Syria: A 75-Year-Old Smoker Who Refuses to Quit

08/30/2011 06:38 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2011

Former Syrian President Adib Al Shishakli once said that countries are very much like human beings, and can be administered similarly. If brought up spoiled and dependent, they grow into weak and insecure nations. To shelter them from bad influences, for example, he made sure to pass strict laws preventing beggars and prostitutes from entering Syria. Based on this analogy we can safely say that Syria is like a 75-year-old who just suffered a massive heart attack -- and miraculously survived.

When that happens to people, they often see death with their very own eyes and as a result, change their lives completely: they quit smoking, they move to a different home, and avoid stress. Syria, however, is like a 75-year-old who just survived a heart attack, and still smokes 30 cigarettes a day. A person who does that usually ends up dead.

The first route to recovery is to admit mistakes, and learn from the experience of others.

Seemingly, there are senior Syrian officials who insist that Syria is different from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya because of its "peculiarities". The Tunisia case was clear: we had an oligarchy, plenty of corruption and nepotism, economic openness with no political reform. It collapsed, however, in 30-days of uprising against president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali . We then had Egypt, where we also had an oligarchy, plenty of corruption and nepotism, limited economic and political reform -- and strong western backing. It too collapsed in 18 days of the Egyptian Revolt. Then we had Libya, which was nothing but a police state with oil -- yet it too, collapsed.

If Syria wants to survive, it needs to do things differently from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. What makes Syrian case different are the following factors: 1) Syria borders Israel and has plenty of cards to play with non-state players like Hamas and Hezbollah which make the international community think twice before seriously considering regime change in Damascus. 2) The Syrian opposition is weak and disorganized -- it cannot control or even influence the street, has no popularity with the business community and cannot run the state if the Baathists were to step aside. A power vacuum in Damascus is too dangerous for the entire world to tolerate, and if not administered correctly, Syria could explode into chaos or civil war -- because unlike others in the Arab Spring, it is not a homogenous country with one ethnicity and one sect.

The Syrian state, however, until this very day, does not feel weak or in danger. Wishful thinking is one thing, but hard reality is another. On the contrary, Syrian authorities are firmly convinced that the "crisis" is ending and the nation is still very much under control. Schools and universities are opening next September, infrastructure projects are still underway, employees are still showing up at ministries, and state salaries are still being paid. No serious defections have taken place in the army or the foreign ministry, and no critical mass has been recorded in the capital Damascus. Also, the state feels that the demonstrators are getting fatigued because of fear, death and so many arrests during the past two months.

For their part, the rioters are also now certain that the state is much stronger than they expected and unlikely to relinquish power as the case in Tunisia or Egypt, anytime soon. Given the current balance of power, the street will probably never take Damascus or Aleppo -- the two largest cities in Syria -- and nor will the protesters ever occupy a central part of the capital, as they did with Tahrir Square in Cairo.

That explains why there are certain voices in the Syrian underground now calling for taking up arms, claiming that a "peaceful revolt" will never achieve its objective. Within its current tools and capabilities, the street movement has reached its climax. Carrying arms was never an option before, because Libya was dragging on endlessly since March, and nobody on the street had an appetite for a military confrontation. That suddenly changed when Nato strikes succeeded in Libya last August. Syrian rebels began to toy with the idea of carrying arms and dragging the government into a street war that would eventually provoke Nato airstrikes. This was recently said bluntly by Mohammad Rahhal, head of the Revolutionary Council of the Syrian Coordination Committees. The first problem with that idea is that Libyan oil will pay for the Nato war expenses but a Syria strike cannot be funded by Syria, because its oil revenue is drying up. Russia's Nato envoy Dmitry Rogozin recently said that a war plan has been drawn up by Nato to attack Syria, but no political decision has been made, to that effect.

Just like the old man who has suffered a heart attack, Syria can still avoid any gruesome scenario like that of Libya. Real reforms might not silence the Syrian street, but they would create different dynamics and a new social contract between the street and the regime. If an irreversible decision is made to withdraw the Syrian Army from the streets, end single-party rule, arrest all wrongdoers, combat corruption no matter at what level, set political prisoners free, write a new constitution that heralds a parliamentary republic, and call for early and internationally supervised presidential and parliamentary elections, then the Tunisian-Egyptian-Libyan storms could still be avoided in Syria.

Those reforms would certainly secure a "soft landing" for the nation, and an honourable exit from power for the Baathists.

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This article originally appeared in Gulf News on August 30, 2011.