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Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People's Slow-Motion Revolution


International Crisis Group
6 July 2011

(…) The Syrian uprising has defied conventional expectations and patterns established elsewhere in the region from the outset. It happened, first of all, and to many that in itself was surprising enough. The regime was not alone in believing in a form of Syrian exceptionalism that would shield it from serious popular unrest. Once the uprising began, it did not develop quickly, as in Egypt or Tunisia. Although it did not remain peaceful, it did not descend into a violent civil war, as in Libya, or sectarian affair, as in Bahrain. To this day, the outcome remains in doubt. Demonstrations have been growing in impressive fashion but have yet to attain critical mass. Regime support has been declining as the security services’ brutality has intensified, but many constituents still prefer the status quo to an uncertain and potentially chaotic future. What is clear, however, is the degree to which a wide array of social groups, many once pillars of the regime, have turned against it and how relations between state and society have been forever altered.

The regime’s first mistake in dealing with the protests was to misdiagnose them. It is not fair to say that, in response to the initial signs of unrest, the regime did nothing. It decreed an amnesty and released several prominent critics; officials were instructed to pay greater attention to citizen complaints; and in a number of localities steps were taken to pacify restive populations. But the regime acted as if each and every disturbance was an isolated case requiring a pin-point reaction rather than part of a national crisis that would only deepen short of radical change. (…)
 
(…) Taking small steps to coax the population, the regime also repressed, often brutally and indiscriminately. That might have worked in the past. This time, it guaranteed the movement’s nationwide extension. Wherever protests broke out, excessive use of force broadened the movement’s reach as relatives, friends, colleagues and other citizens outraged by the regime’s conduct joined in. Worse still, the regime’s strategy of denial and repression meant that it could not come to terms with the self-defeating social and political consequences of its actions. (…)

(…) From the outset of the crisis, many among the security forces were dissatisfied and eager for change; most are underpaid, overworked and repelled by high-level corruption. They have closed ranks behind the regime, though it has been less out of loyalty than a result of the sectarian prism through which they view the protest movement and of an ensuing communal defence mechanism. The brutality to which many among them have resorted arguably further encourages them to stand behind the regime for fear of likely retaliation were it to collapse.

Yet, the sectarian survival instinct upon which the regime relies could backfire. The most die-hard within the security apparatus might well be prepared to fight till the bitter end. But the majority will find it hard to keep this up. After enough of this mindless violence, this same sectarian survival instinct could push them the other way. After centuries of discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Sunni majority, Allawites and other religious minorities concluded that their villages within relatively inaccessible mountainous areas offered the only genuine sanctuary. They are unlikely to believe their safety is ensured in the capital (where they feel like transient guests), by the Assad regime (which they view as a temporary, historical anomaly), or through state institutions (which they do not trust). When they begin to feel that the end is near, Allawites might not fight to the last man. They might well return to the mountains. They might well go home. (…)
 
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