Why Damascus remains eerily calm
Syrians cross a road as cars drive past a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on January 24, 2012. (Getty Images)
February 18th, 2012
02:00 PM ET

Why Damascus remains eerily calm

Editor's Note: Bilal Y. Saab is a Visiting Fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

By Bilal Y. Saab - Special to CNN

Despite their pain and suffering, Syrians' struggle against tyranny shows no signs of slowing down.

A year ago, inspired by the success of revolts in the Arab world, Syrians rose against the authoritarian regime of President Bashar Assad, seeking to replace it with a democratic system of government. Their remarkable bravery and unrelenting determination notwithstanding, Syrians are still far from achieving their goal, a dream that is five decades old. Instead, mostly because of al-Assad’s systematic and lethal repression campaign, Syrian society is inching closer to full-blown civil war, one that threatens to tear the country apart a la 1975-1990 civil war Lebanon and engulf other parts of the Middle East in sectarian conflict.

Why has Syria taken a different course from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya?

Though each of these countries is unique in its geography, political history, and social fabric, Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans had to go through some familiar processes before they were able to topple their national governments. Tunisia’s uprising was shockingly fast; Egypt’s was blessed by the army; and Libya’s was bolstered by NATO’s jets. But all three underwent similar and necessary processes of social mobilization and organization that Syria has yet to experience.

The Tunisian uprising was unusually swift because it was immediately supported by all the country’s opposition groups, from the religious Islamists to the Communists, as well as by its labor unions. In Tunisia, there was a widespread sense of unity among the country's elites and publics. In Egypt, the army did not crush the uprising because Egyptian society, with all its political walks of life, stood united against President Hosni Mubarak. In Libya, NATO intervened only after the rebels spoke with one voice and demanded outside help. The bottom line is that unity and effective organization and mobilization allowed Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans to march toward Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli respectively. From then on, it was clear that the days of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Moammar Gadhafi were numbered (although the latter was based in Sirte, a city between Tripoli and Benghazi, rebel advances to Tripoli indicated his imminent defeat).

When it comes to social revolutions, capitals often play a central role. Indeed, there existed a specific moment in the history of many European nations when a popular insurrection in the capital was capable of bringing down the national government virtually overnight and irrespective of public sentiment in the provinces. In addition to the Arab cases above, take France, for example. The Parisian insurrections of 1789, 1830, and 1848 were not only crucial to the success of these separate revolutions but they also brought about timeless principles including equality before the law, freedom of the press, the rights of assembly and association, and universal manhood suffrage.

Indeed, it was Paris’s mobilizations that granted French citizens (and Europeans) their most precious rights. The same went for London, Berlin, Moscow and other European capitals where the relative concentration of elites and their intermixing with large masses capable of radical action made the success of the revolution more likely. Europe’s modern history shows that coalition politics were nurtured in capitals. Members of a variety of strata of urban and rural society were brought together in capitals. And perhaps most importantly, political integration on a national scale took place in capitals.

While many parts of Syria have been imbued with revolutionary fervor, its eerily calm capital, Damascus, has been almost aloof to events. Sure, some of its suburbs including Ghouta, Saqba, Duma, Kfar Batna, and Hammouriya witnessed a jolt this past month, but central Damascus has yet to witness a popular insurrection of the sort that would cause the earth to shake under al-Assad’s and his cronies’ feet. Why?

You know that something has gone terribly wrong when highly respected, credible, and internationally recognized Syrian opposition figures such as Michel Kilo and Haytham Manna’ refuse to join (and even take issue with) the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella opposition body that claims to speak for the Syrian people. You also know that big mistakes were made when a year into the uprising, the majority of Syrian elites - the merchant and business class - and several ethnic minorities including the Christians are staying home and watching events from afar.

As the security situation in Syria worsens (these past two months alone have been the bloodiest since the uprising started) and government forces and rebels escalate their attacks against each other, issues of external intervention and the international community’s responsibility to protect civilians will become increasingly salient and hotly debated.

The United States and its allies justify their lack of forceful action in Syria by outlining the risks, costs, difficulties, and unintended consequences of options such as aerial strikes against al-Assad’s forces and/or military assistance to the rebels. These are fair and real challenges. But when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that Syria is not Libya, she is not merely referring to the obvious, objective dissimilarities between the two cases, she is pointing to a crucial difference: Unlike Libya’s, Tunisia’s, and Egypt’s societies which managed to (at least temporarily) unite against their oppressors, Syrian society (with its internal and external opposition and almost exclusively Sunni armed rebel movement) is still divided and the country’s capital, while certainly tense, remains immobile and unwilling to rise.

It may be only a matter of time before Syrian rebels reach central Damascus, but until the Syrian opposition truly unifies, gains some credibility in the eyes of the Syrian people, and effectively coordinates with the armed rebels, the Syrian uprising is not likely to go very far.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bilal Y. Saab.

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Topics: Military • Syria

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soundoff (140 Responses)
  1. The_Mick

    "Indeed, it was Paris’s mobilizations that granted French citizens (and Europeans) their most precious rights." +++++ Bull. Even the Mozart's wrote about how astonished they were with the rights of Englishmen in London during the 1760's. The Paris mobilizations never approached that.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  2. SoulCatcher

    I just finished reading "War and Peace" and The Penninsular War and couple more books on Napoleon and the French Revolution. The changes in society where going on anyways, despite all the wars.

    Syria is unlike any of these. The sole unifying factor of Syrians is it's government. Either it must account for it's actions or it will consume itself. I'm guessing the government will consume itself.

    February 21, 2012 at 12:53 am | Reply
    • qq

      And if the Syrian government, in your words, consumes itself, what would be next?

      February 21, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  3. HilaryDidNotSayThatZakaria

    Stop lying.
    Hilary has promoted US military intervention into Syria.
    I no longer value your alleged news reporting.
    You are nothing more than a "Tokyo Rose" for CNN.

    February 21, 2012 at 6:48 am | Reply
    • HilaryDidNotSayThatZakaria


      February 21, 2012 at 6:51 am | Reply

    Do not elect a leader 4' 11! He'd be a war monger and just as corrupt!

    February 21, 2012 at 7:10 am | Reply
  5. Mattski

    'If you had been a nicer King, we wouldn"t do a thing, but you were bad you must admit.
    We're gonna take you and the queen, down to the guillotine, and shorten you a little bit.'

    February 21, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply
  6. Bob

    Finally, a reasonably accurate assessment. What sets Syria apart is the fact that there are substantial groups which are not/do not see themselves as having any interest in the rebel actions at this time. Indeed, may even see/have reason to believe the rebels would threaten them. The studied avoidance by individuals such as Michel Kilo etc of the current opposition crop is telling. So there is no universal popular uprising at this time, and may never be.

    February 21, 2012 at 9:01 am | Reply
  7. Aka

    The so called uprising or revolutions have brought nothing but disorder, Egypt is in reverse mode right now with radical Islamist's taking hold of a country that was once a US ally briefly, i can rest assure you once this is done and they take control, the western countries should not be surprised to find themselves dealing with another Islamic nation like Iran in Egypt. Libya is slowly sliding into sectarian conflict and there is no signs of orderliness in the Libyan society..As for Syria, the uprising will crushed and if the western powers intervene by arming the rebels, Iran, Russia and China will arm Syrian regime to the tooth, they will also support certain sects..this is a very dangerous situation for the middle east peace.

    February 21, 2012 at 10:50 am | Reply

    And what has Israel learned from the 1948 war? Apparently Israel believes that the success it had in that war and subsequent successes it has had against insurgents in the Middle East through the years literally predicts its potential for success in a war against Iran. But the reality is that a superior military doesn't guarantee you victory in an unpredictable war. We learned that in Vietnam and Iraq and we are still learning that in Afghanistan ten years later.

    From what I I have understood from what the Israeli government has publicly reported is that they intend to use their German built nuclear submarines for amphibious assaults which would include landing troops on the shores of Iran to go after and destroy Iran's military installations such as surface to air missiles to make way for their air assault on Iran's nuclear facility. Fine! But is Israel also prepared for an amphibious invasion by Iranian forces on the other hand? Sure Israel has nuclear submarines that can be used in an amphibious assault on Iran but likewise, Iran has several Soviet built Kilo Class stealth submarines that can be used in an amphibious invasion of Israel also.

    And what about Iran's distinctive 55th Airborne Divuision which was used in the war with Iraq? Is Israel prepared for a airborne assault or for an invasion of a very large and powerful Islamic army that is more than half a million strong? Let's face it, in a conventional war between Iran and Israel, both sides would suffer enormous casualties but moreover, it would be a whole lot more easier for a very large country like Iran in mass and population to engulf and invade a small country like Israel. And if Israel is being beat, would it resort to the use of its nuclear weapons?

    It must also be noted that if Israel was to attack Iran unprovoked, then if Iran was to get the upper hand in such a war, no one internationally would have justifiable grounds to accuse Iran of war crimes or whatever Iran might do if it were to get the upper hand in such a conflict. There's a saying better be careful what you wish for! Well, I just hope Isreal takes a deep breath and look at our history and our setbacks in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan and keep in mind that a superior military doesn't always guarantee you victory! Then perhaps they would stop beating the war drums and just chill and give peace a chance!

    Finally, some have tried to compare an Israeli/Iran conflict to the both wars between the US and Iraq, claiming that the Iraqi military was rendered obselete in a short period of time! However, I just hope you people realize that this war won't be between the US and Iran but between Israel and Iran. And unless Israel uses nuclear weapons, in a drawn out war, Israel would eventually loose simply because unlike the 1948 war, Iran is armed to a tee and their military is enormous. So Israel, its your bluff!

    February 21, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
    • The King

      They learned a better way to attack USS Liberty. Look it up.

      February 21, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Reply
  9. Paul

    Didn't they name a car after the author of this article???

    February 21, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  10. Joey da Fish

    Da whole ting can be explained like dis see. Da Yanks and Da Ruskies still rule the turf. Since da cold war. Talk of democracy is a crock. Why ya tink dees guys been in power since donkeys ages? Cuz da Yanks got their dictators and the ruskies got ders. America don't care a bit about democracy. An da Ruskies never did cuz de is a dictatory ship see. Syria is Russian turf and Egypt is American turf. Both get dough from each side so de does what dey suppose to. Egypt gets 1 and a half billion smackers and Israel gets 3 billion each year. Also talk of revolution is right but it is a revolution against NOT THEIR DICTATORS as much as a revolution against the russians and the americans because these guys are all in the pay of russians or americans. They are the proxy rulers of these places and we pay them to do what we want dem too see. America never cared a rats you know what for democracy for these places. They need a strong man who will crack the whip in these countries and keep their people in line. All of this stuff is hip hop hocracy dude. Why do we do it ?? To get the Doe Ra Me get my drift ?? Oil is the Dough. ( its only now that the revolutions can't be stopped that America is running to the front of the parade) The reason Syria is a hot potato is because A) it has only a drop or two of oil B) It's Russia's client state and America as strong as it is knows it should anger Russia as we have been trying to cultivate it as an friend ( who's rockets do americans fly on as they go into space?) And Israel perfers the present Syria (better the devil you know than the one you dont) to a Syria that is under control of a radical muslim ruler. Revolution is in the air and this is all about throwing off the controlers of the regions America and Russia. The dangerous problem is there are a lot worse guys waiting in the wings,-some better as well --but one suspects the worse ones may win. Nobody reads any of this stuff any way. Anything longer than one sentence and the attention deficit disorders set in. An dats da name of dat tune.

    February 21, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  11. The King

    Its time to carpet bomb syria. I bet that creates jobs in America. Let that be a lesson to the Sultan's around the world. Killing your own people is not acceptable.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  12. nixliberals

    I remember quite well the hundred thousand Syrians in the streets of Damascus cheering wildly for the news of the destruction of 9-11, I hope they bomb each other back into the Dark Ages. It is not right that the suffering of children has to occur for anyone to take or keep power, but such is the brutal reality of supporting a murderous leader. Muslims have no real value on human life and the Arab Spring is a good example of how much they hate each other, never mind us Westerners. All in a good days worship!!! Dangerous hypocrisy, I say. Now they've made their bed, lay in it.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  13. Mike

    The African Spring brought regime change.
    The Arab Spring brought disappointment.
    All the "experts" tried to lump them both together.
    But history is written on the streets, not dictated by a college focus group.
    Anyone that had actually set foot in those countries knew they would play out differently.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:15 am | Reply
  14. syria and iran are the evil and hizboallah are the arms

    we must stop this evil before it is too late, remember HITLER......
    those shiia thugs have no value for life...they are killers with stupid thyology of islam the shiia are cult and
    they breed evil, now they are killing there own people in syria UN MUST ACT, THEY ACTED ON LIBYA IN NO TIME AND THEY DID IT IN IRAQ , WHILE IN LIBYA AND IRAQ IT WAS ONLY FEW HUNDEREDS WERE KILLED NOW WE HAVE MORE THAN 12,000 CEVILIANS KILLED AND MURDERED BY BASHAR AL KALB IN SYRIA BY IRAN MONEY AND RUSSIAN ARMS, we must sanction russia and get red of all the embassies and cut any deals with them.
    arm the resistant to fight russians on there land,and fight iran and syrians thugs we must not stand silenet when we see evil at action.

    February 24, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply
  15. nori al maleki of iraq helping syrian killers

    يا أبناء شعبنا الصابر
    يا أبناء امتنا العربية
    منذ أن أُبتُلي العراق بالاحتلال الأميركي الصهيوني الفارسي البغيض نفذ المحتلون وحلفائهم الأشرار وعملائهم الأخساء سلسلة من عمليات الإبادة للشعب العراقي كانت حصيلتها اكثر من مليون ونصف المليون شهيد عراقي ، فضلاً عن ملايين الجرحى والمعوقين وخمسة ملايين مهجر ، ناهيكم عن عمليات التجويع والإفقار والحرمان من الخدمات بل وتدمير العراق أرضاً وشعباً وحضارةً واقتصاداً ، حيث شُلت الصناعة والزراعة وأستحوذ السراق من العملاء على التجارة والخدمات ووظفوها في خدمة مصالحهم الخاصة .

    وبسبب ذلك كله والانهيار الأمني المريع فقد تتالت التفجيرات الإجرامية وغطًت أيام الأسبوع كله ، والتي سميت كلها بالأيام الداميات والتي تكررت فيها التفجيرات الدامية وآخرها وليس أخيرها تفجيرات يوم الخميس الثالث والعشرين من شباط الجاري والتي راح ضحيتها المئات من الشهداء والجرحى في بغداد وصلاح الدين وبابل ونينوى وديالى وكركوك وبقية محافظات العراق .

    وكانت وما زالت وستبقى التفجيرات الإجرامية المتتابعة في العراق لطخة عار صارخة في جبين حكومة المالكي العميلة التي استمرأت عمليات ذبح الشعب العراقي بهذه التفجيرات الإجرامية والاغتيال بالكواتم وحملات الاعتقالات الغاشمة الواسعة النطاق المصحوبة بالقمع والتعذيب الوحشي ، والتي شملت الآلاف من المناضلين البعثيين وضباط وطياري وضباط صف الجيش العراقي الباسل وأبناء شعبنا الأبي في الشهور الأربعة الماضية والمضافة الى مئات الآلاف من المعتقلين على امتداد سنوات الاحتلال البغيض .

    يا أبناء شعبنا المكافح
    لقد حاول العميل المالكي وبطانته الشريرة استثمار ظروف هزيمة المحتلين الاميركان بفعل الضربات القاصمة والعمليات الجبارة لمجاهدي البعث والمقاومة بالإفصاح عن عمالته المباشرة لإيران الصفوية التي سلمها المحتلون الاميركان خسئوا العراق ، فراح هذا العميل الصغير المالكي يُصَعد من عملياته القمعية ونهب جلاوزته لثروات وأموال الشعب العراقي وتجنيد ( الميليشيات الإرهابية المرتبطة به مباشرة ) لتكريس سلطته القمعية الديكتاتورية في محاولة بائسة لتجاوز هزيمة العملية السياسية المخابراتية بهزيمة صناعها المحتلين الاميركان عبر تصعيد عمليات التصفية والاحتراب بين أطراف هذه العملية ، والتي بلغت ذروتها عبر فبركة الجرائم وتحميل هذه الأطراف مسؤوليتها والإمعان في شل أجهزة الدولة التي دمرها المحتلون وتعطيل حركة الحياة في ميادينها الاقتصادية والاجتماعية والسياسية والثقافية كلها .

    وقيادة قطر العراق لحزب البعث العربي الاشتراكي إذ تستنكر ممارسات حكومة المالكي العميلة المدانة كلها فأنها تستنكر بشدة التفجيرات الإجرامية المتواصلة ، وتحمل هذه الحكومة العميلة المسؤولية الكاملة عنها بوضعها تحت قصاص الشعب العادل الذي لن يصبر طويلاً على جرائم المالكي وزمرته العميلة ، وسيواصل نضاله وثورته العارمة وحتى التقويض الكامل للعملية السياسية المخابراتية التي راح أطرافها يتلهون بمناوراتهم الخائبة دائرين ظهورهم لأبناء شعبنا الأبي الذي يرسفون في معاناتهم القاسية عبر اللعب على النغمات النشاز من قبيل السعي المحموم لعقد ما لم يتفقون على تسميته من قبيل ( المؤتمر ) أو ( الملتقى ) أو ( الاجتماع ) ، فالجميع يعتقدون واهمين أنهم يكسبون الوقت على حساب معاناة أبناء شعبنا الصابر الذي لم ولن يَبُت على ضيم وإنما يُواصل جهاده الملحمي وحتى الإسقاط النهائي للعملية السياسية المخابراتية وإقامة حكم الشعب التعددي الديمقراطي الشعبي المستقل والعادل ويمضي قُدماً على طريق النهوض والتقدم الحضاري والإنساني الشامل .

    وإن غداً لناظره قريب .

    February 24, 2012 at 9:43 am | Reply
  16. iran is evil along with syria

    Retired businessman Christopher Tappin had said he was leaving the UK feeling he had fewer rights than a terrorist.

    Mr Tappin, 65, from London, is being flown from Heathrow Airport to El Paso, Texas, escorted by US marshals.

    British judges say the extradition is lawful and the European Court of Human Rights has refused to intervene.

    Mr Tappin, of Orpington, south-east London, has fought against extradition through the British courts after being charged in the US with conspiring to export batteries which could be used in Hawk air defence missiles.

    He faces a trial in El Paso and a possible 35-year jail sentence – but says that he is the victim of entrapment.

    Mr Tappin's lawyer, Karen Todner, said it was "very likely" her client would now enter into a plea agreement to reduce a sentence.

    Lawyer Karen Todner: "He will be wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs"
    "If Mr Tappin does not enter into a plea agreement and is found guilty he will have to serve the whole sentence in America, which may actually effectively be the rest of his life, rather than serving a sentence in the UK, therefore I think it's very very likely that he will enter into a plea agreement," she said.

    Last week the European Court of Human Rights refused to intervene in his case. Mr Tappin, a former president of the Kent Golf Society, was ordered to present himself to Heathrow Airport to be taken to the US for trial.

    He was seen departing from his house around 08:00 GMT and arrived at Heathrow police station accompanied by his wife Elaine.

    Shortly after 10.30am, Mr Tappin's lawyer said British extradition officers had taken Mr Tappin to a plane where he was being handed over to US marshals. The flight was due to land in Texas around 16:00 local time (23:00 GMT).

    "He will be arriving in El Paso this afternoon. He will be appearing in court on Monday morning, so he will be in custody over the weekend." The earliest he could be granted bail would be Thursday or Friday, Ms Todner said.

    She urged Home Secretary Theresa May to help Mr Tappin intervene with the US authorities to ensure they did not object to bail being granted.

    Ms Todner later wrote on Twitter: "Mr Tappin has left for America. Was v distressing when he said goodbye. The extradition treaty is inhumane."

    Arriving at the airport, Mr Tappin told reporters it was "a shame, a disgrace" that he was being extradited.

    Continue reading the main story

    February 24, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  17. almahdi is lusefer

    iran must be attacked, iran is not a muslim country, all the muslims 1 billion are sunni and the shiia are only 150 milions iran 65 millions are not all muslims , they have 10 million sunni and 5 million kurds, and 3 million christeans and jews etc...iran is evil and we dont consider them muslims. teh shiia cult is a devil worship called almahdi he the son of lusefer the devil

    February 24, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Reply
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