By Burhan Ghalioun
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 30/05/2011
As part of the democratic revolution that has swept the Arab world, Syria's youth ignited a popular uprising on 15 March that has significantly altered the political landscape. It has also added a bright new page to the history of the Syrian people complementing previous uprisings for national liberation and independence. Events since have revealed two fundamental truths. First, the failure of the current regime to formulate a serious plan for reform that goes beyond a cosmetic overhaul of the existing system; the reinforcement of its self-seclusion and its political and intellectual stagnation. Second, the Syrian people's intention to persist in their struggle until they achieve their demands for freedom and the establishment of a democratic authority of their choosing – whatever the cost.
One of the characteristics of the regime's impotence is that it has substituted the necessary discourse on reform with an increasing use of violence, intimidation and torture in areas where the citizens have expressed an undaunted will to continue in their opposition to the existing system. More than a thousand people have been killed, with many more thousands who have been wounded, disabled or imprisoned. It is now quite clear that the regime's insistence on eradicating the protest movement before initiating any reforms aims at circumventing the demands of the people, and maintaining its ability to unilaterally define the limits of any reforms.
The regime's refusal to recognise the people as a party within the equation of authority is reflected in the sometimes negative and degrading terms used to describe protesters by organs of the regime and its media. According to them, the people are "scum" who do not understand the meaning of dignity and liberty; an assembly of "cockroaches" who ought to be eliminated; groups of backward, closed-minded and stupid individuals who cannot participate in a decision which is the prerogative of the elite represented by the regime.
The Syrian regime is almost certainly wagering on the position of other Arab states, which have remained silent on their behaviour thus far. Similarly, it is wagering on a weak international stance, particularly with Russia and China continuing to prevent a statement of condemnation being issued by the UN Security Council.
Regardless, the Syrian protest movement has achieved significant gains. This is not just in reference to the fear barrier having been broken. Much more than this, the existence of the people themselves as an active political reality has been established; hundreds of thousands of Syrians who had previously surrendered to the status quo have re-entered the political arena. Moreover, those who sympathise with the movement greatly outnumber those actively participating in protests. Large swaths of the regime's supporters and helpers are also breaking away.
Therefore, despite the blows it has suffered, it is not the popular protest movement that is now facing crisis, but the regime. The losing battle it is waging against its own people has forced it to divest itself of all its political, legal and moral convictions and don the robes of a medieval militia. It has forfeited any hope of regaining its position as a political system, as it is not possible to regain the people's confidence through more killing, lies and deception.
Without a doubt, the protest movement's greatest strength remains its ability to achieve its objectives based on the internal dynamics of the uprising: the designs of the Syrian people and their ability to make sacrifices in order to win their demands. So far they have displayed a spirit and a level of heroism unattained in any previous Arab uprising, and continue to insist on victory. Indeed, the regime's violence has only increased the people's conviction in the inevitability of change, in order to reaffirm their right to be the masters of their affairs.
The people are aware that to stop now, halfway down the road, would grant them nothing and that their sacrifices would be in vain. It would be handing a victory to an oppressive and cruel regime which would not hesitate to use it to expand its circle of abuse and oppression of the people, relegating any hope for change to the distant future.
The regime has learned not a single positive lesson from the uprising that would induce it to undertake reforms in the future. In the two months in which it has confronted unarmed civilians, a new fascist regime has been born that will not hesitate to murder and maim. Killing has clearly become easier than speaking – and it has numerous methods of killing. This heavy use of violence will allow it ride on the backs of the people; to insult them and torture them in ways they had never previously dreamed of. It will come to exemplify a violent regime, collective punishment, mass detentions and the oppression of intellectuals and politicians just as is happening today. And it will transform the state into a fiefdom in which the feudal lord, the lord of the country, owns the land and all those who work and live in it are but obedient subjects.
This explains the increasing momentum of the peaceful protests, and the plans to form a national body capable of achieving two now urgent goals: first, this will reassure those sectors of the Syrian public still afraid to engage in popular demonstrations despite their belief in the need for change and their rejection of the regime's current policies and inhumane security strategies. And second, it is an appeal to public opinion and international bodies to tighten the noose on the regime, isolate it and perhaps evict it on account of its use of systematic practices of murder, torture and repression.
It is clear that the Syrian regime has abandoned any illusion of dialogue, negotiation or reform and is entrenched now more than ever behind machine guns, tanks and armour. This does not bode well for the Syrian people, and engenders – or ought to engender – additional responsibilities on the part of the international community to protect them; to act quickly in order to isolate the murderous regime in Damascus; and to expel it from international forums and organisations. The regime must be awakened to the fact that the international community will no longer allow a ruling junta to wreak havoc on its people without having to bear responsibility for its actions before the international system.
It is paramount that we act swiftly and decisively to erode and completely isolate the Syrian regime – until it is compelled to lay down the tools of excessive violence it is using against the peaceful protesters and opens up serious channels of negotiation under Arab or international auspices. This must be done with a view to abandoning the current formula for rule that is predicated on the monopolisation of power, corruption and a brutal security apparatus. It must be done with a view to moving towards a multiparty democratic system that guarantees the rights of all Syrians and ensures their freedoms and the future of their children.
At such a point, dialogue will no longer take place in accordance with the agenda of an authority seeking to strengthen the current system, but will instead revolve around agreeing on the timescale and mechanisms of transition, as well as on the decisions and reforms conducive to that.
Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian thinker, is director of the Centre d'Etudes sur l'Orient Contemporain (Ceoc) in Paris, and a professor of political sociology at the Université de Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle)