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What Is at Stake in Syria

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In July of 2002 I was in Damascus, Syria, having been invited by the U.S. Embassy to deliver an address at the University. I was delighted that the auditorium was full, but a touch nervous since I had chosen to speak on the challenges facing the country.

I had learned from Daniel Berrigan, a hero and mentor, to always try to "give an audience what they need to hear, not what they want to hear." And so I focused my remarks on the proposition that Syria needed to open up its political system, allowing its young the chance to freely participate in shaping the future of their country. I added that Syria needed to open up its economy so that the entrepreneurial spirit of its business community could better compete and flourish in the world marketplace. If the government did not create that open space, I cautioned, the country might lose its young, and its economy would continue to stagnate.

As I looked out over the auditorium, I noticed that the students in the back of the room were nodding in approval. Faculty members, seated in the middle rows, were also nodding in agreement, as were the ministers and officials in the front rows. With so much agreement, why didn't change occur? Quite simply, it was because for decades a rigid and stale political apparatus ruled Syria with an iron hand, setting limits to allowable discourse, using fear to govern.

The mass popular upheavals that have rocked Syria for months now make it clear that the fear is gone and the country has reached a turning point. Whether Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was right in her initial comment that the regime "has lost legitimacy" or in the administration's later fall-back position that it is "losing legitimacy," there can be no doubt that change is in the air.

But what kind of change, and at what cost?

From the size and the geographic spread of the demonstrations it is clear that huge numbers of Syrians want the regime to go and many want a more open and free society. That they no longer fear the brute force of the state is self-evident. As the violence continues, the resistance continues to grow and, quite remarkably, has remained largely non-violent.

But what is also evident, is that large numbers of Syrians are afraid of change. The urban secular middle class and many of Syria's minority religious communities are deeply concerned for their future and their safety. Christians, in particular, look next door to Iraq and see its dismembered and dispersed Christian communities and tremble in fear of the unknown. As a result, the regime in Damascus retains some degree of support from these other vulnerable groups in the country.

Because the regime has behaved so poorly over the past several months it has, indeed, lost legitimacy and trust. Over long decades of rule they have been corrupted by power and become ossified, focused solely on maintaining control and thuggish in their application of repressive violence. While, in the past, their repressive policies may have succeeded in silencing critics, that no longer appears to be the case. Now, their repression has only deepened the resolve and expanded the numbers of those who protest.

One prominent Lebanese leftist described the regime's behavior as "committing suicide." On the one hand, the authorities have feinted in the direction of creating a Syrian "perestroika," announcing reforms (a new constitution, promising to free prisoners, ending travel restrictions against opposition figures, calling for a national dialogue, a multi-party system, etc.), while at the same time using lethal force and mass arrests against demonstrators, and positioning snipers and thugs to exact a deadly toll. As a result, there is little trust on the part of the opposition to take the regime up on its offers for dialogue and reform.

For their part, the opposition appears fragmented, without a clear direction or national program, and not yet representative of all segments of Syria's complex society. Even supportive U.S. officials suggest that this opposition, such as it is, "is not ready for prime time."

There is serious concern that this drama is far from over, and may yet get worse. Syria is itself fragile, and it exists in an even more fragile neighborhood -- with deeply divided Lebanon on one side and still volatile Iraq on the other; with Syria playing host to well over one million Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, and home to a large disenfranchised Kurdish community; and with Turkey and Jordan concerned that the violence of a destabilized Syria might spill over their borders. If Syria goes well, the region may benefit from its new order. If it goes badly, there can be grave consequences all around.

I once observed that Tunisia could be likened to the Arab Spring's dress rehearsal, while Egypt was like taking the show to Broadway. Continuing the metaphor, it is Syria, not Yemen or Libya, that becomes the Arab Spring's Hollywood -- the ultimate test of whether this production will play well.

Given what is at stake, Syria, its people, its opposition and its regime need help. The regime must be convinced that its self-destructive behavior has left it no option but to change. The opposition needs support and time to mature in order to become an effective and inclusive agent of change. And Syria's people, including all of its minority and majority religious and ethnic communities, must receive assurance that the Syria of the future will include them all as equal citizens providing them the opportunity to freely participate in building their country together.

The only way forward is through national dialogue leading to a process of transition. Because of its penchant for control and violence, the regime has forfeited the right to lead this transformation. If they stop the violence, they, and the social forces they still represent, can participate. If they do not, the violence and the protests will continue, potentially spiraling downward, leading to chaos.

An expanded regional contact group, which must include Arab participation, can play a critical role in working to convince the regime to abandon its self-destructive behavior, assisting the opposition, and facilitating the national dialogue. First, however, the violence must end, because what is at stake at this point is more than legitimacy. It is the future of the country, its people, and the stability of the entire region.

Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American-community.