The Syrian Opposition in the Making: Capabilities and Limits

Article excerpt

Since a protest movement brought about the fall of the Zein al-Din Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, expectations for a possible "domino effect" have spread all over the region Eventually, popular protests have become a daily reality for many regional leaders. While the relatively peaceful fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt has furthered hopes, violent suppression of protests in countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have raised the doubts about the possibility of a bloodless transition to democracy. The foreign intervention against the Qaddafi regime and the ensuing armed conflict in Libya have further complicated the positions of opposition groups across the region, placing them in between domestic suppression, foreign intervention and the prospect of civil war.

When the so-called Arab Spring started, Syrian President Bashar Assad became one of the first Arab leaders to speak out to the foreign media about the necessity of reforms. In a Wall Street Journal interview Assad said that reforms are needed but that Syria will not undertake reforms solely in reaction to what is happening in other parts of the region, i.e., in Tunisia and Egypt. Assad begged to differ with other regional countries by claiming that the gap between state policies in Syria and people's beliefs and interest is not wide in his country unlike other Middle Eastern countries. This, Assad reasoned, makes Syria a stable country amidst of waves of protests and demands for change. (1)

Assad's belief in Syria's stability partly derives from his contention that there is a convergence between the state's and people's foreign policy orientations. To be more specific, he says that Syria's defiance to the United States, its ongoing state of war with Israel and its support for the resistance against Israel gives the Syrian regime a considerable level of legitimacy. This is of course in comparison with other regional countries which are either staunch US allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or have signed peace treaties with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan. The domestic aspect, however, has never looked promising since many of the underlying causes of unrest in the region already exist in Syria: a one-party state with rule by a minority, lack of political freedoms, a cracking economy with high unemployment rates, and high-levels of corruption.

The belated protests which started in mid-March after a group of teens was arrested for drawing graffiti in the rather isolated city of Dera'a in the south west of Syria proved Assad wrong, and Syria became the latest Middle Eastern country to join the chain of protests sweeping across the Middle East. The protests have since spread to several other cities with varying frequency and numbers, and the violent handling of the protests by the Syrian regime has created a protest movement which, though heterogeneous and fragmented, increasingly demands nothing less than what their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts have achieved: isqat al-nizam. (2)

Needless to say, the fall of a regime requires a strong opposition. Although a strong opposition does not necessarily mean that it can successfully deliver its agenda of change, evaluating the opposition's capabilities and limits would rightly enable us to assess the prospects of change in a given country. This paper presents a brief analysis of the opposition in Syria, surveys the opposition's fight for survival under the Ba'ath regime, and assesses its current strength and weaknesses.

The Anatomy of the Syrian Opposition

In authoritarian regimes, opposition movements' existence and scope of activity is constrained by the state, and Syria is no exception to this. Although opposition in different forms has always existed in Syria and among the Syrian diaspora, their political activities have been quite limited, and Syrian prisons have always hosted opposition figures. As the Hama massacre of 1982 illustrates, the regime can turn violent if it perceives that an existential threat is coming from the opposition. …