Syrians living in Greece wave a Syrian flag as they shout slogans against President Bashar al-Assad during a protest in Athens. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP
Saturday, October 1, 2011
The Syrian 'Opposition' Does Not Have To Prove Itself
Syrian political society will show its real face only after the regime is gone – and it needs support to get to that place
By Nadim Shehadi
We do not do justice to the Syrian people when we use the term "opposition" to describe those who are in revolt against the Assad regime. What is now being called the opposition is in reality Syrian political society that has been hijacked for decades – and it is from this society with all its rich diversity that a new government and its opposition will emerge after the fall of the regime.
Using the terminology of a regime in power and an "opposition" against it ultimately legitimises the regime itself and puts the onus on that opposition to prove its own legitimacy. This is not just an academic or semantic distinction; it is easy to become trapped in a framework that lends a sense of normality to what is happening in Syria.
The regime is keen to present a certain narrative: that there is no viable alternative to its rule; that beyond it is total chaos with Islamic fundamentalism, sectarian tension, partition, violence and civil war. It accuses the protesters of being manipulated and armed by foreign powers, and claims, on its part, to be pursuing stability and reform.
By normalising the situation we impose the burden of proof on the protesters who assert that they are united, non-sectarian, nonviolent and independent. No matter how many such peaceful demonstrations occur, all it takes is for a couple of incidents of violence or a sectarian interpretation of tension to be reported for the world to start buying into the regime's narrative.
Moreover, we cannot require protesters to confirm their unity; it is natural that they are not united. Diversity is their strength, not their weakness. Nor can we expect them to prove that they are a viable alternative; the Syrian regime has survived by allowing no such alternatives to emerge or to seem viable. It is precisely because of this that the regime is being opposed. If it had allowed for a credible opposition to be visible, there would be no need to change it.
The simple fact is that any person who had the potential to constitute a challenge to the power of the regime has been eliminated, is out of the country, in jail, or dead. Many have been forced to compromise or were co-opted through blackmail or to protect their family. The security services have often created their own alternatives as decoys to trap opponents of the regime.
The result is an atmosphere of extreme suspicion and intrigue. Thus one cannot accuse the exiles of being exiles, nor those who have stayed of being collaborators. They are all victims of the same system and we are imposing on them impossible conditions if we ask them to prove that they are a viable opposition.
Regional powers are also making the situation worse by competing to create opposition conferences which they sponsor. This has opened the door for regional rivalry which confirms the regime's accusation of external intervention. The regime participates in this game by creating its own "dialogue", calling for stability and pretending to reform while continuing to raise the spectre of violence, civil war, sectarianism, external intervention and partition.
The real drivers of the revolts are the local co-ordination committees (LCCs) led by courageous youth with very little means and who operate in secrecy using social media. It is not uncommon for western policymakers to be heard asking for a list of the leaders of the LCCs, wanting to know who they are and if they constitute again a viable "opposition" to the regime. If these names were to be known, these local leaders would be already dead and indeed many have paid with their lives when they can be identified and others have taken great risks to participate in meetings. For these youth, the success of the revolt is a matter of life and death and they know very well that there is no turning back.
Thus by using the dichotomy of the regime versus the opposition a number of expectations are raised as to what we understand should be the characteristics of a viable opposition – and these are contrasted with the regime's narrative. The net result is that we are playing the game according to rules set by the regime: we are putting the protesters in an impossible position to counter the regime's narrative.
Syrian political society will emerge and show its real face only after the regime is gone, and not before. This will not be a phoenix rising from the ashes, rather a battered society that will be trying to find its way after a long and dark period.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 01/10/2011- Nadim Shehadi is an associate fellow of Chatham House's Middle East and north Africa programme