Commentary by Tamer Mallat – 10 January 2012
The ten month long Syrian Revolution has entered a dangerous phase. Close to three months will have passed since the Syrian National Council was formed, and the streets of Syria are no less bloody than they were before the opposition organized into an effective body in October. The legitimate and anti-Assad SNC umbrella is hardly to blame for the worsening condition of a cancerous regime pushing its “treatment” program into overdrive. If anything, the maturing course of the council has rendered Bashar al-Assad’s political credibility close to null. While his speeches were hardly ever impressive, the disowned Syrian leader’s infamous Barbara Walter’s interview revealed just how little anyone still took the President’s words seriously. Dubbed delusional, Assad joined the ranks of discredited Middle Eastern leaders no longer in control of the monopoly of the Arab political space they once owned. The consequences of such an evolution, while seemingly positive, have also produced paradoxical side effects.
With the disintegration of the Syrian President’s last symbolic tool: politics, the regime rethought its survival strategies. Over time, maintaining the use of symbolic rhetoric through speeches, propaganda, and conspiracy theories to back its repression ended up failing the regime. While violent repression has not come close to quelling the revolutionaries, it has allowed Syria’s autocrats to prevent the permanent loss of territories and cities. Protests remain spontaneous, and when a city is won over by activists, tanks are sent in hours later to disperse all contestation. Violence has managed to only create an endless game of cat-and-mouse between the two sides. Further, the exasperation of the revolutionaries in the face of a never-ending saga has made turning to anti-state violence as a means to fight back repression, most notably under the command of Riyad al-Asaad’s Free Syrian Army, understandable if not necessary to ensure the survival of the March 15 movement.
In face of a formidable political opposition, Assad’s authoritarian strategy found a new way to adapt to a degenerating situation. His first tactic was to accept the disintegration of his totalistic political system, abandoning politics to international actors and the various fronts of the opposition. The Syrian President’s political laissez-faire has rendered criticism and attacks against the regime numb and without effect. Media attention for the reality on the ground has dwindled over the past month, with journalists and politicians more interested in the seemingly one-sided anti-regime political debate. While Syrian state media continues to diffuse propaganda against the opposition, with a current obsession on the realization of Assad’s self-fulfilling prophesy of the regime’s engineered civil war, the international spotlight has almost entirely shifted to two absurd developments.
The Arab League’s questionable “bilateral” agreement with the Syrian regime to send monitors to oversee the end of violence has become the primary focus of the first external political debate. While the Arab League’s initial sanctions were applauded and even closely orchestrated with approval of the Syrian National Council, the reversal of the League’s position from complete isolation to cautious stability with Syria has been revealing of a more sinister problem. By seeking to cooperate with a League where dictators outnumber democrats, the SNC found itself having to abide by the cynical rules of an institution whose sole purpose is the maintenance of an authoritarian status quo in the region. Further, the snail-like decision-making process of the League forces the opposition council to abide by a timetable that serves only to buttress Bashar’s repressive machine by buying him more time to kill.
Second, while having to wait for the Arab League to complete a helpless mission initially endorsed by the Syrian National Council, there is little that the opposition can do other than enter a nonsensical political debate to maintain legitimacy. In effect, since the Arab League’s monitor mission began, all foreign nations have put their Syria files on hold. With Arab states unclear about whether they really want to see Bashar al-Assad go, and with the Syrian opposition having initially rejected any kind of help or intervention that is not Arab, the Syrian Revolution is left with no other choice but to try and weather a storm with no clear horizon at its end. In doing so, the opposition has allowed for the Arab League to call all the shots.
The uncertainty left open has also allowed alternate opposition groups to gain considerable visibility. Such is the case with the National Coordinating Committee which disfavors any kind of tangible action taken that could potentially dislodge or facilitate the fall of the regime. Over the past months, the Syrian National Council, in a bid to gain political leverage abroad by heeding calls to unify the opposition, has taken unnecessary measures to coordinate with the NCC. Instead of alienating a group that spends more time criticizing Syria’s Revolution and opposition than finding ways to topple Assad, the SNC has in the process compromised many of its goals, weakening its cohesion and credibility.
Further, the NCC, which is headed by Haytham Manaa, an individual with unclear ties with Bashar al-Assad, fulfills the characteristics of the legal opposition of an autocratic regime. The National Coordination Committee, by playing the de facto role of Syria’s legal opposition, has diverted attention from the ongoing crisis on the ground to other less pressing issues. In effect, the NCC succeeded in luring Burhan Ghalioun and the Syrian National Council to engage in trivial negotiations over the conditions of a potential partnership. The most recent “exchanges” exploded in a scandal where Haytham Manaa claimed that Ghalioun had signed a protocol with the NCC, sacrificing many of the SNC goals. Such a move infuriated many Syrian activists outraged by the attention that had been diverted from the massacres on the ground to a purely “political” crisis. The squabbling of the council to later downplay the agreement further aggravated the problem.
The Syrian Revolution today is incompatible with political games. The protests demanding the ouster of Bashar al-Assad from office exist completely outside the regime’s political system. Those defying bullets to voice their rage on the street have excluded all forms of negotiation with the regime and its loyalists. Discrediting Assad was no easy task, and for the legitimate opposition today to enter into a political process with the NCC is equivalent to negotiation with the regime. Such a move hinders the revolutionary movement, and if continued may even kill it. The Syrians have shown with resilience that they are willing to pay for time with their blood, but even the blood of the bravest can run dry.
This article was first published on Al-Ayyam English Edition. Tamer tweets at @tmallat.