This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 29/04/2011
Seen from Damascus, the crisis that is gripping Syria is fast approaching crunch-time. The regime appears to have stopped pretending it can offer a way out. More than ever, it portrays the confrontation as a war waged against a multifaceted foreign enemy which it blames for all casualties. This narrative, which informs the security services' brutal response to protests, has cost the authorities the decisive battle for perceptions abroad, at home, and even in central Damascus -- a rare bubble of relative calm that has now entered into a state of utter confusion.
The primary benefit of observing events from the Syrian capital is to measure just how unreliable all sources of information have become. Local media tell a tale of accusations and denials in which, incredibly, security services are the sole victims, persecuted by armed gangs. Where the regime initially acknowledged civilian martyrs and sought to differentiate between legitimate grievances and what it characterized as sedition, such efforts have come to an end.
For its part, the foreign media, denied access by the regime, relies virtually exclusively on material produced by on-the-ground protesters, the dependability of which has proven uneven. The novel phenomenon of "eye-witnesses" further blurs the picture. Outside observers have sought to counter the state-imposed blackout by recruiting correspondents, often haphazardly, flooding the country with satellite phones and modems. Several cases of false testimonies have cast doubts on such procedures but, for lack of an alternative, they largely continue to shape coverage of events.
Under the circumstances, Damascenes have but one option: to work the phones, calling relatives, friends, and colleagues throughout the country in a desperate attempt to form their own opinion. They hear and tell stories that are self-contradictory. Some tend to confirm the existence of armed agents provocateurs; many others credibly blame the regime for the bulk of the violence. Instances of sectarian polarization surface in some areas, while examples of cross-community solidarity burgeon in others. Neighbors often provide inconsistent accounts while people who share socio-economic backgrounds react to similar events in contrasting ways.
Such chaos is inherent in times of crisis, but it also is a reflection of the profound mistrust between citizens and their state, which has failed to offer any point of reference around which undecided Syrians could rally. To the contrary: the regime has systematically fostered a sense of bewilderment and anxiety. Most damaging of all has been the constant contradiction between its words and deeds.
Regime assertions notwithstanding, evidence regarding excessive use of force by security forces in circumstances that cannot plausibly be described as representing an immediate threat is piling up. Given the extraordinary deployment of forces and security lockdown in and around the capital last weekend, it is simply impossible to imagine that so-called agitators could be behind the bloodshed. Even where the regime's responsibility in both the onset and escalation of confrontation is beyond doubt, as in the southern city of Deraa, the regime feels the need to undertake an endless "investigation" before holding anyone accountable, even as arbitrary arrests remain the norm when dealing with protesters.
On the political front, the regime has lifted the emergency law but allows security services to conduct business as usual, illustrating how irrelevant the concept of legality was in the first place. It authorizes demonstrations while stating they are no longer needed and labeling them as seditious. It speaks of reforming the media and, in the same breath, fires an oh-so-loyal editor-in-chief for straying from the official line. It insists on ignoring the most outrageous symbols of corruption. It promises a multi-party law even as it proves how little power is vested in civilian institutions. Finally, and although it has engaged in numerous bilateral talks with local representatives, it resists convening a national dialogue, which might offer a slim chance of finding an inclusive and credible way forward.
In more parts of the country than one can count, protesters now face only the most brutal, repressive side of the regime. For those who mourn the dead and know them not as saboteurs and traitors, but as relatives, neighbors, and friends, there is nothing left to discuss. Slowly but surely, these ink spots of radicalized opposition are spreading and joining in an increasingly determined and coordinated movement to topple the regime.
Many Syrians -- even among those without sympathy for the regime -- still resist this conclusion. Their arguments should not be ignored. They dread the breakup of a state whose institutions, including the military, are weak even by regional standards. They fear that sectarian dynamics or a hegemonic religious agenda could take hold. They suspect Syria would cave in to foreign interference. And they distrust an exiled opposition that is all too reminiscent of Iraq's.
The regime appears to be calculating that the prospect of a bloodbath will prove the strongest argument of all. The scenario is both risky and self-defeating, for if it will be a tragedy for the Syrian people, it will also spell disaster for the regime itself. Instead, it should immediately rein in security services, take decisive action against those responsible for state violence, and initiate a genuine, all-inclusive national dialogue. This could provide an opportunity for representatives of the popular movement to emerge, for their demands to be fleshed out, and for authorities to demonstrate they have more to offer than empty words and certain doom.
Peter Harling is the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon project director with the International Crisis Group