Nine years ago, the Arab Spring, or what some call “the first wave of revolutions” in the Arab world, began.
Many observers at the time thought that after the uprisings the Arab Spring countries would once again become secure and that international standards of governance would prevail. It was hoped that their citizens would see the introduction of genuinely democratic regimes, where common citizenship was the foundation of the state.
In Syria in particular many thought that 21st-century standards would no longer tolerate a totalitarian regime unleashing its wrath on a domestic liberation movement and that conditions were ripe to overthrow the country’s one-party state. They thought that the international community would not allow the Syrian regime to violate international and humanitarian principles to stay in power.
However, these things did not happen. Instead, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad shot at peaceful demonstrators with live bullets, attempted to fabricate a civil war, and committed massacres unprecedented in recent decades.
The regime proclaimed the uprising in the country to be a “foreign conspiracy” led by “colonial” powers to eliminate the country of “steadfastness and confrontation” with Israel and to prevent Syria’s development by drowning it in a civil war.
However, those who had risen up had simply demanded freedom, democracy, equality, the separation of power, an end to sectarianism, discrimination and cronyism, and the respect for human rights. Their demands did not waiver despite regime attempts to paint the uprising as sectarian and to open the door to all types of radicalism from outside the country.
The regime allowed Iran and then Russia to convert Syria into a battlefield to display their power and serve their interests and strategic goals, and it forced the political and armed opposition to seek help from overseas. Regional countries that should have avoided the Syrian quagmire thus became involved.
The regime did not take a single step towards its own people and adamantly refused the rotation of power and any measure of reform. As a result, Syria became a battleground for a new kind of war that relies on proxies, random destruction and disregard for losses among civilians culminating in the one million Syrians so far killed in the war.
Syrian territory has become the playground of international and regional parties. Russia and the US have established military bases; Iran has taken control of parts of the country; Turkey has done the same; and Israel meddles as it pleases. Dozens of extremist religious, ethnic and sectarian militias have come to Syria from Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere.
The Syrian Kurds have tried to carve out a state for themselves. The Islamic State (IS) group and its clones have extended their tentacles, spreading mayhem and economic collapse. Infrastructure has been destroyed, and Syria has come close to becoming a failed state.
Among the factors behind the Syrian war are the clash of interests between Russia and the US, disputes among the Arab countries, and the Turkey-Iran challenge. However, there is also Iran’s desire to “occupy” Syria as a pivotal part of the “Shiite Crescent” to the Mediterranean that it has wanted to create since the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Mahmoud Hamza, a Syrian academic living in Russia, commented that “the imperialist interests of the US and Russia have clashed in Syria, and to some extent Western interests as well. But what about Iran? I believe that Iranian machinations intersect with and serve Israeli plots. The US and Israel have allowed Iran to dominate Syria, Yemen and Lebanon… serving US-Israeli schemes to create chaos, ignite wars by promoting sectarianism and form armed militias that undermine the state and prevent it from providing services for its citizens, all things that we see in Syria and before that we saw in Iraq and Lebanon.”
After nine years of war, the foundations of the Syrian regime have not changed, and its oppressive policies continue. Its security agencies continue to dominate the country through corruption and the violation of human rights, and the regime monopolises state institutions and crushes civil society.
Emergency laws and martial law remain in place, unemployment is rising, and development has failed after nine years of war and international pressure that have served the regime and not the opposition or the people.
A Constitutional Committee to draft a new Syrian constitution has been formed, but after nine years of struggle this is a minuscule achievement compared to the sacrifices of the Syrian people to make their dream of a democratic state come true.
For nine years, the Syrian opposition has failed, and some of the practices of totalitarian rule may even have infected some opposition groups. Part of the opposition has become a submissive vassal of the regime, and part has little respect for international standards of transparency and accountability.
Partisan, factional or other interests have in some cases been promoted. Opposition leaders have failed to play their role or put the anger on the streets onto the right track.
Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran are at loggerheads in Syria, and it is almost impossible for the regime and opposition to agree. It is unlikely that the regime will ever agree to change, and the opposition cannot return under the umbrella of the regime. Meanwhile, ethnic, sectarian and national tensions are at their peak, and the loss of life is colossal.
The millions of victims of the conflict have a right to transitional justice, but it is almost out of the question that the Syrian security agencies will relinquish their control.
Abdel-Bassel Sida, former chairman of the opposition Syrian National Council, commented that “what is happening now in Lebanon and Iraq cannot be separated from what is happening in Syria, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen and Libya, where there have been revolutions and popular uprisings against the corruption and despotism of politicians or their allegiance to foreign plots.”
“What we are seeing today is the result of decades of chaos. But a regional consensus is essential to enable the people of our region to end the cycle of violence and wars in their various forms.”
“I believe a decision was taken at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011 not to allow the Al-Assad regime to fall, given its services to Israel and the world powers. The regime is part of a covert international alliance led by Israel and the US, with the Russian oligarchy being affiliated with Western economic, financial, ideological and even political circles. The losses of the Syrian people will mount unless they decide to surrender and ignore the past nine years, which is impossible for opponents of the regime.”
The Constitutional Committee is currently the only hope to end the war in Syria. If it fails, the situation will likely ignite again since tens of thousands of pro-Iran militias are still on the ground in Syria, as are tens of thousands of fighters in factions supported by Turkey.
Russia stands ready to support the regime, the US remains the puppeteer behind the scenes, and Israel continues to violate the integrity of Syrian territory.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.