  socio-economic  arenas. After  political pluralisation seemed too risky the president reduced his aspirations first to  administrative  reforms  (anti-corruption,  efficiency,  etc.),  and  when this was met with resistance, he concentrated on economic reforms that have been moving along a bumpy road since then but are indispensable for the regime’s survival.

Internationally speaking, Syria’s development in the past decade has taken  place  in  unusually  harsh  and  not  entirely  predictable  conditions. The  9/11  attacks  in  Washington  and  New  York  in  2001  changed  the whole  board  game  in  the  Middle  East  and  beyond,  aggravated  by the military  approach  of  the  US  administration  under President George  W. Bush. No  democratic  experiment was  going  to  be  tolerated  in  Syria  as US threats of regime change began to emerge in 2002, and the Baathist regime  entrenched itself in  ideological  opposition  to  the  Iraq  war. Pressure  mounted  on  Syria from  abroad,  especially  from  Saudi  Arabia, France and the United States in subsequent years, culminating in the UN Security  Council  Resolution  1559,  calling  upon  “all  remaining  foreign forces  to  withdraw  from  Lebanon.” Asad  began  to  lose  his  nerve  and pursued  an  abrasive  policy  towards  Lebanon.  This  culminated  in  the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, which aggravated Syria’s isolation and entailed the forced withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Asad  used  to  cite  these  events  to  justify  the  delay  of  domestic reforms. “We were affected by the situation in Iraq or in Lebanon. There are many things that we wanted to do in 2005 we are planning to do in the  year  2012,  seven  years  later!  It  is  not  realistic  to  have  a  timeframe because  you  are  not  living  in  situation  where  you  can  control  the events”, he said in the WSJ interview at the end of January 2011. 12  He is definitely  right  about  the fact  that  the  foreign  policy  environment  and the  approach  of  some  western  countries  in  the  region  were  not  at  all conducive to the opening up of minds and policies in Syria. But despite a series of external shocks, many mistakes were homemade.

Sticking to the Baath Path and a Narrowing Circle of Trust

The  chain  of  possible  chances  starts  right  at  the  beginning  of  Asad’s rule.  The  first  opportunity  to  change  course  occurred  when  the  young heir to the republican throne was still highly dependent on the apparatus of  his  father.  He  could  not  be  sure  how  supportive  the  power  circles would be if he deviated too quickly from the trodden path of Baathism. Asad  was  dependent  on  key  players  of  the  old  power  structure  who changed  Syria’s  constitution  to  the effect  that  Asad  could  become president at 34 years instead of the previously necessary 40 years of age. Theoretically, however, Asad could have tried to put his legitimacy on a wider basis by instituting himself as a transitional president who would call for  a  popular  vote.  Since  there  was  no  other  candidate  around  and much less any organized party, he would have won by a landslide.

But  any  direct  election  would  have  called  into  question  the  Baath system  as  a  whole  that  had  served  his  father  as  a  stable basis  for  three decades  and  enabled  the  smooth  succession.  Moreover,  competition from within the family ranks was still looming. His uncle, Rifat al-Asad (who  was  exiled  in  1984  after  openly  contesting  Hafez  al-Asad’s  rule), for example, never really thought that Bashar was the right man for the job. He could have taken advantage of any mistake or volatility to snatch power  himself.  Similar  ambitions  could  have  emerged  in  the  security apparatus  or  with  other  major  political  protagonists  like  long-time  Vice President  Abdulhalim  Khaddam  (who  defected  in  2005),  or  Syria’s experienced Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara.

Asad chose to stick to the Baath path. In reality, however, the Baath discourse camouflaged the ideological erosion of the system. There was not much left of socialism and neither of pan-Arabism. Asad weakened the  influence  of  the  Baath  Party  further  during  his  rule  but  he  never questioned  the  foundations  of  the  system  as  such.  Still,  power  relations have  been  renegotiated,  and  Baathist  functionaries  have  been  sidelined. In  times  of  crisis  the  circle  of  persons  that  the  Asad  clan  can  trust has been contracting more  and  more  up  to  the  point  that if  the  erosion escalates, it   may   become difficult   to   recruit   enough   staunch   and qualified loyalists to effectively run the country.

In the years leading  to  the  crisis,  the  circle  of  trust  had been narrowing.  The  regime  developed  increasingly  primordial  features;  it has become more Alawi compared to Hafez’s times.13 Interestingly, the second  layer  of  regime  functionaries  after  the  Alawi  avant-garde is composed   of   personalities   from   the   Houran   (especially   Dera’a), including the Vice  President  and  longtime  foreign  minister, Farouq  al-Shara, who  is  a  Sunni.  Given  the  cruel  events  in  Dera’a,  this  second layer of functionaries in the regime apparatus may prove less reliable in the future. Shara is still a man of the regime without any doubt, but he is rumoured to have had a difference of opinion with Bashar and especially Maher  al-Asad  on  the  crackdown  in  Dera’a.  The  communiqué  of  the foreign  Syrian  opposition  after  their  conference  in  the  Turkish  city  of Antalya in June called for handing over power to the vice president.

Louay Hussein, secular editor and leading figure of Syria’s domestic opposition, shed light on the differences of Bashar and Hafez al-Asad’s regimes  in  a  conversation  in  October 2010.  According  to  Hussein,  the father was   able   to build   his   legitimacy   on   two   pillars:  social development  and  the  liberation  of  occupied  territories  (or  at  least  the attempt  to  do  so).  He  had  the  power  to  control  the  Islamists  and  was ready  to  fight.  “Bashar was  handed power  on a silver  plate”,  Hussein said.  He  has  been  lacking  the  two  pillars  of  his  father.  The  younger group  had  “no  knowledge  and  vision  of  the  state’s  identity.  They  are playing around. They don’t know what losing means because they didn’t fight for anything and didn’t face any real challenges.”14 The moment to fight came unexpectedly,   and   it   turned out   that   the   system was exclusively based on hard power, i.e. on the extinction of dissenters and threats.15

Crushing the Damascus Spring: The Failure of National Reconciliation

A  second  opportunity  to  pursue  sweeping  changes  was  to  come  soon after Asad’s assumption of power. In his inaugural speech he called for Syrians   to   actively   contribute   to   shaping   the   country’s   future.16 Intellectuals were inspired and began to discuss more and more freely in the  newly-found  debating  clubs  in  the  halls  of  private  houses.  The dynamics that emerged thereof in September 2000 became known as the Damascus Spring. That fall, the Christian writer Michel Kilo headlined a group of intellectuals who published the “manifesto of the 99,” followed in  December  by  the  “manifesto  of  the  1,000.” The secular  philosopher, Sadiq al-Azm, was one of the key signatories. Riad Seif, an entrepreneur and outspoken Member of Parliament, went the furthest, putting forward social-democratic ideals of a “fair market economy” that he upheld with decent labor practices in the companies he owned. Politically, he called for  a  constitutional  state,  an  independent legislature  and courts,  and  a free press. But Seif crossed a red line when he announced his intention to found a party of his own. He was arrested, and the Damascus Spring turned  cold as  the debating  clubs in  Damascus  had  to close down  one after the other.

Had the Syrians listened more carefully to Asad’s inaugural speech, they may have anticipated that it was modernization that was on the new president’s   agenda   but   not   sweeping   political   reforms   or   even democracy. In this speech  in  June  2000, Asad  had made  his  position clear.

We  cannot  apply  the  democracy  of  others  to  ourselves.  Western democracy, for example, is the outcome of a long history that resulted in  customs  and  traditions,  which  distinguish the  current  culture  of Western  societies.  […]  We  have  to  have  our  democratic  experience which   is   special   to   us,   which   stems   from   our   history,   culture, civilization, and which is a response to the needs of our society and the requirements of our reality.17

Simply, this meant that the Baath Party was to retain political leadership. In reply to questions about political reform, the president later answered with stilted formulations such as: “We need an intellectual basis. There should  be  a connection  between  the  political  proposal  and  the  social structure  in  society.”18 And  the  latter,  he  implied, was not  yet  mature enough to  enable the  population  to  participate  in  politics  as  in  a Western-style  democracy. These  are  the  very  same  thoughts  that  he reiterated in the interview with the WSJ in January 2011.

At  the  very  beginning  of  his  rule  Asad  plugged  into  the  notorious discourse  of  other  Arab  autocrats  in  the  region:  Their  people  were  not ready  for  democracy,  and  democracy  was  a  “cultural  phenomenon”  of the  west.  In  the  Arab  Spring  of  2011  the  people  finally  showed  that, indeed, they were ready not only for practical changes but also for a new political discourse and even political culture. People demonstrated that it was  their  rulers  who  were  responsible  for  keeping  them  in  a  state  of poverty and intended political immaturity.

Although   the   mostly   elderly   protagonists   of   the   Civil   Society Movement   oscillated   ideological   ideas   sometimes   aloof   from   the discourse  of  the  younger  people,  the  far-sightedness  and  intellectual maturity of the Syrian opposition’s discourse became clear unexpectedly ten  years  after  the  suffocation  of  the  Damascus  Spring.  Sadiq  al-Azm draws a  parallel  between  the  Arab  Spring  of  2011  and  the  Damascus Spring of 2001:

The  Charter of 99  contained  all  the  slogans,  demands  and  aspirations wherever  there  is  an  intifada  now.  The  Damascus  Spring  created  the first  documents  that  emphasized  freedom,  democracy,  human  rights, civil  society  and  so  on,  and  avoided  the  typical  attacks  on  Israel.  The Damascus Spring was a dress rehearsal of the Arab Spring.

The  philosopher,  who  lives  in  Beirut now,  observes  a  maturation  of Arab society during the upheavals: “It was the regimes that represented themselves  as  representatives  of  enlightenment  and  state  rationalism, and suddenly they clung to conspiracy theories and kept repeating them mindlessly,  not  the  simple  masses  who  had  always  been  blamed for falling prey to conspiracies.”19

Despite  his  young  age  Bashar  al-Asad  did  not  distinguish  himself from  his  elder  counterparts.  He  rather  tried  to  follow the  Chinese example:  economic  liberalization  without,  or  with  only  minor,  political reforms  at  home—or  bread  before  freedom,  as  expressed  by  Riad Seif.20 It took many Syrians and observers of Syria a long time to realize that, in the end, Asad was aiming at bread instead of freedom.

The clampdown of the Damascus Spring in 2001 was the first wave of suppression against the moderate Syrian opposition. Asad decided to prioritize  regime  stability  before  democratic  experiments.  This  was  a conscious  step  to  secure  his  power  after  he  felt  he would  lose  control. The  then  Vice-president  Abdulhalim  Khaddam  was  instrumental  in putting the brakes on the development, and the Civil Society Movement went  underground -in  the  Syrian  context  more  appropriately  put:  into the  tea  houses.  Café  Rawda  was  the  most  popular  meeting  point  right around  the  corner  of  the  parliament  building.  For  the  next  couple  of years  the  regime  and  the  leftist  intellectual  opposition  were  to  coexist side  by  side  in  a  peculiar  and  very  Syrian  manner  with  protagonists  of the Civil Society Movement taking turns in prison.

There  was  a  time  when  even  parts  of  the  regime  seemed  to appreciate  the  constructive  and  prudent  nature  of  Syria’s  opposition. Bahjat   Suleiman,   the   feared   and powerful former   head   of   Syrian intelligence,  wrote  in the  Lebanese  newspaper al-Safirin  2003,  “In Syria,   the   regime   does   not   have   enemies   but   ‘opponents’   whose demands do not go beyond certain political and economic reforms, such as  the  end  of  the  state  of  emergency  and  martial  law; the  adoption  of  a law  on political  parties; and  the  equitable  redistribution  of  national wealth.”21 Forcible regime  change,  Suleiman  knew,  was only  on the agenda of select exiles and US politicians.

But  instead  of  reaching  out  to  these  opponents,  who  defined  a gradual  transition toward  civil  society  and  pluralism  as  a  soft  landing within  the  system  and  who  shared  basic  foreign-policy  assumptions  of the  Baathists,  the  president  treated  these intellectuals like  a  gang  of criminals in subsequent years. Thus he disillusioned many Syrians who had  hoped  for  a  common  ground  towards  incremental  change.  Looking back  at  Asad’s  first  big  opportunity,  al-Azm  says:  “Asad  should  have brought Riad Seif into a reshuffled government in 2001. His original sin was not to have offered national reconciliation.  Many  even  said  that  he would  have  been  ready  to  reconcile  with  Israel  but  not  with  his  own people.”22

With  remarkable  foresight,  Michel  Kilo  stated  in  2003  that  the Syrian  regime  was  not  reformable. This was true  for  all  authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. “They are not in a situation of stability but in a stable crisis,” said Kilo. “When the regime in the Soviet Union wanted to reform itself, the regime was gone. It will happen the same way with the  regimes  in  the  Arab  world. This  is  part  of the  drama  of  these regimes.”23 Thus,  Asad  resisted  any  pressure  for  real  political  reform. While  others  still  projected  hope  in  the  president,  Kilo  was  without illusions. “Bashar has allied himself with the corrupt forces. Thus he has basically  renounced  reform.  […] Bashar  is  not  only  unable  to  act,  he does  not  want  to  act  either.”  The  president,  he  lamented,  wanted to circumvent the issue of democracy. “He only wants a reform of power, not  of  the  system.”  Another  leading  member  of  the  Civil  Society Movement,  who  preferred to  remain  anonymous, came to  a  similar conclusion: “Bashar is  aware  of  his  weaknesses.”  For  this  reason  he  is largely   keeping   out   of   domestic   politics   and   has abandoned his originally   ambitious   reform   program.   “He   has   capitulated   to   the hardliners and opted for stability instead of progress.”

Suleiman’s  distinction  between  opponents  and  enemies  was  to become highly topical again in the 2011 upheavals, however, in a much more polarized setting. It is part of the Syrian tragedy that even after the bloody  escalation  in  2011  some  oppositional  figures  tried  to  keep  the doors open in the hope of dialogue for the sake of Syria’s stability and in order  to  avoid  a  civil  war,  most  notably  Kilo  himself.  Ignoring  the constructive  opposition  has  been  one  of  Asad’s  gravest  errors  of  his tenure.  A  decade  later,  the  days were over  when  obstreperousness was defined  as  discussion  in  the  back  rooms  of  teahouses  suffused  with  the aromatic  smoke  of  water  pipes. The  Syrian  president learned  to  face  a new and young opposition in the streets and the whiff of gunpowder.

External Shocks Exacerbate the Domestic Situation

The  clampdown  on  the  Damascus  Spring  took  place  when  the  young Asad was still in a phase of orientation. External shocks were soon to hit the  region  and  the  Syrian  regime  that  were  beyond  its  control.  But  the Damascus   Spring   was   strangled before the   first   external   shocks occurred,  which  were  the  terrorist  attacks  of  11  September  2001  in Washington   and   New   York.   After   9/11   and   in   the   “war   against terrorism”  the  Arab  autocrats  received  a  new  pretext  to  get  tough  on oppositional   figures   (many   of   whom   were   located   in   the   Islamist spectrum  outside  Syria)  and  a  new  context  in  which  to  frame  their policies.

9/11 yielded a double-edged sword for Damascus. On the one hand, the  events  opened  an  opportunity  for  the  Syrian mukhabarat to  employ their  year-long  experience  in  the  fight  against  Islamists  of  all  kinds. Moreover,  it  represented  a  point  of  contact  with  western  interests  and was  a  welcome opportunity  to  underline  the  secular  credentials  of  the Baath  regime.  Indeed,  Syria  was  a  valuable  partner  for  the  West  in  the fight  against  Islamist  terrorists.  It  was  no  coincidence  that  the  security establishments  both  in  the  United  States  and  Israel  used  to  take  more conciliatory  positions  vis-à-vis  Damascus  than  the  respective  political establishments.  For  example, George  Tenet, who  resigned  from  his position as head of the CIA,  was,  with  his organization, one of the few moderating  voices  with  regard  to  the  Syrian  regime  within  the  US administration of George W. Bush.

On  the  other  hand,  despite  Syria’s  willing  cooperation  in  the  fight against   Islamist   terrorism,   it   did   not   succeed   in   trading   in   this commitment  for  substantially  better  relations  with  the  United  States or Europe. Such a development would have given a boost to the section of the  technocratic  and  political  elite  in  Damascus  that  was  westward-looking  and  pragmatic.  Some  of  them  lobbied  for  a  rapprochement between  Syria  and  Europe  and  favoured  the  signing  of  the  long-postponed  EU  Association  Agreement.  One  of  the  key  representatives was  Sami  Khiamy,  Asad’s  economic  adviser  who  later  became  the Syrian ambassador to London.

The  problem  for  Syria  was  that  two  political  types  of  discourses were  simultaneously  active  on  the  international  stage  particularly  in Washington.  One  was  the  discourse  oscillating  around  the  fight  against Islamist  terrorism,  which  included  the  debate  over direct  consequences from  the  9/11  attacks.  It  also  went  further  and  posed  fundamental questions  about  a  readjustment  and  the  value-orientation  of  western foreign-policy vis-à-vis so-called pro-Western regimes that had nurtured Islamist  terrorism  for  years, above  all  Saudi  Arabia.24 If  this  discourse had been seriously pursued, Syria could have gained strategic advantage on the security level in view of its contribution against militant Islamism (much less, obviously, on the level of democratic governance).

The  second  discourse  had  less  to  do  with  protecting  the  United States  from  terrorist  threats  but  with  catering  for  Israel’s  security concerns  in  the  region.  The  pro-Israel  discourse  did  not  always  overlap with   the   anti-Islamist-terrorism   discourse.   In   this frame   Saddam Hussein’s  Iraq  posed  a  threat  to  Israel  and  thus  became  a  target  of  the Israel-friendly neo-conservative foreign-policy of the Bush administration.  Already  at  that  time  also  western  governments  such  as France and Germany were not convinced that Iraq had something to do with  al-Qaida  (and  chemical  weapons)  and  opposed  an  attack  on  the basis of these reasons.

What  it  meant  for  Syria  was  that  the  pro-Israel  discourse  proved stronger  and  in  the  end  impaired  efforts  undertaken  within  the  anti-Islamist-terrorism  discourse.  Because  Syria  has  a  political,  ideological and territorial problem with Israel, it was never a candidate to enter into a pro-Western camp under the influence of the Bush administration and Israeli  interests.  Nevertheless,  Syria  did  continue  to  cooperate  with western secret services even after the Anglo-American attack on Iraq up to  the  fall  of  2003.  When  the  regime  in  Damascus  did  not  harvest  any rewards  from  its  engagement,  but  threats  of  regime  change  instead,  it was not interested in further cooperation.

This time it was the West that had missed a great chance. Instead of placing  Syria  within  the  “extended  axis  of  evil”  and  of  pushing  it  into the  arms  of  Iran -which  many  Syrians  detest  culturally,  ideologically and  religiously –there  was  a  window  of  opportunity  to  focus  on common secular values and the tolerance of religious minorities, on the fight  against  militant  Islamism.  Perhaps  there  was  even  a  chance  to embark  on  technical  forms  of  Syrian-European  cooperation  such  as  the Association  Agreement.  This  would  have  strengthened  the  pro-western actors  within  the  Syrian  bureaucracy  and  political  elite.  It  would  have resonated among parts of the educated middle class as well. Around this time  blue  car  stickers  with  yellow  stars  became  popular  in  Damascus that served to imitate EU number plates. Instead, secularist Syria began drifting  more  and  more  into  the  Iranian  orbit  and  into  alliances  with Islamist groups.

Ideological Encrustation in Context of the Iraq War

The Iraq war was definitely the worst external shock to which the Asad government  was  exposed.  The  regime  was  not  ready  to  embark  on democratic  experiments  as  long  as  its  neighbourhood  was  violent  and while   the   regime’s   survival   was   openly   put   into   question   by Washington. In turn, this situation represented a comfortable excuse for the  regime  not  to  enact  any  political  reforms  and  to  suppress  the domestic opposition further.

The   Iraq   war   presented   a   further   opportunity   for   Asad   to demonstrate whether or not he had the political shrewdness of his father. On  the  one  hand,  he  used  the  situation  very  well  to  galvanize  Syrian public  opinion  and  to  rally  the  whole  “Arab  street”  behind  him.  Asad became a hero from Baghdad to Casablanca as the only Arab leader who confronted  a  belligerent  Bush  administration.  He  even  enjoyed  the company  of  European  countries  like  Germany  and  France  in  the  anti-war camp. But it was Syria alone that raised the flag of anti-imperialist pan-Arabism  again.  The  resistance  discourse  resonated  well  and  Asad enjoyed a time of almost unanimous domestic support. In this matter he could  be  sure  to  have  great  parts  of  the  Syrian  opposition  behind  him. On another note Syria became the hub for Arab resistance fighters who trickled  into  Iraq.  The  regime  in  Damascus  was content  to  get  rid  of Syrian Islamists who crossed over to Iraq where the Americans even did the   job   of   killing   them.   Furthermore,   the   Islamists   distracted   the Americans from leaving Iraq prematurely and from choosing Damascus as  their  next  target  for  regime  change.  An  attack  on  Syria  had  been  a realistic scenario in the first months after the Iraq invasion.

Syria’s  rejection  of  military  intervention  in  Iraq  was  definitely understandable. Raymond Hinnebusch interprets Syria’s stance in terms of  an ideological rationale:  “Opposition  to  the  US was  a  collective decision  that  would  have  been  taken  by  any  nationalist  leadership  in Damascus.  Not  only  did  the  invasion  threaten  vital  Syrian  interests  in Iraq,  but  it  was  also  an  egregious  affront  to  the  Arab  nationalist  values so  ingrained  in  Syrian  thinking.”  After  all,  the  invasion  of  Iraq  was  in Israel’s best interest.25

Against  this  background  of  domestic  and  regional  popularity,  there is certainly debate as to whether Asad’s actions were politically useful in the long run. Discussions with Syrian intellectuals at that time indicated that  Asad  could  have  reacted  to  the  Iraq  war  with  more  political foresightedness  and  less  ideological  fervor. In  search  of  a  direction  for his  foreign  policy, Asad used  the  Anglo-American  attack  on  Syria’s neighbor  to  revive  pan-Arab rhetoric. People in  tea  houses wondered how Hafezal-Asad would have acted in this situation. Some considered the young Asad’s policy to be even more ideological than his father’s in this  respect.  For  in  the  end  most  Syrians  were  glad  that  Saddam was overthrown,  the  Syrian  Baathist  establishment  included.26 Why  should Syria  have  suddenly  lent  support  to  the  Iraqi  dictator,  its  Baathist archrival?  Michel  Kilo  is  convinced  that  “Hafez  al-Asad  would  have avoided the conflict with the United States.”27

It  is hard to  say whether Asad is  really  more  ideological  than  his father. He may be less intellectually flexible and less politically shrewd by  changing  sides  whenever  it  looked  opportune.  The  young  Asad’s ideological hard-line  position  on  the  Iraq  issue was  part  of a  search  for political orientation, a learning process concerning foreign policy rather than  an  entrenched  ideology.  It  is  scarcely  surprising  that  it  was  the Baath cadres in particular that were said to have advised Bashar to adopt such  a  strict  pro-Iraq  and  anti-American position.  For  them  it  was  a welcome  opportunity  to  begin  to  replenish  the  empty  reservoir  of  the Baath  ideology at a  time  when  they were otherwise  running  out  of answers.

Previously, the best export product Syria had was its foreign policy, as  Syrian  analyst Samir  Altaqi puts  it.28 Hafez  al-Asad used  to secure sources  of  money and  room  for  political  maneuver. Syria  received money  from the Arab  states  in  1967  because  it  was  engaged  in  a  war with  Israel,  again  in  1973,  and  once  more  in  1976  when  Syrian  troops intervened  in  the  civil  war  in  Lebanon.  Then,  in  1982,  Syria  was  given support when Israel invaded Lebanon and occupied the southern part of the  country.  At  the  same  time,  Asad secured  extensive  debt  relief  from the  Soviet  Union in  exchange  for  approving  the  Russian  invasion  of Afghanistan.  In  the  Gulf  Warin  1991,Hafez al-Asad did  a  U-turn  and accepted financial aid from the Gulf States, primarily Kuwait, as thanks for  supporting  the  coalition  troops  against  Iraq.  Finally,  in  another  U-turn, money flowed from Baghdad after an unexpected honeymoon with the  Saddam regime  after  1997,  and  especially  after  Hafezal-Asad’s death.

Applied  to  the  Iraq  scenario  in  2003  this  means  that  Syria  would have  naturally  rejected  the  Anglo-American  invasion.  But  the  way  in which Asad surfed on the wave of anti-Western, pan-Arab nationalism -that  notably  merged  with  staunchly  Islamist  discourses -did  not  leave much  leeway  for  a  future  change  of  tactics.  Moreover,  this  served  as  a catalyst for Syria to close ranks with Iran, a process that had started with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In the wider political scenario the Syrian regime has always been aware of the necessity of US support for any major achievement in the region, if only for the famous last mile in a  possible  peace  agreement  with  Israel.  Many  of  Asad’s  foreign  policy endeavours  after  the  Iraq  war  were  indeed  directed  towards  finding some  kind  of  acceptance  in  Washington,  hence  antagonizing  it  was impolitic.

Meanwhile  in  2011,  Syria’s  foreign  policy  options  have  narrowed down  to  alliances  with,  roughly  speaking,  Iran,  Russia,  China  and Venezuela.  Apparently,  family  members  of  higher  regime  loyalists  did not  see  other  options  once  the  uprising  began  than  fleeing  to  countries such  as Malaysia,  Iran, the UAE,  China,  Ghana,  and  Nigeria.29 On  a political  level  the  newest  trend  is  East  Asia,  as  Syria’s  foreign  minister Walid Muallem announced in anti-Western anger at the end of October 2011 in front of a group of Indian academics and journalists.30 President Asad underlined this when talking to a Russian TV station. Interestingly, in this interview Asad backdated the decision to look to the Far East to the  year  2005,  precisely  at  the  moment  when  an  economic  reform programme  was announced  in  the  Five  Year  Plan  and  the  European model of Social Market Economy was declared, on paper.31

The Unresolved Kurdish Question

Domestically,  Asad  missed  an  important  chance  during  and  after  the violent Kurdish protests in March 2004, a failure that is likely to close in on  him,  too.  This  was  one  of  numerous  unresolved  problems  that cumulatively rebounded on Asad in 2011.

In  2004,  bands of  Kurdish  demonstrators  rioted  in  several  cities, including Aleppo and Damascus, setting fire to cars and fighting battles with the security police. But within a week Asad had the situation under control. The riots were sparked during a soccer match but the causes lay deeper. The Syrian Kurds have a score to settle with the Syrian regime. A  Syrian  population  census  in  1962  ignored  about  ninety  thousand Kurds in  order  to  stop  the  demographic  balance  in  the  north  tilting toward the Arabs’ disadvantage. As a countermeasure, the Baath regime tried to settle Arabs in a belt along the Turkish border. An estimated two to  three  hundred  thousand  Kurds were without  citizenship,  including descendants. They were not  allowed  to  travel  or  to  own  land, among other things. Today a total of one-and-a-half to two million Kurds live in Syria.

Two  aspects  are  interesting  here.  First,  the  moderate  opposition from the Civil Society Movement, in particular the human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni, tried to mediate  and  exert  a  moderating  influence  on Kurdish activists. It was against the patriotism of the Syrian opposition to  allow  any  form  of  Arab-Kurdish  cleavage.  Kurdish  political  leaders who  agreed  to  avoid  a  rift  between  them  and  the  Arab  oppositional counterparts  conceded  that  they  had  lost  control  over  parts  of  their constituency.  This  would  have  been  yet  another  opportunity  for  the regime to reach out to the opposition on behalf of the common national interest in times of external turbulences such as in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Secondly,  after  the  riots  Asad  [traveled]  to  the  neglected  Kurdish region  in  northwestern  Syria  and  promised  to  look  into  the  issue  of Kurdish  grievances.  The  years  passed  without  any  reforms.  Rules against   Kurds   were   even   tightened,   particularly   in   the   field   of purchasing property. It was only under the existential threat of the mass protests  of  2011  that  the  president -as  one  of  the  first  measures -announced  a  grant  of  citizenship  to  stateless  elements  of  the  Kurdish population. Thus he intended to prevent a strong Kurdish participation in the  protest  movements.  However,  at  this  point  this  was  no  longer received   as   a   welcome   reform   but   considered   as   a   half-hearted concession at the last minute. Thus it lost its political effect like so many other  last-minute  concessions  that  Asad  announced  in  the  wake  of  the street  riots  in  spring  and  summer  2011.  The  Kurdish  issue  was  one  of the  easiest  concessions  to  make.  Asad  lacked  the  political  instinct  to launch a solution at the right moment.

Asad’s Critical Half-time

During the military intervention in Iraq and the danger this involved for Syria’s  national  security,  Asad  had  the  Syrian  population  staunchly behind him. As mentioned above, anti-Americanism helped to revive the skeleton  of  Pan-Arabism  as  an  antipode,  this  time  with  a  more  Islamic flavor.   The   Civil   Society   Movement   simmered   after   2003,   while economic  reforms  started  to  bear  initial  fruits  of  visible  day-to-day improvement, especially in the banking system.

In  this  sense  the  Iraq  war  as  an external  shock  bore  positive potential  for  Asad.  He  could  have  used  it  once  again  to  strengthen  his legitimacy  with  a  popular  vote.  But  he  did  not.  The predicament  of reforming  without  destroying was  not  resolved. Former  and  frustrated Baath member Ayman Abdul Nour who has known Asad since his youth said in 2004 in a quite realistic assessment: “If there were free elections controlled by the UN, the president would be sure to win. But if he did this, he would admit that the past thirty years were illegitimate.” This is an   ideological   dead-end.   Nour conceded that   if   there   were   free parliamentary elections with new parties, the percentage of Baath Party members in parliament would be certain to slide to below 50 percent.32

So it was Asad as a person who continued to have a wide social base -especially   within   Syria’s   Alawite,   Christian,   Druze,   and   Ismaili minorities as well as the moderate Sunni merchant class -but he decided to  remain  attached  to  the  encrusted  Baath  structure  and  within  reach  of the  vested  interests  of  his  clan.  The  role  game  was  well  distributed among the leading family members. Asad remained the friendly face to the   outside   world,   his   brother   Maher   and   his   brother-in-law   Asef Shawkat were responsible for the elite soldiers of the presidential guard and  the mukhabarat,  and  cousin  Rami  Makhlouf  with  his  commercial monopolies  amassed  riches  from  all  kinds  of  businesses  in  Syria  to secure the clan’s finances.

Reference to the “old guard” of functionaries from Hafez al-Asad’s times  initially  served  as  an  argument  not  to  embark  on  political  change beyond  administrative  adjustments  and  insulated  economic  reforms. However,  the  picture  was  more  complex.  Old-aged  functionaries  were not  necessarily  part  of  the  “old  guard”,  and  young  ones  not  necessarily reformers  and  westward  looking.  Gradually,  Asad  placed  his  people  in the key political and security positions, so that the argument of the “old guard”  became  less  and  less  tenable.33 Since  mid-2004,  observers concluded that Bashar was finally able to consolidate his position within the  regime  machinery.  In  July  of  2004,  he  got  rid  of the long-serving military  Chief  of  Staff  Hikmat  Shihabiand  replaced  four-hundred-and-fifty  army  officers (during  the  existential  threat  of  the  2011  upheavals, some of these figures were reactivated since Asad was in desperate need of their military experience).

Precisely  at  this  half-time  of  his  rule,  when  Asad  felt  relatively secure, he committed one grievous error and missed another formidable chance.

The   error   was   to   press   for   an   unconstitutional   extension   of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoudat any cost. Asad took a personal  decision  against  the  advice  of  the  experienced Vice  President Abdul  Halim  Khaddam  and  the  Baath  Regional  Command. After  the extension  of  Lahoud’s term  on 2 September 2004,  the  UN Security Council, led by a remarkable coalition of the United States and France, passed  Resolution  1559.  Although  it  did  not  name  Syria  directly,  the resolution was a clear challenge to Damascus, calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, for the disarmament of militias (which meant,   above   all,   Hezbollah),   and   for   free   and   fair   elections   the following May.

The    insistence    on    violating    Lebanon’s    constitution    and    of prolonging  Lahoud’s  presidency  bore  heavy  long-term  costs  for  the Syrian  regime.  Among  other  repercussions  Syria  lost  France  as  a benevolent  partner  in  Europe.  It  had  been  France’s  President  Jacques Chirac  who  was  the  only  western  statesman  to  attend  Hafez  al-Asad’s funeral in June 2000. In subsequent years French consultants poured into Damascus to help Syria to reform its administrative and judicial system. Now  it  was  the  personal  friendship  between  Lebanon’s Prime  Minister Rafiq  Hariri and Chirac that  proved  stronger. Syria  was  isolated.  Not  a single Arab state moved a finger in support.

In  the  following  months,  the  resolution  became  the  main  tool  for pressuring  Syria  to  withdraw  its  troops  from  Lebanon.  It  also  served to considerably  narrow Syria’s  room  for  political  maneuver. Asad  had  a personal   fall-out   with   Hariri   and   created   an   aggressive   anti-Hariri atmosphere. So fingers immediately pointed to the regime in Damascus and  to  Hezbollah  after Hariri was  assassinated  by  a  huge  car  bomb  in downtown  Beirut  on  14  February  2005.  A  wave  of  anti-Syrian  protests swept  Lebanon,  and  Asad  humbly  had  to  announce  the  withdrawal  of Syrian  troops  from  Lebanon.  Subsequently,  the  Special  Tribunal  for Lebanon, whose role was to investigate the Hariri assassination, became yet  another  political  instrument  for  Syria’s  enemies  to  put  pressure  on Damascus.

During  these  months  rumours  spread  of  a  coup  d’état  in  the presidential palace in Damascus. Regime loyalists debated whether Asad was capable at all of defending Syria’s national interests. Asad’s power became   challenged   as   never   before.   Only   in   2011   was   a   similar discussion again sparked, this time involving much higher stakes. Asad has piled up political debts from his family clan and the Alawi security establishment.  Earlier  missed  chances  began  to  take  their  toll.  Without having  risked  a  popular  vote  or  at  least  reached  out  for  national reconciliation with the moderate opposition Asad had nothing much but his  clan  and  the  security  apparatus  to  fall  back  on.  This  has  made  the president  sink  ever  deeper  into  the  self-interested  power  structure  up  to the  point  of  no  return.  The  political  blunder  of  the  Hariri  assassination, whoever  was  behind  it,  marked  the  beginning  of  the  decline  of  Asad. The  trauma  of  complete  isolation  created  a  certain  paranoia  also  with regard to domestic challenges.

Despite the foreign policy disaster in the beginning of the year 2005 the  subsequent  months  yielded  a  valuable  opportunity  for  Asad  to reposition himself domestically. In June of that year Asad called the 10th Regional    Baath    Congress,    the    first    one    under    his    leadership. Expectations  were  high.  But  oppositional  forces  and  foreign  observers were  disappointed  because  they  had  expected  more  sweeping  political reforms, the end of martial law, immediate permission for the creation of independent  parties,  reform  of  the  judiciary,  and  the  abolition of  the Baath monopoly, as well as the release of the key opposition figures of the  Damascus  Spring.  Instead,  the  results  were  merely  announcements that never took effect until the regime struggled for survival in 2011.

In  the  five-year-plan  under  the  auspices  of  Abdulla  al-Dardari, Deputy  Prime  Minister  for Economic  Affairs,  the  term  Social  Market Economy was adopted. Dardari was active in opening Syria’s economy while  trying  to  limit  social  shocks. The  technocrat gained  credibility abroad  and  with  foreign  experts  who were invited  to  support  the government in this effort, mostly Germans and French. Hopeful signs of economic  development  blended  with  worries  of  an  increasing  social disequilibrium.

Some progress was achieved between   2005   and   2011.   The investment  environment was improved. Clearer  rules were  established and a competition law against  monopolies was  initiated, be  they state owned   or   private.   Import   bans   were   lifted   and   the   state further relinquished its  monopoly  on  imports.  Syria had  already opened  its market by signing the GAFTA (Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement) in 1997, and bilaterally to Iran, Iraq and, most significantly, to Turkey. The Central  Bank was granted  more  autonomy  in  monetary  policies,  and  a private  banking  sector was established.  A  stock  exchange was founded and real estate laws relaxed. A sales tax was introduced and older taxes abolished.  Foreign  debts were comparatively  low  and  foreign  money reserves   high   (more   than   60%   of   GDP).As   a   result,   economic performance  improved  and  foreign  investment  steadily grew. After Lebanon became   more   volatile   again   in   2006   many   tourists   and investors from the Gulf States went over to Syria. Tourism boomed. All these   positive   developments   delivered   a   financial   buffer   for   the government   when   the   Arab   Spring   revolts   paralyzed   the   Syrian economy.  Among  other  things  the  government  profited  from  a  high amount of foreign currency reserves that it could then use to finance the crackdown.

However,  already  a  few  years  later  it  became  clear  that  Asad’s government was about to give away a socio-economic opportunity after the  country’s  painful  emergence  from  a  socialist  command  economy. Instead of  serious  attempts  to  implement  the  ambitious  concept  of  a Social  Market  Economy  in  a  coherent  way,  economic  reforms  stopped short  at  the  point  where  they  would have  hurt  the  wider  clan’s  vested interests and privileges. Not even a strategy paper existed that defined a Social Market Economy in the Syrian context.34

The  dynamics  of  economic  reform  had  started  to  fade  before  the Arab  Spring  set  in.  A foreign  expert who  worked  with  the  government referred to  the concept  of Social  Market  Economy at  the  end  of  2010 with the following remark: “I think two or three years ago one was more ambitious  than  today.”  Conservative  forces  realized that  their  vested political  or  business  interests were in  danger  if reform  got serious,  and they  started obstructing. In  particular, the  Minister  of  Finance  and  the Planning  Commission were  dragging  their  feet. Apart  from  that  the foreign expert criticized a series of contradicting and technically flawed public policies.35

Another  foreign  expert  asked  why  the  Social  Market  Economy  in Syria  had  one  face  only,  namely  Darari  himself.  It  was  because  thus  it was  easier  to  abandon  and  go  on  with  business  as  usual  whenever necessary without even making the attempt to please western discourses. This is precisely what happened at the beginning of 2011 just before the protests  started  to  gain  momentum.  Dardari  was  kicked  out  of  the government.

The  chronology  is  important  because  it  means  that  this  reform concept was meant to fail before widespread protests caused the need for pure crisis management. The term Social Market Economy did not find its  way  into  the  next  five-year-plan,  and  with  the  violence  that  erupted, the  Syrian  economy  and  whatever  was  left  of  an  economic  reform process lay in tatters.

The  reform  announcements  of  the  10th Baath  Congress  of  2005, however, had at least served as a yardstick for the opposition’s demands. Of  particular  importance  were  the  party  law,  the  lifting  of  the  state  of emergency,   and   the   separation   of   party   and   government.   The announcement  to  fight  corruption  provoked  hopes,  too,  but  was  not  in any case more sincere than the other declarations. For Asad himself the most   important   outcome   of   the Baath   Congress   was a   thorough reshuffling  of  top  positions  in  the  National  Command  and  the  Central Committee of the party, the government, and the military, consolidating his power.

The Second Wave of Repression

Instead  of  working  toward  the  fulfillment  of  the  reform  promises,  a second  clampdown  on  the  Syrian  Civil  Society  Movement  was  soon  to follow. In face of the obvious vulnerability of Asad’s regime due to the Hariri  assassination, the  secular  opposition gained momentum  and  was encouraged by western diplomats and politicians. At that time a historic step   toward   a   more   unified   opposition was achieved   through   the Damascus Declaration of 16 October 2005. For the first time, all major opposition  groups-reaching  from  the  secular  Civil  Society  Movement to Kurdish activists, moderate Muslims, and even the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood  in  London -issued  a  broad  call  for  democratic  change  in Syria. Michel Kilo as the head of the Civil Society Movement composed the original  draft  before  it  underwent  a  lengthy  process  of  discussion among the different groups.

A wave of suppression followed suit in the first half of 2006 when those  who  had  been  spared  in  2001  were  arrested  like  Kilo  and  human rights   lawyer   Anwar   al-Bounni.   The   hunt for signatories   of   the Damascus  Declaration  was  linked  to  the  accusation  of  pursuing  the agenda  of  western  interests  while  the  Syrian  regime  suffered  from  the “Lebanon  trauma”  of  increased  isolation  and  stigmatization. In  this respect the suppression of civil society went hand in hand with external developments.

Soon after Kilo was arrested in May 2006 the summer war between Israel  and  Hezbollah  broke  out.  Its  result  was  a  public  diplomacy disaster  for  Israel,  although  the  human  and  material  damage  on  the Lebanese  side  was  far  higher.  This  war  offered  Asad  yet  another opportunity.   After   Hezbollah   declared   “victory”,   Asad   in   a   rather dogmatic  speech  tried  to  cash  in  on  the  triumph  as  part  as  his  own policies  of  resistance  against  Israel.  Syrian  public  opinion  stood  behind him, while Hezbollah and to some extent Asad became the heroes of the Arab street far beyond the Levant.

In   this   way   Asad   could   orchestrate   the   due   presidential   and parliamentary “elections” in Syria in 2007 with a comfortable cushion of popularity.  Syrians  were  proud  of  their  president  who  had  resisted international  sanctions,  the  US  intervention  in  Iraq  and  international pressures  connected  with  the  Hariri  tribunal;  he  was  the  only  Arab leader  left  who  dared  to  speak  out  against  Israel.  With  the  main protagonists  of  the  Civil  Society  Movement  behind  bars  and  the  street behind  him,  this  would  have  been  another  apt  moment  to  formalize  his popular support within reformed political structures. Instead, Asad chose to  be  acclaimed  again  by  manipulated  referendum  (or  “election”  as  it was officially called) for another seven-year-tenure.

On the public policy level, the selective economic reforms started to hurt  the  poor  and  the  lower  middle  classes  while  corruption  and mismanagement  thrived. Kilo asserted in  late  2010  that  transition  in Syria  toward  a  post-Baath  era was  achieved  by an  alliance  of  the mukhabarat with the new rich.36

One  aspect  of  the  domestic  climate  in  Syria was that  single  issue groups  with  new  forms  of  organization started  to replace  the  old  Civil Society  Movement  as  the  main  actors of  change  from  below.  The secular  and  intellectual  civil  society  activists  had  pursued  a  holistic approach of society and politics including conceptions of an ideological überbau,   did   not   shy   away   from   delicate   issues   such   as   political pluralism and democracy, and posed demands of domestic  and foreign-policy relevance.

The new single issue movements did not deal with these dangerous and  sometimes  unwieldy  aspects  but  focused on  immediate  priorities such   as   women’s   rights,   the   fight   against   honour   killings   or   the opposition  against  the  planned  reform  of  the  Personal  Status  Law. As long  as  they  did not  mention  democracy  and  did not  criticize  the President,  these  local  NGOs  seemed to  enjoy  a  greater  amount  of tolerance.  Given  the practical  defeat  of the  Civil  Society  Movement by 2010 and the  taboo  surrounding  the  notion  of  civil  society, the  regime made efforts to re-appropriate the term for itself.

Civil  society  in  Syria–as  it became  frequently used  by  the government  and  international  donors  and  agencies–is  not  the  civil society as understood in the historical context of Europe in the sense of an    enlightened,    self-determined,    critical    and    politically    active bourgeoisie or societé  des  citoyens.  This  is  what  the  Civil  Society Movement had in mind when they founded the debating clubs during the Damascus  Spring.  Accordingly,  Kilo  defines  civil  society  as  “a  society of  free  citizens,  exclusively  defined  by  their  freedom,  independently  of any objective ascriptions such as religion or ethnicity.”37 Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Asad put herself at the forefront of “civil society”   development   in   the   government’s   formal   sense   of   “non-government”  organizations  that  work  on  the  grass  root  level  but  with clear  restrictions.  Freedom was clearly  not  part  of  this  definition  of citizenship. In 2007 the First Lady formed an umbrella for the NGOs in Syria  called  the  Syria  Trust  for  Development.  Those  civil  society activities were   given access to shared   resources,   research   and administrative  services,  and  at  the  same  time were restricted  to  the  red lines  of the  regime  because  there was no  legal  activity  outside  this realm.

This  was  part  of  a  strategy  to  enhance the  Syrian  image  abroad  by plugging  into  a  widely  accepted  international  discourse. It  also  served the  purpose  of repairing distortions  of  unequal  economic  development and  employing NGOs  in  a  buffer  function  against  socio-economic shocks. Syria  Trust  was  certainly  also  a tool  in  the  power  struggle between  conservative  ideologues  and  reformists, an  attempt  to  gain  the upper   hand   and   create   incremental action,   looking   possibly   to incremental change. Finally, it was an attempt to fill the vacuum against potential Islamic charities.

In  a  bitter  irony, considering the  clampdown  on  the  Damascus Spring, the Syrian Government’s Five Year Plan (2006-2010) addressed the limited role of civil society in Syria’s development. Recognizing that “the role of the civil associations and institutions in the socio-economic development  wasn’t  as  good  as  desired,”  the  plan  envisaged  “radical changes  in  order  to  activate  and enhance  the  capabilities  of  the  civil society  role  in  the  coming  stage.”  The  First  Lady  conceded in an international  civil  society  conference  in  Damascus  in  January  2010: “The government alone cannot move this country forward.”38

Despite  all  scepticism  this  represented an important  step  forward and a radical change compared to the decades of socialist etatism under Hafez  al-Asad  in  which  Syrians  had  nothing  but  the  state  as  their reference  point  in  life  from  charity  to  education  or  rural  development. Nevertheless,  NGO  activists hoped for  a  more  liberal  NGO  law.  Since 2005  a  new  NGO  law had  been “in  planning”  but it  never  materialized similar  to  the  long-awaited  law  to  liberalize  the  party  system  that  was announced at the 10th Baath Congress.

Observers expressed  concern  that  while  covering  the  conference  in January  2010,  the  Ministry  of  Information  and  state  press  outlets continued  to  use  the  term  ‘paternal  society’  instead  of  ‘civil  society’  in their  Arabic-language  coverage.  This,  they  claimed,  signaled that  the will to loosen government control over the sector remained limited.39

So  far  the  government  restricted NGOs  mostly  to  their  role  in development,  shying  away  from  allowing  interest  groups  to  play a  part in the system. Given that the economic opening is sandwiched between Baathist state control and neoliberal elements, the Baathist trade unions became frustrated  with  this  development.  Even  in  a  market  economy, trade unions would have the right to go on strike. Not in Syria.40

International Success and the Third Wave of Repression

All in all, the hope that Syria would adopt domestic reforms if it did not continue to feel threatened from abroad did not materialize. In previous years, the thesis was plausible that with Syria’s isolation and existential threat  against  the  regime,  the  political  leadership  was  less  ready  for experiments and cracked down all the more on opposition movements.

The reversal of this thesis has not come true. Despite a relaxation of international pressure and   Syria’s   re-emergence   on   the   Arab   and international  stage,  the  suppression  of  political  dissenters  and  human rights  defenders has even  increased  since  2008.  Correlations  between domestic and foreign policies that were visible in the past were replaced by contradictions between both realms.

Some  three  years before  the  wave  of  Arab  protests  reached  Syria, the  regime  in  Damascus  had  started  to  regain  the  initiative  in  foreign policy  matters.  European  governments  and  even  the  US  administration had  come to  the  conclusion  that  Syria  was  at  least  a  stable,  politically approachable,  and  important  geo-strategic  player  in  the  Middle  East whose  president  was  on  the  path  of  piecemeal  reforms.  US  President Obama  played  soft  on  Syria  in  his  effort  to  reverse  the  Syrian  drift towards Iran and sent an ambassador to Damascus in January 2011 after nearly six years of diplomatic vacuum. This represented the last foreign policy success for Asad before the popular protests.

It  was  hard  work  for the  Syrian  president to  get  to  this  point  after years  of  isolation  and  stigmatization  following  the  Iraq  war and  the Hariri  disaster. Until  2011  it  seemed  that  Asad  had  overcome  his weakness  as  a  political  leader.  In  light  of  Iran’s  post-election  Green Revolution in summer 2009 Asad’s grip on power looked even stronger than  that  of his  ally  President  Ahmedinejad.  However, two  years  of successful   diplomacy,   constructive   engagements such   as the   state recognition  of Lebanon,  rapprochement  with  Europe  and  even  with  the US, and a clever diversification of Syria’s foreign policy with Turkey as a close  economic  and  political partner  were  destroyed  by  the failed approach of the Syrian regime towards popular demands.

On the other hand, clinging to power by all means created common grounds   with   other   autocratic   Arab   states   and Asad   was   able   to temporarily ease traditional tensions like those with Saudi Arabia or the Gulf  States. It  is  worth  remembering that  Syria  declared  the  Saudi military   invasion   to   crush   the   protests   in   Bahrain as justified.41 However, this overlap of authoritarian interests between Syria and Arab monarchies in the Gulf peninsula was fragile and short-lived.

In  all three  waves  of  domestic  suppression,  the  secular Baathist regime silenced  above  all  the  moderate,  secular  voices  calling  for pluralism and  piecemeal  reform.  In  turn,  Islamist  currents  had  been gaining  ground  in  Syria. To  be  sure,  the  Islamization  of  opposition politics  is  a  general  trend  in  the  Arab  Middle  East  and  Syria  is  not immune.  Yet  there  were  other,  more  specific  explanations. First,the regime, despite  its  secular  orientation,  and  often  more  out  of  necessity than enthusiasm, is allied with Islamist partners like Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas  in  an  “axis  of  resistance”  to  US  and  Israeli  prerogatives.  The regime certainly could  not afford confrontation  on  two  fronts,  external and  internal. A  second  explanation  is  that,  not  unlike  other  Arab regimes,   Damascus   adopted   a   conscious strategy of   toleration   for Islamism. Michel  Kilo  summarized  the  division  of  power  between  the regime and the Islamists with the pointed words: “Ours is the power, and you get the society.”42 This arrangement could be presented to the West as  evidence  that  Syria  would  turn  Islamist  if  the  Baathists  were  to  lose the state.

In  November  2010,when  today’s  events  seemed still  are mote possibility,  Michel  Kilo  reflected upon  the  failures  of  the  Civil  Society Movement.  He  complained  that  the  movement had  been stopped  in  its tracks  before  it  was able  to broaden  its  circle  of  supporters,  much  less engineer the foundation of parties. But, in accordance with revolutionary patterns  in  Europe,  he  said, Syria’s  educated  middle  class  had  been awakened.  “Once  the  spark  ignites  the  younger  generation, we  can withdraw, ”Kilo concluded. “At least we have paved the way.”43 In  conclusion, the  domestic  secular  opposition  in  Syria  had  not profited from the new dawn in Syria’s foreign policy nor had benevolent dissenters  or  cautioning  voices. An  experienced  Syrian  analyst,  who worked  within  the  government  realm,  conceded  in  an  interview in October  2010:  “I  made  the  same  mistake.  I  thought  there  was  a correlation  between  foreign  and  domestic  policy.  […]  With  or  without external  pressure  we  have  no  political  change  in  Syria.  Domestic repression is a continuity not a contradiction.”44

Analytical voices   that   had   previously   been   approved   by   the government were  silenced,  too.  The  Orient  Center  for  International Studies (OCIS), a think tank initiated by the foreign ministry and headed by Samir Altaqi, was closed in 2010. Apparently, their analysts became too  frank about critical  issues, such  as  economic  development  and foreign  policy,  and  their  contacts  with  foreigners  could have  been be misinterpreted  as  track  two  diplomacy.  A  disappointed member  of  the think  tank  said that  the  government  was  not  interested  in  professional analysis  any  longer  but  restricts  itself  to  “intellectual  masturbation” within a small circle of its own.45

A well-known moderate sheikh, who has held political positions and was known to be pro-regime for years (but who also preferred to remain anonymous  here),  made  a  remarkable  comment  in  visible  frustration, equally at the end of 2010: “Unfortunately, under the pressure of the US the  situation  here  was  better.  Now they  [the  regime]think  they  have  a strong message.” He paused and added in a pensive tone: “We are going through a sensitive phase, through difficult times.”46

These  three  quotes  show  that  general frustration  had  been  growing visibly   within   the   wider   sphere   of   regime   supporters   before   the upheavals  broke  out.  Barely  five  months  later,  the  exuberant  self-confidence  of  the  Asad  regime,  the  arrogance  of  power,  was  seriously challenged.  International  recognition  and  importance  was  a  valuable asset  that  had  strengthened  the  regime’s  domestic  position  vis-à-vis  the opposition   but   also   vis-à-vis   former   allies   that   had   become   too outspoken. Moreover, every criticism that was directed against Iran was interpreted  as  a  pro-American  stance  and  punished.  The  room  for  even cautious dissent had shrunk to dimensions of Hafez al-Asad’s times.

The third wave of suppression –and the last one before the uprising in  2011 -started  with  the  arrest  of  senior  human  rights advocate Haitham   Maleh,   head   of   the   Human   Rights   Association   of   Syria (HRAS), in October 2009 and had been ongoing since then with various travel bans and the intimidation of intellectuals. The 80-year old Maleh was released only during  the  hectic weeks of late  March  2011,  after  he had  gone  on hunger  strike. Human  rights  lawyer  Anwar  al-Bounni  was able  to  leave  prison  after  ending  his  regular  term  in  May  2011.  Having spent  five  years  in  harsh  conditions,  Bounni  stepped into  freedom  but also, amidst the revolt, into an unrecognizable Syria.

Against this background, the military clampdown during the popular revolt  in  2011  has  been  both  a  continuation  and  an  escalation  of the violation  of  human  rights. Syria  was  by  no  means  on  the  way  toward serious  reforms  before  the  Arab  Spring  hit  the  Levant.  This  happened despite Asad’s soft-spoken appearance and Syria’s growing recognition on the international stage.

Precisely    at    the    moment    when    practically    nobody    in    the international  community,  to  some  extent  not  even  Israel,  really  had  an interest in Asad’s ouster but tried to engage Syria as an important actor in a regional peace scenario, the president committed his most grievous mistakes and missed perhaps the last chances of his political career.

Asad’s Last Chances

In  its  foreign  policy,  ideological makeup and  social  composition,  Syria differs  from  Tunisia  or  Egypt.  Yet  the reasons  and patterns  of  Syria’s crisis are similar to those in other Arab countries. The basic demands are about  social  justice,  the  end  of arbitrariness  and  corruption,  freedom  of speech,  perspectives  of  economic  living-conditions,  and  democracy. Even in highly ideologized Syria the protesters did not go into the streets to blame powers outside their country. They were not linked to an anti-imperialist discourse nor filled with hatred against foreign enemies, not even against Israel. In January one of the first reflexes of the regime in the  light  of  the  protests  in  North  Africa  was  to  increase  salaries, subsidies  and  social  benefits. The government  knew  exactly  where  its soft spot was and reacted quickly. But the measures turned out to be of little  use, and were detrimental  to  the  government’s  long-term  reform agenda. Political survival became the first priority.

As  in  Tunisia,  the main protests in  Syria  were  sparked  by  a  rather minor  incident.  After  first  peaceful  gatherings  in  Damascus  that  went into  oblivion  later  on,  teens  in  Daraa  sprayed  buildings  in  town  with graffiti  in  mid-March  inspired  by  the  Tunisian  and  Egyptian  uprisings. They  wrote  the  famous  slogan  “The  people  want  to  overthrow  the regime.” Instead  of  handling  this  incident  with  utmost  care  given  the revolutionary environment in the region, the secret police forces arrested the  children, put  them  into  prison and  tortured  them. Family  members protested.  The  police,  being  unused  to  civil  unrest, used  the  logic  of violence  and  shot  several  protesters  dead.  Anger  rose  countrywide  and triggered more  widespread  demonstrations,  which  were  met with  more brutal force, in turn fueling more protest. The brutality of the security forces and the brazen arrogance of the governor   of   the   Houran   province   were   inherently   typical   of   a suppressive regime and nothing really remarkable. But in the context of the Arab Spring even the people in Syria had lost their fear. The system failed to adjust its measures accordingly. Authorities lacked a tool set to cope  with  the  situation.  The  political  class  was  petrified  when  the protests spread to other towns and regions. It is no surprise that the Arab Spring hit precisely the  most  suppressive  states  in  the  Arab  world. Ideologically and structurally, they do not have any room for absorbing societal  and  political  shocks.  The  mindset as  well  as  the  training of authorities at all  levels  lacks  deescalating  strategies. In  August Asad “acknowledged that some mistakes had been made by the security forces in  the  initial  stages  of  the  unrest  and  that  efforts  were  under  way  to prevent their recurrence.”47 By then the damage had already been done.

But  for  several  weeks  into the  protests  it  was  not  yet  too  late  to preserve the famous red line in Syria: criticizing the president. Initially, the demonstrators’ wrath did not, by and large, target Asad himself. The fury was first directed toward Bashar’s brother Maher, who possesses a reputation for personal cruelty and, as head of the Fourth Division of the Republican Guard, is the backbone of the security solution. Other names increasingly heard in the protesters’ chants were Asef Shawkat, husband of  Bashar’s  sister  Bushra,  and deputy  chief  of  staff  of  the  army,  and, above  all,  Rami  Makhlouf,  who  owns  Syria’s  cellphone  companies, duty-free  shops and  almost  everything else that promises  quick  profits. Like his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, Makhlouf is a beneficiary of a  classic predatory  arrangement.  The  stories  of  Makhlouf’s corruption incense  ordinary  Syrians,  from  the  working  poor  to the hard-pressed middle class. The first wave of protesters in Daraa did not topple statues of  Asad  but  burned  down  the  local outlet  of  Syriatel,  Makhlouf’s  cell phone  company,  as  well  as  the  court  building  and  the  Baath  Party offices.

After  so  many  years  of  stalled  reforms  and  broken  promises  the president missed this last minute opportunity to convince his population that  he  was  different  from  the  other  Arab  dictators  and  that  he  had  the corrupt and violent authorities under control. As a result, he was to lose this  crucial  last  asset,  the  strong  red  line  that  had  become  intrinsic  to Syrian society since Hafez al-Asad. Several times Asad announced that the  army  would  stop  the  killing  of  civilians  and  nothing  changed.  The positive  attributes  of  his  character  that  had  circulated  among  Syrians throughout  these  years  as  well  as  his  authority  faded  away  quickly. Alawi paramilitary units, the so-called Shabiha, emerged at the hot spots and  added  to  the  indiscriminate  slaughter.  Either  Asad  played  a  double game or he was not in full control. The former confidence that had once been projected by the youngish leader will never be restored again. Asad lost the most important part of his political capital.

In  the  first  weeks  of  the  protests  the  president mostly  kept  a  low profile, feeding the gossip that he and his family were feuding over how to  respond. Asad behaved  like  the  leader  of  a  “jumlukiyya,”  as  the Syrian  opposition  calls  the  country’s  political  system,  melding  the Arabic   words   for   republic   and   monarchy.   Rather   than   assuming responsibility   for   the   crisis,   the republico-monarch   shunted   blame downward,  offering  to  reshuffle  the  cabinet  and  sack  the lieutenants responsible  for  the  hot  spots  around  the  country.  In  terms  of  public relations, the regime tried to make do with sending advisers, deputies or ministers before the cameras to explain its point of view, trotting out the president only in extremis. Much of the regime’s verbal response aimed to criminalize the protests or portray them in sectarian terms; in tandem, the regime resorted to lethal force to suppress the agitation.

By playing the sectarian card openly as never before during his rule, Asad  destroyed  the  secular  legacy  that  had  been  one  of  the  Baathist trademarks. In addition, he tainted the Syrian spirit of tolerance that has century  old  roots  in  Syria’s  social  history.  In better times  the  Syrian polity  proved much more  inclusive  than  that  of  other  Arab  states. The very same  regime now  chose sectarian  strife  as  its  emergency  plan  for survival. The targeted violence for sectarian purposes has become one of the  greatest  challenges  of  the  Syrian  people:  resisting  the  temptation  to fall into this trap.

However, sectarianism can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy amidst  a  tremendous  propaganda  war  from  all  sides. Asad  and  his government started   to   criminalize   and   primordialize   oppositional activities in their discourse, and some armed gangs did emerge to fulfill this  prophecy, be  it  with  sectarian  slogans  or  with  criminal  energy. Mistrust  between  the  religious  groups  has  been  rising,  which  has  cost the protest movement momentum and followers.

Secular Syrians, and especially Alawites, complain about the rising influence of radical Sunni groups, of Saudi influence, and of ever more daring  preachers  who  use  their  exposure  in  the  only  legal  civil  public spaces –the  mosques –to  incite  an  open  religious  antagonism  that had been absent  from  Syrian  streets under the  rule  of  the  Asads.  Witnesses report that Sunni groups entered Christian villages and intimidated them into joining the protests. In Homs and probably other places as well the takbir (the call “allahu akbar” -“God is Great”) called from balcony to balcony at nights has turned into a battle slogan for some protesters.

All of this frightens religious minorities and secular Sunnis who fear religious  radicalism  more  than  a  superficial  secularist  ideology  and Baathist authoritarianism independent from the fact that they despise the regime’s  violence,  too. Many members  of  religious  minorities, such  as Christians   and the Druze, not   to   mention Alawis, fear   possible retribution from  the  Sunni  majority. High-ranking  Christian  clerics  in Damascus  and  Aleppo  issued  statements  of  support  for  Asad  as  late  as 2012 fearing an Iraqi scenario.

But  cleavages  are  not  so  clear  cut.  Much  of  the Sunni  merchant class,  as  well,  stuck  to  its alliance  with  the  Asad  regime. As  minorities and   middle-class   Sunnis   make   up more   than   50   percent   of   the population,  they  are  not  a  negligible  constituency.  This  is  a  highly significant  political  asset.  If  Asad  loses  the  moderate  Sunni  merchant class,  he  is  likely  to  lose  it  all.48 This  might  happen  because  of  an economic  downturn  triggered  by  the  protests  or  a  sectarian  escalation.

On the Christian side some of  the  community joined  the  protests in  the street,  especially  at  the  beginning,49 and  some  key  oppositional  figures are in  fact Christians,  like  Michel  Kilo.  Christians  and  secular  people meet  in  mosques  for  the  purpose  of  assembling  after  Friday  prayers. Muslims  in  Hama  invited  Christians  to  join  their  demonstrations at  an early  stage,   and   Muslims   and   Christians   went   out   to   demonstrate harmony  as  was  reported  from  Damascus  to  mention  a  few  examples only.

A similar official propaganda that incited sectarian mistrust could be witnessed in  Tunisia  and  especially  Egypt,  too.  However,  the peaceful character   of   the   demonstrators   and   their   cross   sectarian   solidarity prevailed  in  the  minds  of  the  revolutionaries  and  in  the  international media(despite  some  setbacks  in  the  post-revolutionary  period).  This may  be  harder  to  recognize  in  Syria  where  for  a  long  time cross-sectarian  appeals have had little central  direction and  few  political slogans.

In  conclusion,  one  of  Asad’s  strategies  was  to  keep  up  the  fragile alliance  between  religious  minorities  and  the  moderate  Sunni  merchant class. This worked as long as the state propaganda managed to uphold a different narrative of the crisis as led by criminals and terrorists directed from  abroad.  It  also  worked  as  long  as  the  clampdown  did  not  pass  a certain limit of atrocities and bloodshed. Later it became more and more difficult  for  clerics,  who  represent  the  religious  communities,  to  find supportive words in favour of the regime. The fear of post-revolutionary chaos  and  possible  persecution  of  Christians  or  other  minorities  by radical  Islamists  as  in  neighbouring  Iraq  floated  in  a  delicate  balance with disgust about the regime’s methods. It was up to Asad and his clan to define the tipping point.

Attempts at Political Appeasement

As  the  protests  escalated  further, the  regime  turned  to  attempts  at political  accommodation  and,  eventually,  measures  of appeasement. In Tunisia and Egypt, such concessions had no conciliatory effect upon the crowds because  the announcements always  came  a  few  days  or  weeks too late. Also  in  Syria the concessions  appeared poorly  chosen  for  the circumstances.  On  April  7  2011,Asad  granted citizenship  to 150,000 Kurds in Syria who had been stateless, answering the long-time demand of  Kurdish  activists. The  measure  was  so  overdue  that  Asad  got  little credit for it. “Our cause is democracy for the whole of Syria. Citizenship is the right of every Syrian. It is not a favour. It is not the right of anyone to  grant,” retorted Habib  Ibrahim,  leader  of  a  major  Kurdish  party.50

Nevertheless,   the   Kurds   did   not   join   the   protest   movement   as vehemently as their deprived status would have suggested. Other reflex-like concessions, like  permitting schoolteachers  to  wear the niqab (full face veil) again after abolishing it the year before, closing a casino, and launching  a  new  religious  state  TV  programme were  made  to  placate Islamists, but meant little to the wider base of opposition demonstrators who called for real political reform.

The  regime  hastily  announced  political pluralism (or  a  semblance thereof) under   the   pressure   of   the   street. Suddenly,   long-standing demands of the opposition were readily picked up. Among them was in particular the new party law which was meant to break the monopoly of the Baath Party. The draft had been gathering dust in a presidential desk drawer  for  years. By Syrian  standards, the political  concessions were very far-reaching; long years of civil society activism had been unable to achieve them. By the yardstick of the times, however, the moves turned out to be inadequate.  The  same  dynamic  holds  for the  regime’s various other  promises,  like  erecting  a  legal  framework  for  the  activities  of NGOs or promulgating a new media law. It even holds for declaring an end  to martial  law,  a  step  that,  rhetorically,  has  always been tied  to liberation  of  the  Golan  Heights  from  Israeli  occupation  and the  end to hostilities with Israel. Now it was purely domestic stresses that brought such  measures  to  the  forefront  of  regime  calculations.  The government was about to lose one trump card after another.

Asad missed the chance to save his legacy by making a last-minute U-turn  against  internal  resistance.  After  years  of  waiting  he  could  have promoted himself as part of the solution instead of persisting as part of a growing  problem.  Many  Syrians  would  have  preferred  to  embark  on  a transition   in   stability.   For   this   purpose   Asad   would   have   had   to overcome  his  personality  and  to  counter  family  resistance.  Asad  does not have the audacity and vision of his personal friend King Juan Carlos of  Spain;  he  is  no  political  hero  who  would  become  a  champion  of reform,  instead  resisting  it  within  an  obsolete  and  ideologically  eroded system.  For  example,  if Riad Seif  had  been  included  in Asad’s reform government  at  an  early stage in  2011,this  would  have  silenced  half  of the opposition, opined Sadiq al-Azm.51  But Asad missed it once again.

Bridges in a Country on Fire

Few  leaders  who  apply  a  similar  cruelty  with  the  aim  of  suppressing popular  demands  are  as  fortunate  as  Asad  with  regard  to  enjoying  the last remnants of a moderate opposition. Once again the quote of former head of Syrian intelligence Suleiman from the year 2003 comes to mind: The Syrian regime can be considered lucky that it had opponents but no enemies. This even held true when the country was on fire.

The   willingness   to   build   bridges   despite   all   reservations   was supported,  most  prominently, from  an  unexpected  protagonist –Michel Kilo –who has been in conflict with the regime and Asad personally all his  life,  who  was  imprisoned  twice,  and  who  played a leading  role  in Syria’s Civil Society Movement and the Damascus Spring. In articles in the  Lebanese  press,  Kilo  called  for  a  national  dialogue  with  Asad  on board.  Kilo  feared  the  collapse  of  Syria’s  societal  fabric and  civil  war. “This   civil/consensual   Syrian   possibility   implies   two   things”,   Kilo reflected in the leftist independent newspaper, as-Safir, in April 2011,

[t]he regime’s abstinence from relying on the security related solution in  confronting  the  current  situation;  and  the  abstinence  of  the  current movement  from  calling  for  ousting  the  regime.  There  must  be  a solution  entirely  based  on  a  global  national  dialogue  that  would  push away these two situations in order to prevent the country from turning into  a  fighting  arena  […].  No  matter  who  will  be  the  victorious  side, the  cost  of  the  confrontation  will  be  deadly  for  the  regime  […].  In addition,  [there  will  also  be  a  hefty  price  to  pay]  for  the  other  side, which  must  realize  that  erroneous  calculations  will  not  lead  to  the desired freedom but rather to the collapse of the Syrian society’s unity in addition to the destruction and dismantlement of the state. The only side that could benefit from a security solution […] will be Israel.52

This discourse once again displays the embeddedness of important parts of   the   traditional   Syrian   opposition   in   the   Pan-Arab   nationalist discourse.

His  stance  against  the  polarizing  currents  in  Syria  brought  Kilo considerable criticism from oppositional figures who were being hunted down,  who had  to fear  for  their  lives,  who  changed their  beds  every night  or who  saw their  friends  being  tortured.  Others applauded  Kilo’s far-sightedness  in  such  a  crucial  moment  of  Syria’s  history.  Kilo  was invited   for   talks   with   Asad’s   adviser   Buthaina   Sha’banand   Vice President  Farouq  al-Shara, something  that had  been unthinkable in  the past. Kilo’s  travel  ban  was  lifted and  he  went  to  Europe  and  Cairo  to defend  his  mission. The  German-speaking  opposition  activist possesses a   wide intellectual horizon   and knew that   he was walking on a dangerous  tightrope  especially  in  a  situation  in  which  it was not  clear where  the  regime defined its  limits  of  violence.  While  his  method  may have been controversial, there is no doubt that Kilo’s fundamental goals remained clear. He intended to work toward change “from the status quo to  the  revolution;  from  tyranny  to  freedom;  from  change  driven  by  the authorities  to  societal  change;  and  from  the  familial  society  to  the  civil society.”53

People  like  Kilo in  tandem  with  the  secular  editor  Louay  Hussein and  a  few  others  provided  another window  of  opportunity  for  Asad. Hussein  was  the  main  organizer  of  the  famous  conference  at  the Semiramis  Hotel  in  downtown  Damascus  on  27  June  2011.  In  the  first open  gathering  of  its  kind  in  Syria  the  domestic  opposition  tried  to redefine itself in heated debates, while an escalation of the conflict was looming on the horizon. Critics said that the regime allowed the meeting with  the  intention  of  driving  a  wedge  between  the  opposition  groups inside  and  outside  Syria.54 The  opposition  in  exile  has  always  rejected anything  less  than  regime  change.  The  declaration  of  the  Semiramis Conference called  for  a  peaceful  transition  to  democracy  and  an  end  to the Asad family’s 40-year-old monopoly on power. Thus the final goals have become almost identical. What divided the groups were the means on  how  to  get  there  (apart  from  personal  jealousies  and  the  question  of foreign    support    or    even    foreign    intervention).    The    Semiramis Conference also called  for  an  immediate  end  to  the  security  crackdown and  the  army’s  withdrawal  from  towns  and  villages. This  demand  has been pending since then without having been fulfilled.

A  tweet  that  was  sent  out  from  the  hotel  gathering  attributed  the following quote to Michel Kilo: “80 percent of the Syrian population are under  35.  Where  are  they  in  this  conference?” The  young  people  were not  interested  anymore  in  declarations  and  debates.  Most  of  them  had never  been  involved  in  the  discourse  of  the  traditional  Civil  Society Movement. These young people were now in the streets.

The  Semiramis  Conference  can  be  considered  as  yet  another  last-minute  opportunity  to  engage  with  the  opposition  before  Syria  headed one step further towards the edge of civil war. The minimum condition to  continue  a  dialogue  was not  met,  since  the  violence  continued unabated.  Instead,  the  regime  tried  to  launch  a  national  dialogue  on  its own.  But  it  failed  to  convince  most  oppositional  figures  inside  and outside  Syria.  A  Syrian  researcher  based  in  France  and  linked  to  the opposition  recalled  that  he  received  a  phone  call  from  Syria’s  Vice President Farouq al-Shara, who asked him if he would participate in the national dialogue. The researcher wanted to know who the protagonists on  the  government’s  side  were.  Al-Shara  responded  that  it  was  himself and  the  President’s  adviser  Bouthaina  Sha’ban.  The  researcher  replied that  it  would  not  make  any  sense  because  even  these  political  veterans did  not  exert  any  influence  any  longer  on  the  Asad  clan’s  decisions. According to the researcher, al-Shara did not even contradict him.55

In the standoff between the regime and the opposition Kilo refused to  become  a  member  of  the  Syrian  National  Council  (SNC)  that  was founded   in   September/October   2011   and   comprises   various   new opposition  groups  like  the  Local  Coordination  Committees  in  Syria, long-known  protagonists  like  the  exiled  Syrian  Muslim  Brotherhood, other  oppositional  figures  in  exile  but  also  members  of  the  domestic opposition like Riad Seif. All of a sudden, Kilo, who had only left prison in summer 2009, found himself on the regime’s list as being part of the “good”   or   the   “nationalist   opposition”   (mu’arada al-wataniye)   in contrast  to  the  foreign  elements  of  conspiracy  against  Syria  in  exile (mu’arada al-charijiye) in the regime’s terminology.

Whether  it  is  actively  promoted  by  the  government  or  not,  the opposition  is  far  from  united.  Kilo  and  others  formed  the  Coordination Committee  for  Democratic  Change  (CCDC)  that  stands  against  the mostly  exile  dominated  SNC.  In  November  several  members  of the CCDC left the organization because they suspected cooperation between the  regime’s  secret  services  and  the  Committee.  Syria  is  polarized  not only between pro and anti-Asad camps. The deep rift between the main oppositional streams of thought became tangible when on 10 November 2011  representatives  of  this  Committee, Hassan  Abdul-Azim,  Michel Kilo, Louay Hussein and Monzer Haloum, were attacked on their way to a  meeting  with  the  Arab  League  on  Cairo’s  Tahrir  Square.  The  Syrian assaulters  blamed  them  for cooperating  with  the  regime  in  Damascus and called for international protection of civilians in Syria.56

The  regime’s  continued  and  uncompromising  “security  solution” undermined  all  persisting  efforts  to  search  for  a  middle  way.  Moderate oppositional   figures   who   had   stood   up   for   a   “soft   transition”   to democracy for a decade were now losing their authority in this polarized environment.

Foreign Initiatives Rebuked and Friends Lost

While  the  UN  Security  Council  was  at  loggerheads  with  Russia  and China  protecting  Syria,  the  regime  did  not  have  to  fear  any  foreign intervention  similar  to  the  Libyan  case.  Nevertheless,  several  external initiatives  have  tried  to  build  bridges  for  Asad  to  end  the  crisis.  All  of them have been rejected.

The  first  important  opportunity  offered  itself  with  the  Turkish initiative.  In  the  years  after  2004  relations  between  Syria  and  Turkey radically  improved.  Both  governments  held  common  cabinet  meetings and  talked  of  “family  bonds”  when  they  referred  to  bilateral  relations. Not  long  before  the  crisis  Turkey’s  Prime  Minister  Recep  Tayyip Erdogan  spent  a  few  days  on  holiday  with  the  Asad  family.  The countries  abolished  visas  requirements  between  the  two  states  and established  free  trade  across  their  borders. The  good  relations  with Turkey  certainly  represented  the  greatest  success  for  Syria  in  the  past few years. Thus Damascus aptly managed to diversify its foreign policy.

However,  the  uprising  in  Syria  put  Turkey’s  pro-democracy  stance to a serious test. After a phase of deliberation, similarly as in the Libyan case, the Turkish government finally opted to support the side of human rights and democracy. Criticism from Ankara rose with the escalation of violence  in  Syria.  Erdogan followed through  his  role  as  an advocate  of change  in  the  Arab  world  after  harsh  criticism  against autocrats  in Tunisia and Egypt.

Given the former harmony of “family bonds” on the emotional level and  the  practical  improvements  between  both  countries,  the  visit  of Turkey’s  Foreign  Minister  Ahmed  Davutoglu  on  9  August  2011  to Damascus represented a shocking change of paradigm. Davutoglu came to  Damascus  to  deliver  an  “earnest”  message  from  Erdogan  that  called for  an  end  to  the  violence  and  for  all  sides  to  embark  on  a  Turkish sponsored  peace  plan.  Asad  reacted  indignantly  and  said:  “If  you  came for  a  compromise,  then  we  reject  it.  If  you  want  to  have  war,  then  you can have it –in the entire region.”57 This was an affront to Erdogan, not only  personally,  but  also  vis-à-vis  Erdogan’s  envisaged  role  of  Turkey as a regional player and mediator.

The  willingness  to  relinquish  friends  and  political  trump  cards  in rage  or  short-sightedness  has  deprived  the  Syrian  regime  of  possible future  options  within  the  framework  of  steering  out  of  the  crisis.  As mentioned   above,   the   protests   hit   Syria   at   a   time   when   Western governments  had  more  or  less  accommodated  themselves  with  the Syrian  regime  or  at  least  with  its  strategic  importance  in  the  region despite Syria’s tainted human rights record. European and US diplomats, high-ranking   politicians,   and   academics   went   back   and   forth   to Damascus until the time when the revolt broke out.

Still  in  late  March  US  Secretary  of  State Hillary  Clinton pointed out:  “There’s  a  different  leader  in  Syria  now.  Many  of  the  members  of Congress  from  both  parties  who  have  gone  to  Syria  in  recent  months have  said  they  believe  he’s  a  reformer.”58 This  tone  was  dramatically different  not  only  from  the  condemnations  of  the  Libyan  regime,  but also  from  rhetoric  once  employed  by  President George  W.  Bush. This change  of  attitude  in  Washington  had  been  the  Syrian  political  aim  for many years. And it was destroyed so quickly.

In July Clinton made clear that the US had definitely changed sides when  she  claimed  that  Asad  had  lost  his  credibility  to  rule.  “President Assad  is  not  indispensable,  and  we  have  absolutely  nothing  invested  in him remaining in power”, Clinton said.59 In only three months Asad lost yet  another  important  chance  to  become  part  of  the  solution  instead remaining part of the problem.

Asad’s    tone    vis-à-vis    former    friends    and    the    international community  became  harsher  the  longer  the  conflict  simmered.  He  burnt important  bridges  and  lost  his  soft-spoken  and  educated  image  that  he had gained in various conversations with foreign heads of state and other politicians. In bilateral conversations as well as in interviews Asad used to impress his conversational partners with his reflective style.

Despite   the   rebuke   of   Turkey’s   peace   offer,   Erdogan’s   hefty criticism  against  Asad’s  policies,  and  the  hosting  of  Syrian  opposition groups  in  Turkey,  links  between  Ankara  and  Damascus  were  not  cut. Economic cooperation continued unrestrictedly. Even Davutoglu did not refrain  from  visiting  Damascus  again  in  October.  But  this  meeting  did not  contribute  to  a  settlement  either.  More  menaces  emerged  from Damascus. According to Arab sources, President Asad said: “If a crazy measure is taken against Damascus, I will need not more than six hours to transfer hundreds of rockets and missiles to the Golan Heights to fire them  at  Tel  Aviv.” The  Arab  source  said  that  the  Syrian  president  told the  Turkish  Foreign Minister that  he  would  also  call  on  Hezbollah  to launch a rocket attack on the Jewish state.60 Asad’s warning came after Davutoglu informed him that he would face a war similar to the NATO aggression  on  the  Libyan  regime  if  he  continued  to  crack  down  on  his people.

After the alienation of Turkey it was up to the Arabs to offer Asad a way  out.  The  Arab  League  headed  by  the  former  transitional  foreign minister  of  Egypt,  Nabil  al-Arabi,  presented  two  peace  initiatives  in September and November 2011. Reportedly, Arab states offered asylum to  Asad  to  defuse  the  situation,  too. The mediation  attempts  included  a call  to  halt all  violence  against  civilians and  to withdraw  Syrian  troops from  the cities. The  League  urged  Asad  to  avoid  sectarianism  and –entirely in line with the Syrian government –strongly recommended not to  create  a  pretext  for  any  kind  of  foreign  intervention. It further called for compensation for the families of the  victims  and  for  a  release  of  all political prisoners. The initiative moreover called on Asad to commit to the political reforms he had announced, including a multi-party system.

Asad chose not to benefit from either of the initiatives, although he formally accepted the second one. But nothing happened, similar to the moment in which he had declared reforms and an end of the shooting in April. Instead, the killing went on also in November and escalated in the cities  of  Homs  and  Hama  in particular.  A  refreshed  Arab  League – composed   of   autocracies   but   also   of   post-revolutionary   states   in democratic  transition –condemned  the  killing  of  civilians  in  unusually harsh  terms.  Anti-Syrian  Qatar  held  the  presidency  of  the  League,  and Syria’s adversary Saudi Arabia grew increasingly impatient, too.

Even  observers  who  have  often  echoed  parts  of  the  regime’s ideology grew increasingly frustrated by the gambling away of political options.  The  young  historian  Sami  Moubayed, professor at  Syria’s prestigious   private   University   of   Kalamoon  and   editor-in-chief   of Forward  Magazine,  reasoned  after  the  failure  of  the  first  Arab  League initiative: “It could have been a lifejacket for the nation that would end the  deadlock  between  the  government  and  demonstrations  which  have continued non-stop, despite violence and the rising death toll, since mid-March.   By   snubbing   it,   the   Syrians   probably   have   lost   a   golden opportunity.” Moubayed recommended: “What they should have done is take  it  as  it  stands,  then  rebrand  it  as  a  Syrian  initiative -regardless  of the Arab League and Qatar -because it is a win-win formula both for the Syrian government and the Syrian street. To quote the Godfather, it was an offer they shouldn’t have, rather than “couldn’t have refused.”61

In the preceding years Asad had managed to accommodate some of Syria’s  enemies,  including  Saudi  Arabia,  and  he  had  made  new  friends in the region and on the international stage. Every month that went by in the year 2011 Asad gambled away remnant pieces of his credibility and political  leeway.  His  accumulated foreign  policy  successes now lie  in shatters.  He  manoeuvred  himself  into  a  far  worse  position  than  he  had been under international isolation following the Iraq war and the Hariri assassination. In case Asad survives the protests, it is improbable that he will  ever  recover  politically  and  be  able  to  rebuild  the  foreign  policy environment  that  he  had  so  arduously  worked  to  achieve.  He  will  have to rely ever more on his staunchest ally Iran and on Hezbollah, whereas under his  father  Hafezal-Asadit  was  rather  Hezbollah  that  relied  on Damascus.  If  at  all,  Asad  will  rule  a  crippled  Syria,  domestically  and internationally. This is dangerous since the tectonic plates of Iranian and Saudi Arabian interests pass through the Levant. Frictions will increase.

Syria, once the self-confident, pragmatic middle power under Hafez al-Asad and the incarnation of authoritarian stability in the region, could turn into the chessboard of conflicting interests, a hub for arms trade and instability.  No  matter  how  events  in  Syria  unfold, it has  been  shaken beyond  return,  domestic  power  structures  are  shifting,  and  the  regime has  destroyed  its  legacy.  Only  a  peaceful  transition  could  avoid a decomposition of Syria’s rich religious and ethnic mosaic and a decline of Syria’s weight  in  the  region. After  a  decade  of  missed  chances  and numerous sacrifices Syrians long for the fruits of the Arab Spring: good governance and the end to fear.


1 This  chapter  is  based  on  Carsten  Wieland,  Syria:  A  Decade  of  Lost Chances:  Repression  and  Revolution  from  Damascus  Spring  to  Arab  Spring, Cune Press, Seattle, 2012.

2 Carsten  Wieland:  Syria -Ballots or  Bullets?  Democracy,  Islamism,  and Secularism in the Levant, Cune Press, Seattle 2006, p. 40.

3 Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.

4 According  to  sources  in  the  Civil  Society  Movement  who  preferred  to remain  anonymous;  Carsten  Wieland:  Syria -Ballots  or  Bullets?  Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant, Cune Press, Seattle 2006, p. 13.

5 Moshe  Ma’oz: Asad:  The  Sphinx  of  Damascus:  A  Political  Biography, London 1988.

6 SANA, quoted from the English translation.

7 „Assad  könnte  zurücktreten“,  in: Der  Spiegel,  45/2011  (7  November 2011).

8 “Bashar  al-Assad:  the  dictator  who  cannot  dictate”,  James  Denselow, guardian.co.uk, 11 May 2011.

9 Carsten  Wieland:  Syria -Ballots  or  Bullets?  Democracy,  Islamism,  and Secularism in the Levant, Cune Press, Seattle 2006, p.13.

10 Author’s interview on 29 October 2011 in Italy.

11 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703833204576114712 441122894.html.

12 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703833204576114712 441122894.html.

13 For more on the political history of inter-religious relations in Syria, see Nikolaos van Dam: The Struggle for Power in Syria, London 2011 (4th ed.).

14 Author’s interview in Damascus on 31 October 2010.

15 A good analysis onthe Asad regime’s handling of resistance is the piece by Salwa  Ismail:  Silencing  the  Voice  of  Freedom  in  Syria,  in: Index  on Censorship,  8  July  2011(www.indexoncensorship.org/2011/07/silencing-the-voice-of-freedom-in-syria).

16 Quote  from  Asad’s  inauguration  speech  of  18  July  2000:  “[…]  Thus society  will  not  develop,  improve  or  prosper  if  it  were  to  depend  only  on  one sect  or  one  party  or  one  group;  rather,  it  has  to  depend  on  the  work  of  all citizens  in  the  entire  society.  That is  why  I  find  it  absolutely  necessary  to  call upon  every  single  citizen  to  participate  in  the  process  of  development  and modernization if we are truly honest and serious in attaining the desired results in the very near future.”

17 SANA,  quoted  from  English  translation;  see  also:  Alan  George:  Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom, London, 2003, p.32.

18 Interview in the Syrian Times, 25 May 2003.

19 Author’s interview in Berlin on 8 July 2011.

20 Alan George,Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom, London, 2003, p.170.

21 Al-Safir,15 March 2003.

22 Author’s interview in Berlin on 15 July 2011.

23 Author’s  interview  in  Damascus  on  4  April  2003  and  30  September 2003.

24 This debate stirred emotions and hit taboos in the United States. In July 2002, Laurent Murawiec, a French neo-conservative who worked in the RAND think   tank   in   Washington,   strongly   attacked   the   Saudi   connection   to international  terrorism.  In  a  presentation  before  the  US  Defence  Policy  Board Advisory  Committee  he  called  for  an  “ultimatum  to  the  House  of  Saud”and described  Saudi  Arabia  the  “kernel  of  evil”.  When  the  briefing  was  leaked, Pentagon   and   State   Department   officials   distanced   themselves   from   his comments  to  avert  a  major  diplomatic  crisis  between  the  United  States  and  its longtime ally, less than a year after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Murawiec was subsequently  expelled  from  RAND.  (See:  “Laurent  Murawiec,  58;  Strategist Said Saudis Backed Terror”, in: Washington Post, 14 October 2009).

25 Hinnebusch,  Raymond  A.:  “Syria  after  the  Iraq  War:  Between  the  Neo-con Offensive and Internal Reform,” DOI-FocusNo. 14, March 2004, p.12.

26 International  Crisis  Group  (ICG),  Middle  East  Report  No.  23/24:  Syria under  Bashar,  Amman/Brussels,  11  February  2004,  Vol.  II:  Domestic  Policy Challenges, p.i.

27 Author’s interview in Damascus on 5 May 2005.

28 Author’s interview in Damascus on 7 May 2004.

29 According  to  reports  from  the  oppositional  Strategic  Research  and Communication  Center  (SRCC)  in  a  briefing  from12  November2011,  “the family members of Asad regime officials have been fleeing the country as over a  hundred  security,  army,  and  government  cars  are  seen  daily  at  the  Aleppo International  Airport,  with  mostly  women  and  children  accompanying  massive loads  of  luggage.  According  to  airport  employees,  most  of  the  passports  are Lattakia  issued  [i.e.  with  Alawi  background],  and  most  of  the  flights  are  fully booked departing to Malaysia, Iran, UAE, China, Ghana, and Nigeria.”

30 SANA, 20 October 2011.

31 “Syria, Russia,  India  and  China  are  east,“  Asad  said.  “There  are  many countries  that  have  good  relations  with  Syria  whether  in  the  east,  in  Latin America  or  in  Asia.  […]  I  don’t  recall  any  period  in  which  there  weren’t  [sic] under  some  sort  of  western  blockade  on Syria,  but  this  blockade  intensifies during  crises,  which  is  why  we  decided  six  years  ago –in  2005 –to  head towards the east.” President Asad to Rossiya 1 TV on 31 October 2011, quoted according to SANA.

32 Author’s interview in Damascus on 16 May 2004.

33 Over  the  years,  Bashar  has  managed  to  place  a  considerable  number  of technocrats  and  personal  trustees  around  himself,  some  of  whom  he  has promoted  to  key  positions  at  home  and  at  embassies  abroad,  such  as  in Washingtonor  London.  A  concise  overview  of  such  key  figures  can  be  found in:  Flynt  Leverett:  Inheriting  Syria:  Bashar’s  Trial  by  Fire,  Washington,  D.C. 2005, p.71ff.

34 Samir  Seifan:  Syria  on  the  Path  of  Economic  Reform,  St.  Andrew’s Papers  on  Contemporary  Syria,  Fife  2010,  p.12-13,and  foreign  experts  that were interviewed by the author of this article.

35 Author’s interview in Damascus on 01 November 2010.36Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.37Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.

38 “Syrian  Civil  Society  Empowerment  2010:  New  Directions  for  Syrian Society”, by Stephen Starr, in: Forward Magazine, Issue 37, 03 March 2010.

39 “Access  to  All  Areas?:  NGOs  in  Syria”,  Dalia  Haidar,  in: Syria  Today, March 2010.

40 There  was  a  minor  strike  effort  during  the  Diesel  price  hikes  in  May 2008. But when two bus drivers had their service taxis confiscated by the secret service, the strike broke down quickly.

41 “Syria Justifies Saudi Military Intervention in Bahrain”, in: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, 20 March 2011.

42 Author’s interviewin Kassab on 14 July 2009.

43 Author’s interview in Damascus on 28 October 2010.

44 Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.

45 Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.

46 Author’s interview in Damascus on 24 October 2010.

47 “Asad Admits Mistakes“, in: The Daily Star, 11 August 2011. Statement quoted from a release of India’s U.N. mission after a meeting with a delegation from U.N. Security Council members Brazil, India and South Africa.

48 A good insight into the appropriation of the Sunni merchant class by the old  Asad  regime  can  be  found  in  Salwa  Ismail:  Changing  Social  Structure, Shifting   Alliances   and   Authoritarianism   in   Syria,   in:   Fred   Lawson   (ed.): Demystifying Syria, London 2009.

49 “Still  bubbling:  In  Syria’sthird-biggest  city  people  fear  for  the  future”, in: The Economist, 16 June 2011.

50 Quoted    from    Al-Jazeera    English    service    on    8    April    2011 (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/04/20114711251531744.html9).

51 Author’s interview in Berlin on 8 July 2011.

52 “Yes,  there  must  be  a  political  solution”,  Michel  Kilo,  in:  As-Safir,  16 April 2011, quoted according to Mideast Wire.

53 Ibid.

54 By that time the opposition in exile had already had three major meetings in Istanbul (26 April), in Antalya (2 June), and in Brussels (8 June).

55 Author’s interview on 29 October 2011.

56 “Syrer  treffen  Arabische  Liga“,  in: Frankfurter  Allgemeine  Zeitung,  10 November 2011.

57 “Unruhen in Syrien “Wenn Sie Krieg wollen, können Sie ihn haben”“, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 09 August  2011, translated from German.

58 Hillary Clinton on CBS program “Face the Nation” on March 26, 2011.

59 www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-11/clinton-says-assad-lost-legitimacy-after-mob-attacks-embassy.html.

60 “Syria:No   Message   Was   Conveyed   between   Assad,   Davutoglu“, Naharnet Newsdesk, 06 October 2011, http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/16787-syria-no-message-was-conveyed-between-assad-davutoglu.

61 Sami Moubayed: “More Missed Chances: An offer Syria shouldn‘t have refused“, Mideast  Views(http://www.mideastviews.com/print.php?art=547),  21 September 2011.