Editor's note: Edward P. Djerejian is the founding director of Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. He formerly was U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.
By Edward P. Djerejian - Special to CNN
The Syrian regime under President Bashar al-Assad approached the outset of the Arab awakening in Tunisia and Egypt in a state of politico-psychological denial.
Pronouncing that Syria was immune from the tectonic shifts in the political landscape of the Middle East because of its Pan-Arab credentials and steadfastness against Israel, al-Assad's regime had a rude awakening when the youth of Daraa in southern Syria protested openly in March 2011 for their individual rights and against the systemic corruption of the ruling elite.
The regime cynically labeled the protestors as foreign agents and terrorists and opted deliberately for armed repression of its own citizens. The peaceful protests quickly spread to other urban centers, and the tragic pattern of violent repression and loss of life has characterized the now long and painful agony of the Syrian people whose suffering is worsening.
It is important to note that in the first instance al-Assad was given a pass and political space to get in front of the reform movement by his own people, the Arab countries and the international community for two basic reasons: First, the prospect of instability and, in the worst case scenario, civil war and sectarian violence in Syria threatens Syria's neighbors, the region and the international community as a whole; second, al-Assad came to power in 2000 with the aura of a young reformist president and the promise of a "Damascus Spring."
Al-Assad turned out to be a false reformer. I remember a meeting I had with him in 2003 in Damascus, and I asked him why the reform movement seemed to be stalled in Syria. He answered that the people had to be ready for structural reforms and one had to proceed slowly and deliberately with, first, administrative reforms. I concluded at the time that he was in no hurry to push for reforms, but was struck when I heard this same incremental approach repeated in public statements by the regime in Damascus in the spring and summer of 2011.
It was clear that al-Assad and his circle had opted for regime survival at all costs and to try to get away with the minimal reforms possible that they could control and dictate.
That approach has led to the deepening crisis in Syria today, with increasing military defections to the Free Syrian Army and growing unrest and clashes in the country that is now spreading to the key cities of Aleppo and Damascus. When these two urban centers become the focal point of struggle, the end of the regime will be at hand. No one can predict when and how the regime will collapse, but its legitimacy has been totally discredited.