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The Syrian Regime and the Opposition

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Written by Faedah M. Totah

If one side is bad does this make the other side good? The number of civilians killed by government forces in the past year since the uprising began has exceeded 8,000, including infants. Thousands of Syrians have been forced from their homes and are seeking refuge in neighboring countries, which is rather ironic considering that Syria has played host to refugees from neighboring countries over the years. The army continues to crack down on the rebels in several cities around the country, though by now many of the rebels are armed and are striking back and killing their own share of Syrians. The government remains defiant in the face of regional and international censorship and sanctions. Most recently, travel restrictions by the EU have been imposed on the family of the president, including his British-born wife. The last time there was a serious challenge to an Assad's rule back in the early 1980s, it was crushed brutally and forcibly to emphasize without a doubt who was, and will be, in charge. The current Assad is literally the child of that earlier regime and for him, I suspect, brutal force is the only way to deal with dissidents and remind people inside and outside of Syria who is, and will be, in control. One of the rallying cries of the Arab uprising was the people demanding the fall of the regime. Why are Syrians not unanimous in their call for the fall of the regime?

In other parts of the Arab world there was unity between classes and sects, at least for the duration of the protests in public squares, but this is not the case in Syria. The main cities Aleppo and Damascus with their middle and upper-middle classes have not risen in support of their compatriots from Hama and Homs, where most of the bombardment have taken place. Yes, there are demonstrations, but there is nothing on the scale and consistency that existed in Egypt or Tunisia. The split in Syria is not only along sectarian lines but also between classes. The fact that most of the opposition to the regime is taking place in smaller cities illustrates the divide that exists among urban areas and between rural and urban communities. There have been demonstrations in support of the regime inside and outside of Syria that cannot simply be discounted as orchestrated by the regime and its supporters. Nor is it fear from the regime and its reprisal -- rather, support for the regime is really about opposing the opposition. And what does this say about the opposition?

During this year of turmoil there have been no major or high level defections from the regime, military, or diplomatic corps, as was the case with Libya. There have been no internal splits within the regime that we are aware of, rather the splits and internal dissent seem to have taken place in the Syrian National Council, the opposition in exile that is not even a year old. Not only does the opposition come across as unorganized, but it cannot agree on what it wants and how to achieve it. There is also the issue of the level and scope of its support within the country.

Many Syrians are opposing the simplicity of overthrowing a regime when there is no viable alternative or any way to prevent an outright civil war. In a country that has a vivid memory of coups and counter-coups, this is a serious matter. Many Syrians have an uneasy relationship with the regime, but there was a social contract where the regime with its widespread security system and its many branches ensured stability and security as long as it was not challenged. It was something many Syrians were proud of, especially when neighboring countries were mired in civil war and ethnic strife. If the regime is gone, what comes next? Who is ready to take charge? There is no clear indication that a smooth transition will take place and a civil war does not look like a good idea. It remains to be seen if creative diplomatic efforts can find a way out of this quagmire, because a military option will only bring on more destruction.

Faedah M. Totah is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. Her Ph.D. is in anthropology. She lived in Damascus and traveled to Syria over the past 10 years.