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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