What makes Syria different from Libya is not just its multi-religious, multi-ethnic societal fabric, but also the different level of domestic, regional, and international involvement in Syria's crisis. In Libya's case, there was more domestic and international involvement. Hundreds of thousands of people and opposition groups expressed their dissatisfaction with Gaddafi regime worldwide.
On the domestic level, public demand and the demands of various opposition groups were in alignment. On a broader and international level, there was almost a unanimous censuses about removing Gaddafi from power and ending the violence. The demands of the public and the international community aligned.
On the other hand, regional powers did not play a significant role nor did they have a conflict of interest regarding the Gaddafi regime. In Libya's case, Tunisia and Egypt are the two neighboring, regional powers. Tunisia was dealing with post-revolution activities such as building a new government that is representative of the Tunisian population. Additionally, in Egypt the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is doing everything in its power to maintain its legitimacy by responding to peoples demands. Therefore, these two regional powers have their hands full and were unable to devote national resources to Libya.
Syria's case is more complicated and multidimensional than expected. There are several conflicted and contradictory interests involved in either maintaining or assisting with Assad's removal from power. On the domestic front, there are millions of Syrians who are discontent with both the brutality and corruption of the security regime (the Mukhabarat) that has only benefited a small group of elites, at the expense of leaving the middle and poor classes economically underdeveloped. However, by creating an environment of fear, the regime has succeeded in garnering loyalty and establishing a base of support in Syrian society. The regime has relied heavily on the Faustian bargain it made a number of groups and individuals when the regime came to power. After the trauma of decades of instability and war, the regime promised to protect Syrian in exchange for their loyalty. In the exchange for security, those protected experienced suppression of all forms of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of press and any independent political establishments.
Opposition groups have their own conflicted objectives as well. The three main organized opposition groups are the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC), the Damascus-based National Council of Coordination, and the Syrian Free Army (FSA). The SNC is against any dialogue with the regime, their position on foreign military intervention is unclear, and they have expressed an urgency to end the violence committed by the Assad regime. The National Council of Coordination favors conditional dialogue with the regime, they are opposed to any form of foreign intervention, and they are calling for an end to the violence. The FSA, a group mainly comprised of Sunni soldiers who have defected from the lowest ranks of the Syrian military sanction any dialogue with the regime, they are divided on the issue of foreign intervention, and they want an end to violence by Assad' s state apparatuses (but have revealed a tendency to resort to violence to solve crises).
Despite the existence of these groups, most Syrians protesting in the streets don't feel that any of these groups are connected with ordinary people. Protestors and political organizers have expressed that there is no palpable connection between organized oppositional groups and the ordinary people who comprise the majority of the protestors marching in the streets today (the majority of whom come from the middle class to lowest income families in Syrian society). They are mainly unemployed youth and families living on less than $2 a day (below the poverty line).
On a regional level, there has been some considerable conflict amongst regional powers regarding the decision of whether to allow the Assad regime to survive or to push for regime change. The question on everyone's mind is what is the alternative to Assad's regime? Would it be a government that could prevent Syria from descending into a civil war? Would it be a government that can preserve the benefits, interests, and stakes of the other regional powers? What are the stakes? Who will dominate the next government and shape its policies?
These questions are fundamental to the national interests of regional powers because any change in Syria can play a significant role in altering the balance of power between not only Arab states but other key players in the region such as Turkey, Israel, and Iran. Turkey and Iran have long competed for influence in Syria. Although Turkey has taken a robust position against Assad's regime by abandoning it, the Iranian regime is reluctant to abandon its only strong regional ally, even if it means allowing the blood of thousands of innocent men, women, and children to be spilled in the streets, while other innocents are inhumanely tortured in Syrian prisons. Iraq and Lebanon have both recently experienced the effects of decades of instability in Syria as a result of their own civil wars. They abstained from sanctioning Syria during the Arab League Summit because Syria's future is so uncertain. Will Syria descend into civil war? If so, will a civil war spill over into surrounding Arab nations? To what extent will the outcome negatively impact their own nations?
On an international level, there has been an increasing consensus that the international community must demand that Assad step down. However, Russia has shown an unwillingness to abandon its closest ally in the Middle East (its military trading partner and the only Arab country that has allowed it to have a naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea). Tartous, the second largest port in Syria, is being renovated to provide a permanent facility for the Russian navy, giving Moscow a key military foothold in the Mediterranean Sea. For this reason, Russia recently criticized the sanctions placed on the Syrian regime. Russia pointed out that sanctions won't solve the crisis, but rather hurt the Syrian people and pave the way for alternative foreign intervention.
The interactions, contradictions and excesses between the domestic, regional and international levels of interest and demand make the case of Syria's future more complicated than expected. If the situation continues, Assad's excessive and forceful apparatuses will maintain power while the country continues to experience an unrest which has the disturbing potential to evolve into an all-out civil war.
This article was first published in Persian-language Mardomak.