Understanding Syria: How a Cold Front Chilled the Damascus Spring

06/28/2013 12:56 pm ET | Updated Aug 28, 2013

Understanding the Crisis

Why has all the political punditry failed in predicting an end to the Syrian crisis and why have the experts repeatedly miscalculated the fall of the regime in Damascus? Because they have analyzed Syria's crisis analogously through the commonalities of the Arab Spring rather than the country's historically entrenched unique political structure.

In the eyes of most observers, Syria is a late bloomer in the Arab Spring, yet the Syrian revolution began a decade earlier when after the release of some 600 political prisoners by President Bashar Assad, the Syrian intelligentsia openly called for political reform. "By January 2001, it was like a fashion. Every week you heard an announcement of the opening of a new civil society forum."

Hopes were vested in those early political stirrings in the possibility of replacing the existing hereditary autocracy with a participatory democracy. It was assumed that the young Western educated president would be more receptive to political change not only because the political reality at the time demanded it, but also because a fundamental reform was a safe way to ward off the threat of a revolution.

But the thawing of the 'Damascus Spring' was short-lived as the government cracked down on the burgeoning organizations. "Key leaders in the nascent civil society movement were arrested in September 2001, weeks before the passage of a restrictive new Press Law. By fall 2002, continued arrests and a crackdown on the forums had all but eliminated the hopes reformers had nurtured reformers had nurtured for the new president."

The Damascus Spring didn't die, rather it was frost bitten in a lingering hibernation. So when in the unfurling uncertainty of the Arab Spring caught up with the dormant Damascus Spring, Syria's superficial stability gave way to renewed demands for reform. When the president's initial response to the suggested reforms rang hallow, people took their case to the streets.

President Assad ignored calls for restraint by Syria's neighbors and stubbornly rejected the demands of the popular resistance. Assad deployed the military against peaceful protesters, leaving a devastating toll on the lives numbering in tens of thousands and escalating the crisis to a point of no return. The dark shadows of brute authoritarianism resembled the ghosts of the 1982 Hamah massacres mumbling the inevitability of a Syrian Arab Spring.

Assad's persistent rejection of calls for nonviolence has also lingered the crisis for the manipulation of regional and global players who have since turned the dynamics of a legitimate Syrian revolution into a regional conflict.

Reading the Mindless

The question that begs for answers is why would an otherwise stable regime headed by a well-educated young leader be so adamantly opposed to reform, compromise, and/or reconciliation? The answer lies in an in-depth analysis of the collective psyche and group dynamics.

In majoritarian polities that draw on the collective strength of its numbers, an individual's identity trumps the group identity. The mind-set of a minority, on the other hand, demands of the individual to sacrifice personal goals for the wellbeing of the group. An individual's strength is projected upon the group and everyone works towards the empowerment of the group. Consequently, the collective psyche of a minority focuses on the group safety and survival. This explains Bashar Assad's unwavering determination to fight tooth and nail to retain political power for his Alawite sectarian minority.

Such a minority mind-set is prevalent and prevailing multi-ethnic sectarian societies like Lebanon and Syria. In the confessional state of Lebanon, the French have made taking census illegal since 1938 to subdue sectarian identities that constitutionally favored the Christian minority by design and to make all ethno-sectarian identities subservient to the Lebanese 'national' identity that hereto forth did not exist.

Syria as an expanded version of the Lebanese religio-sectarian mosaic shows the same symptoms. In Syria too, a disproportionately small ruling minority sees any challenge to its authority not just as an imminent threat to its authority, but an existential treat to its survival. The dynamics of this conflictual political architecture sets the tone for the lingering political tensions with historical roots.

A Conflict Rooted in History

Early Syrian history has been defined by a post-independence carousel of regimes that only got worse after the 1947 parliamentary elections where in the long succession of coups none of the governments lasted for more than a few months."

A long period of political instability was marked by systemic uncertainty and marred by frequent regime changes that scarred the collective Syrian psyche in two major ways:

1. Socially, the national cohesive center of power along with the landed aristocracy and business collapsed as ethno-sectarian identities gained in popularity. In this centrifugal dispersion traditional Arab and Islamic political identities were disowned and Marxist, socialist, and Pan-Arabist labels of the 1950s and 60s were adopted.

2. Simultaneously, with every change of government, the military progressively gained more control. These parallel changes brought about minority-dominated, leftist-leaning military regimes that often justifiably used external (Israeli) threats and unjustifiably crashed domestic nationalist, Sunni, and Islamist movements with extreme brutality.

In the last of such changes, Hafiz Assad manipulated the militaristic faction of the Ba'th party as he rapidly rose through the ranks becoming the Defense Minister, Prime Minister, and President in quick successions. Assad built his powerbase within his Alawite community -- a minority within the Shi'a minority, who were among the less contentious contenders in the Syrian political power play. The minority sense of insecurity has driven the Alawites to seek a militaristic solution to any and every political challenge. The current crisis is fundamentally that dispersed and disenfranchised Syrian power center reclaiming its place in the country's power politics.

Regionalizing the Conflict

The internal dynamics of the Syrian crisis are centered on the inherent colonial structural paralysis of controlling majorities through disempowered and vulnerable minorities who in turn lead to the ruling class tendencies toward dynastic rule that defies power sharing at any cost. But a more significant problem is the sectarian fault lines that cut across ideological affiliations drawing sectarian battle lines. When extended beyond Syrian borders, these alignments rob the Syrian revolution of its political legitimacy as foreign ideological agenda take priority over Syria's national interests. In these birthing pains, due to the competitive midwifery of the ideologically committed neighboring states, a new Syria may be a stillborn.

As a result the Syrian crisis has become an entanglement of conflicting political stances and ideological commitments where battles are fought on behalf of regional rivals primarily in two alignments:

There is the U.S.-Saudi alignment that is rooted in American Corporate interests and Saudi oil interests where the U.S. acts as a guarantor of the Saudi ruling dynasty and the latter pays back with 'oil concessions.' The U.S. that generally opposes radical Islam ends up tacitly supporting the radical Salafyist agenda in Syria only because it opposes Washington's archenemy, Iran. By acting as Western stooges, the House of Saud loses legitimacy--a legitimacy they regain by granting the Wahhabi clerics a free hand in their ideological re-Islamization and radicalization of the economically vulnerable Muslim societies in the Saudi zone of influence. In conflict zones such as in Syria this reciprocity becomes a virtual Salafyist militancy.

The second alignment is that of the Iran-Russia-China axis that literally runs the gamut of anti-Western pro-Shi'a ideological spectrum stretching from the Lebanese Hezbullah to the Alawite Syria across Shi'a Iraq and Iran which the latter want to extend to Afghanistan and beyond.

The Unpredictability of Unfolding Scenarios

Wars and revolutions don't take place in isolation as neighboring countries often intervene to protect their own interests and frequently drawn battle line extend beyond the immediate conflict zone calling into question the legitimacy of a revolution or a civil war. Syria's crisis has been regionalized and dragged into global conflict where it has become the business of not only the Iran- and Saudi-lead Shi'a/Sunni alliances respectively, but where every foreign party aiming to sell arms and/or is eyeing the rich resource of the region from Russia and China to Israel and the U.S. and France and England are entrenched in this war.

There is nothing worse than pouring more armaments into the Syrian sectarian war at a time when Damascus has shown willingness to sit at the negotiating table and Moscow and Beijing have nodded in the affirmative. Yet this is exactly what the West is doing. "Britain and France, two nations whose ancient empires carved up the Levant between them, cannot keep out of it. They see national interest and danger where none exists. They cannot relieve Syria's agony, yet hope some vague belligerence might bring relief." The United States is following suit with its progressively sharp criticism of the Assad regime.

Warnings of Unmeasured Risk Factors

Solving a political problem by military means is a miscalculation that is doomed to fail. While in Syria's case this blunder was initiated by the Assad regime, the West can't take the moral high ground if on the side of folly it pours arms to the conflict like Britain and France who will soon be joined by the United States.

Some in the West may assume this inter-Islamic entanglement to be beneficial to their interests without fathoming the potential of such a crisis for the devastation of the region and indeed for the global community. If the conflict unravels along the sectarian fault lines around the Shi'a populated Persian Gulf coastline, it will drag the entire region into catastrophic humanitarian crisis triggering global economic dominoes of devastating proportions. Putting the genie of global system malfunction back in the bottle will be no easy task.

The only certainty about wars is the way they start; no one knows how they end. As the Syrian tragedy approximates those of 'the good war' in Afghanistan or 'the bad war' in Iraq, then the Syrian conflict must of necessity be 'the ugly war.'