Schmidt: The Freedom and Democracy Struggle in Syria

Søren Schmidt writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Syria

The nineneteenth-century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck is said to have remarked that the wise statesman listens to the footsteps of history. It seems that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Asad, is tone-deaf and has not understood that it is no longer possible to rule a country solely by military force. But as a former ophthamologist he at least ought to be able to read. For example what researchers from Pepperdine University discovered about the opinions of Syrians in 2010. Their research showed two things:

First of all that the population is divided into a majority (2/3) that is dissatisfied with the government and doesn’t think that the country is progressing, and a minority (1/3) that thinks the country has a good government and is progressing.

Secondly that corruption and lack of political freedom are the two biggest problems in the country, with the economy only coming in third.

I was in Syria myself around the New Year, and was told by almost everyone I spoke to that about 1/3 of the population in the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, still support the government, whereas ½ supports the opposition. In the provincial cities of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deir Zor and Der’a, almost everyone is against the regime. Several people referred to the bad experiences with “democracy” in Iraq and the vulnerability of the minorities there as the justification for supporting the regime, which they felt was at least tolerable.

But as the regime’s brutal repression of the opposition goes on, more and more regime supporters are being alienated, the number of deserters from the army is increasing and the resolve of the opposition to topple the Asad regime is strengthened. But the balance of power is shifting slowly, and no leading religious authority or anyone from the key military units has gone over to the opposition yet. This means that it may take a long time before the regime is defeated. However, time is on the side of the opposition.

The Pepperdine research showed that only 25% thought that they personally had become worse off during the past year. The rest felt that their situation was either improved or the same as before. Corruption was, however, perceived by almost everyone to have gotten worse, and did not think that they could get a job in the civil service without having connections. During recent years, the Syrian economy has been privatized, but not in a way that ensures everyone a fair chance. Those who benefit are the business people with the right connections to the regime, and therefore it is not without reason that the leading business people have names like Asad, Makhlouf or Shalish – the various branches of the Asad clan.

In Tunisia it was the authorities’ ruthless abuse of power against the fruit seller, which led him to set himself on fire and which, in turn, sparked the Jasmine Revolution. Likewise, according to the people I spoke to, it was the authorities’ brutal and meaningless treatment of the young people who had scribbled anti-regime graffiti in Der’a that triggered the revolt in Syria.

Syrians are modern people. Most of them have internet, mobile phone and satellite TV. They live in cities, most have an education and during the economic growth of the last few years, the majority has seen an increase in its standard of living (according to the World Bank, the average income rose from $3,480 in 2003 to $5,120 in 2010).

Although there are, of course, many reasons for the revolt, the predominant reason does not seem to be economic, but rather that people want the social contract between the state and the citizens to change, so that it is based on freedom and fairness. The citizens are simply not willing to put up with being treated like cattle by the regime any longer. They are tired of corrupt courts and arbitrary treatment by the authorities. They are tired of the fact that lack of democracy means that the state can imprison people illegally for an indefinite period. Lastly, people are tired of the state prioritizing military spending and enrichment of the elite instead of, for example, making sure that children have decent schools (95% think that public schools are bad or mediocre).

It is therefore not collectivist, political ideologies like Islamism or Socialism that inspire Syrians today; rather it is Western core values like freedom and fairness. Freedom made possible by rule of law that protects the individual against abuse by the state or by other people, and fairness in the form of a democracy ensuring that citizens have equal influence on political decisions, equal treatment by the authorities and oversight ensuring that freedoms and rigths are respected.

There are basically two possible resolutions of the conflict in Syria: a compromise between the parties or the victory of one side over the other.

Compromise requires, first of all, that both parties realize that neither one of them can win and they therefore willingly accept a compromise as the next best solution, and, secondly, that a negotiated resolution can be enforced; typically through the involvement of a third party. However, there is no real indication that a compromise is possible. While a negotiated solution was possible until a few months ago, the regime, with its brutal behavior, has burned its bridges behind it so that no one in the opposition talks of negotiations anymore. Furthermore, it is difficult for geo-political reason to see how NATO, the EU, Turkey or The Arab League would be either willing or able to go in and guarantee a peace treaty between the two sides, never mind about intervening militarily to hasten regime change.

What is left is the long hard road ahead before the regime falls. The Free Syrian Army will slowly gain strength and may even be able to establish liberated zones; either in the area near the border with Turkey or in the cities most hostile to the regime, like Homs and Hama. But the Alawi generals in Asad’s key military units already have too much blood on their hands to switch sides.

If, six months ago, Bashar al-Asad had heeded Bismarck’s advice to listen to the footsteps of history, Syria could have been spared much violence and he might even have gone down in history as the country’s first democratic president. Instead he has now been assured a place in history’s garbage dump.

__________
Søren Schmidt is an Associate Professor at Aalborg University, Denmark

16 Responses

  1. [It is therefore not collectivist, political ideologies like Islamism or Socialism that inspire Syrians today; rather it is Western core values like freedom and fairness. Freedom made possible by rule of law that protects the individual against abuse by the state or by other people, and fairness in the form of a democracy ensuring that citizens have equal influence on political decisions, equal treatment by the authorities and oversight ensuring that freedoms and rigths are respected.]

    Excellent depiction of Neoconservative point of view on Syria, thank you very much!

    • “Excellent depiction of Neoconservative point of view on Syria, thank you very much!”

      Could you expand on your comment, Henry James? You seem to disparage Mr. Schmidt’s observation on what is and is not inspiring Syrians today in their struggle against the regime. Why do you call it a “Neoconservative” point of view, and why do you (apparently) think it is wrong?

      • Søren Schmidt starts from Bismarck’s aphorism, as if Syrian factions are supposed to know or care about Bismarck any more than Heine, for example. But this is Arab world not Europe or America, so why should they?

        Further, the way I understand Schmidt, he does not even want to know what these factions are – Baathists, Sunnis, Kurds, Allawites,… All he sees is individuals driven by Western values like freedom and democracy – and those who oppress them.

        This way, as it was pointed out in one of the comments, Syrian opposition looks a lot like AWS here in the US. No matter that some of them are actually armed Baathist defectors and Kurd guerrillas who really don’t like AWS!

        Well, 10 years ago, when the neocons just emerged in the general public scene, I could buy abstractions like this. Back in 2002, all they saw in Afghanistan was Al-Quaida and Taliban oppressors vs freedom-loving Agfhan peasants.

        And in Iraq it was dictator Hussein and his Baathist cronies who had to be overthrown to democratize Iraq. As for the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, the neocons did not want even to hear about them until they made themselves heard during the civil war in Iraq.

        So, this logic looks very familiar to me: find somebody for a pro-Western democrat and support him regardless of anything. More about the neocons can be found in Wiki and Prof.Cole wrote quite a lot about them in this blog during the Bush era.

        • I think it is you, not Schmitt, who is straining to frame events as being in line with a pre-recorded political narrative.

          As for the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, the neocons did not want even to hear about them until they made themselves heard during the civil war in Iraq.

          Wow. It’s like you don’t even know that the United States spent a decade propping up a Kurdish quasi-state in northern Iraq before the war.

    • I’m calling BS on this response. I’m about as far from neo-con as you can be (I’m a socialist and damn proud of it), and I can’t think of one single thing from the paragraph you quoted that I don’t agree with. People like you have it backwards. Just because some people twist the meanings of the words freedom and democracy, doesn’t mean that they aren’t noble goals worthy of pursuit. I don’t care if some neo-con agrees with me in wanting to weaken the syrian regime, If it spreads true representative democracy then I am for it. Good progressives will almost always beat neo-cons when societies are truly politically free.

      I realized the world wasn’t black and white before I hit my teens. How long do you think it will take you?

    • Shame that the neocons haven’t noticed those OWS protestors downtown demanding those same things in America.

      • Oh, they’ve noticed the OWSers all right — and gee, want to bet that there are contingency plans, off the shelf and on the ground, to keep the disease of relatively untrammeled universal rights, in a matrix that just STINKs of the awful old Golden Rule, bringing in the dangerous notion that there are duties and responsibilities and limits that go along with both liberty and power, from spreading to too much of the docile populace? Maybe Mittsy will hold the stakes…

        And for any Pursuer Of Absolute Truth who demands incontrovertible proof of such stuff, well, I guess that you will just have to resort to a search on the ‘net. Since so far it’s still up and running. Or just sit back and wait.

        Wait! Wait! Even better, since the risk of harm to the many is so enormous, and the historical and present proofs of the existence of and the tendency toward repressive dictatorial kleptocracy are so compellingly massive, maybe it would be appropriate to assign the burden of proof to the perpetual-professionial-skeptics-on-the-side-of-the-Powers-That-Be, to prove that there’s nothing like that in the works!

      • “Shame that the neocons haven’t noticed those OWS protestors downtown demanding those same things in America.”

        Well, now, SUPER390, in comparing the OWS protestors to those demanding the most basic rights in Syria, you must be referring to all the OWS participants who, like those in Syria, have been killed by the security services in various U.S. cities; who have been absolutely muzzeled from any political speech in the U.S.; and who have been denied any legitimate expression upon fear of death. But the OWS protestors courageously move forward, like their Syrian brethren, in the face of death. Such bravery!

        • Speaking of false contrasts, false equivalences and distractions — could it be that the people in Tahrir Square have something in common with the people in the Park? And of course Bill conveniently ignores the treatment accorded to so many of the folks who are protesting a structure of kleptocracy that may not shoot them dead, but has no qualms about pepper spray in the face of unresisting, witnessing, sitting folks who hope for half a chance at a better life, or how about shooting a GI who “served his country” in the head with a projectile of some sort? One wonders what has NOT been reported about what has been done to people trying to exercise their increasingly hedged and constrained ‘rights,’ seeking apparently some redress in a polity that is all about concentrating wealth and power.

          The test, if I remember my Constitutional Law classes and Civics and such, is not whether your fellow Americans have been “have been absolutely muzzeled from any political speech in the U.S.; and who have been denied any legitimate expression upon fear of death.” The text itself reads, in the first instance,

          Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

          And with few exceptions over the last couple of centuries, the notion has been pretty consistent and clear, and it applies to the state and local jurisdictions that are defining tiny “Free Speech Zones” and training cops in Imperial Trooper crowd control. But then that’s pretty clear, of course.

          Can’t hardly wait to see how Tampa and Governor Sick Rott down here in FL “handle” “free speech” and “assembly to petition the government…”

  2. “….and no leading religious authority or anyone from the key military units has gone over to the opposition yet. This means that it may take a long time before the regime is defeated. However, time is on the side of the opposition…”

    Fairly good, analytical column. In Syria, it is not possible to rely on Religious, Political, Military or even Businessmen to defect, or simply express a single word that lacks 100% alliance to the Mafia regime. They will be liquidated quickly. That will only be possible when Assad is shown on T.V. in the arms of the militant oppositions. We seen that in Iraq before. Most oppositions will have to be far away from reach to stay alive and be useful.

    Second point, it does not have to be that way, long and bloody. It was poorly planned despite and enormous financial, logistical and media backing, the oppositions and their backers have proven to be incompetent, by failing to understand the importance of various other opposition groups that are not Islamic in ideology and program. Before reaching any effective compromise with the regime ( that will never happen now) they should have reached a compromise among themselves. Instead, they have deliberately, on advise of plotters and backers who are promoting the [Moderate Sunni Arab World] concept, alienated others and caused the disunity hat is now shackling them operatically, and popularly among Syrian masses. Failed to gain a wider and more crucial support sufficiently in the beginning to tip off the center of balance with the regime.

  3. Well,in my opinion the lack of trust in the regime would obstruct any democratic gesture from Assad.
    Syrians are grieving now for their loved one which were killed thirty years ago,not to mention the sectarian factor which has played a biggest role with charging the heat for this revolution.
    It is so unfair not to mention the geopolitical factors which hold back any prospect of letting this revolution to carry on in its normal course.
    Democracy can not be obtained easily ,it is a learning process,it is unique to each country,you can’t import values or compare experience between nations,and especially between the mosaic Syrian society and the rest of the Arab nation.

  4. If, six months ago, Bashar al-Asad had heeded Bismarck’s advice to listen to the footsteps of history, Syria could have been spared much violence and he might even have gone down in history as the country’s first democratic president. Instead he has now been assured a place in history’s garbage dump.

    I see statements like this made regularly. What specific steps do you claim Assad could have taken six months ago that he that he didn’t take than and also cannot take now that would have ended the conflict?

    • With great respect, Arnold Evans, I don’t think it’s rocket science. If Asad and his clan had had any genuine interest in engaging with the opposition they would, first and foremost, have refrained from slaughtering and torturing thousands of their people.
      They would then have sought to initiate a national dialogue with all stakeholders following which they would have been able to put forward some meaningful proposals for reform i.e. the drafting of a new constitution, political pluralism, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech and movement etc.
      Just what type of regime do you think it is? Surely you don’t deny that it’s fascistic in nature?
      All these tyrants have done is repeat falsehoods about how malevolent foreigners and terrorists have sought to undermine them. The whole world knows that is a fallacy.

  5. Maybe the same ones not taken by Mohammed Reza Palavi? Oh, that was different. And Notagainistan is not Vietnam. Except maybe in certain “liberal” broad outlines…

    • Vietnam is to the far left what Munich is to the neoconservatives: an important and illuminating historical event that has many lessons for us, that they blow up into a Universal Model That Explains Everything, in order to avoid the need to think about the specific circumstances of different situations, and to foster an facile satisfaction in their own alleged superior understanding of history.

  6. Thanks for good comments. I am sorry I categorised ‘freedom and fairness’ as Western values. In my view they are actually universal and integral to world religions, such as Islam and Christianity.

Comments are closed.