A twist in Syria’s sobriety

Even with the benefit of recent regional experience, the Syrian regime has been quite stunned by the protests shaking the country–but not nearly half as stunned as the Syrian people themselves.

Having spent the last half century under martial law and under the heavy thumb of a very authoritarian regime, Syrians had for the most part adapted to their reality and formed a semi-positive perspective: they had neither the proverbial bread nor freedom, but it was still better than being like Iraq or Lebanon, especially as the country remained under permanent pressure from Israel and its allies.

These factors were little consolation, however, when people under similar regimes began to manufacture their own future and impose their own demands; were Syrians doomed to watch from afar, with the only characters with the guts to stand up to injustice relegated to the TV series Bab al-Hara and similar fictional places? While the full answer to this question can’t yet be given, the exasperation that is surfacing brings with it a certainty that no matter what happens next, some things have already changed forever.

The first major change, of course, is in the threshold of fear. Even with dire warnings about the potential for lost stability through a spectrum of social and religious ills (and with the threatened sectarian "fitna" the regime is marketing), it seems the Syrians who have already come out will stay out, confidently recruiting more people to their cause. Indeed, heavy repression from security forces has so far merely served to attract more protesters, and to spread outrage across the country at the huge number of casualties at the hands of Syrian security forces.

That such an openly heavy-handed response would follow peaceful protests, and would even target the martyrs’ funerals, has shocked many Syrians to their core, jolting them into action and pushing them into the unchartered territory of trying to impose their will on the regime. In doing so, their expectations have also changed over what the regime is capable of, or willing to do.

For one, the decade-old belief held by many that there was an old guard hindering the reform process was shattered by the president himself, whose speech turned several commonly-held notions into immediate urban myths. In very clear words, the president explained that, contrary to rumors that he was held back, his entourage actually pushed him towards reform. In other words, the buck stopped with him, and people would be informed when the government, at its discretion, was ready to make reforms.

This could have been understood as contradicting earlier promises made by various Syrian officials. But in fact, serious changes were clearly effected in response to popular pressure, in turn giving protesters more impetus to continue demanding their rights and to keep the pressure up.

Remembering how quickly the regime can act when needed, many people mentioned the fact that the Syrian constitution had been changed in mere minutes in 2000 (to allow for President Assad to take power at the age of 34), and the sudden change from a closed economy into an open one in 2005 (to punish Lebanon by discouraging Syrians from dealing economically with it, following the withdrawal of Syrian troops). However, both these changes had been driven by specific regime needs.

Now, for the first time, a big change has occurred driven purely by the pressure of the Syrian people: not only have officials promised that the hated emergency law would soon disappear, but the regime suddenly granted Syrian citizenship to hundreds of thousands of stateless Syrian Kurds.

In a few short weeks, with protests of a very small size relative to other Arab countries, Syrians have already achieved phenomenal changes, despite paying a heavy price with so many dead, injured and detained. For the first time, Syrians have been able to directly pressure the regime into making immediate changes, a tool they are likely to continue using while the regime responds and acts to save itself from further damage.

The official response, of course, is that this is all a conspiracy threatening the very unity of the nation. While it’s not the first time Syrian media has gone into full-blown nationalist frenzy, it’s the first time this has happened in direct response to pressure from the Syrian people, making the media campaign anything but deja vu. Unprecedented in scale and in content, and not allowing for a single mea culpa or an Egyptian army-style salute to the fallen martyrs, the current Syrian media campaign is itself an indication of how threatened the regime feels at the prospect of the Arab spring blooming in Syria.

Regardless of the context, what is happening in Syria is truly revolutionary–if not a revolution. But while the regime has not hesitated to crush the protests openly and brutally, it doesn’t seem to have realized yet that no amount of force can or will tame the protesters, and that the only way forward is drastic change, rather than inconsequential reform. Syrian officials have started speaking of a second corrective movement, which will do nothing to assuage people’s frustration.

With other Arab regimes seemingly throwing their weight behind the Syrian regime, fearful of the reach of this inconvenient Arab spring, the prospect of outside influence to push for real domestic change seems to be practically nil. Save one important regional player with much at stake in its relationship with Syria: Turkey.

Recent statements by the Turkish prime minister, and messages passed by Turkish officials and even Turkish media, have been crystal clear: reform, right now. After years of cultivating this relationship, unable to turn a blind eye to the current repression, it is clear that Turkey is potentially one of the most significant foreign factors to influence Syria, either playing a role in helping save the regime from its own excesses, or helping save the Syrian people from their predicament.

It’s difficult at this point to predict which way the wind will blow, but Syrians seem determined to have a lot more than merely the right to remain silent.


* First published by the Bitterlemons International