Long road to freedom: Seven reasons why Syrian protesters have so far failed to topple Assad

Syrian protesters have so far been unable to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in large part because physical repression has served as a powerful deterrent against their goals. The risk of death, torture, or imprisonment for life can shake even the most resolute, courageous, and determined demonstrator.

Yet physical repression is not the only reason why the protesters have suffered serious setbacks. Middle East expert Bilal Y. Saab of The University of Maryland gives us seven other factors that explain why things might get worse before they get better for the protesters in Syria.

1.Weakness and divisions in ranks

ANKARA, TURKEY – Syrian opposition members and Turkish activists hold placards, posters, and Syrian flags as they demonstrate on June 10, 2011 outside the Syrian Embassy in Ankara against the current Syrian regime. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

The Syrian opposition seems to be growing and learning how to organize more effectively to deliver a more consistent political message to the world. Yet that multi-dimensional effort is still severely lacking. Until the protesters attract more followers (especially from the influential Sunni business community), become truly united, and reach the heart of the capital in large numbers, they are unlikely to succeed in toppling Mr. Assad.

Armed insurgency

That the Syrian people have been demonstrating peacefully since the start of the uprising is a remarkable fact that has not gone unnoticed by the international community. However, it remains open to question how long the opposition will remain peaceful in its tactics. Should the showdown with the regime drag on, some protesters may start to feel disillusioned and could be tempted to use violent means.

If peaceful protests morph into full-fledged armed insurgency or if domestic or foreign militants start hijacking the protesters’ non-violent message, this could hurt the opposition’s cause as well as the chances of a positive outcome. The international community has serious concerns about the total collapse of order in Syria. Time is a factor in this war of attrition, and it may not necessarily be on the protesters’ side.

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The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood could be more of a burden than an asset to the protesters’ fight against the regime. The West still has serious concerns about the Brotherhood and should the Islamist movement attempt to lead the demonstrations, adopt a more public profile, and visibly gain more influence throughout the process, the international community’s interest in and support for the protesters could wane.

Liberal Syrian activists are acutely aware of the challenge posed by the Brotherhood, yet there is very little they can do to contain a movement that has been banned from politics for a very long time and is hungry for mass political participation.

Dialogue with the regime

Dialogue with the regime hurts the cause of democracy in Syria because Assad is either unwilling or unable to reform and will work instead on co-opting and dividing the opposition movement through the offer of ultimately non-substantive dialogue. Assad’s two-pronged strategy of repression and concession is meant to divide the opposition movement by giving its members false hopes and bogus promises to address their demands.

The majority of Syrian protesters have rejected Assad’s initiatives, but it is possible that some protesters have been convinced or that others have been tempted to accept his offer. If that is the case, the opposition movement could be losing some of its members and, no matter how few these may be, it is a setback to the cause. Size does matter in this context, and it is crucial that the opposition movement reaches a critical mass to be able to apply pressure on the regime and win the serious attention of the international community.

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External invervention

The history of modern Syria is replete with examples of external intervention in the country’s domestic affairs, often causing instability and political violence. Ongoing events in Syria have witnessed the kind of external intervention that does not necessarily help the cause of the opposition movement.

For example, Turkey’s effort to encourage Assad to reform and open a dialogue with the protesters ironically hurts the opposition because the majority of its members want nothing less than regime change. Dialogue with Assad boosts the legitimacy of his regime in the eyes of the world. Another example of problematic external intervention is Iran’s alleged role in offering material assistance to the Syrian regime to crack down harder on the protesters.

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US and Western policy

Analysts continue to debate whether US and Western policy toward the crisis in Syria is helping or hurting the opposition. Even Syrians themselves are divided on this issue. Some say that a more activist approach that clearly calls for Assad to step down (Washington, Rome, London, and Paris have yet to do so) would constitute the “kiss-of-death” to the opposition.

Others disagree and have asked for a more assertive US and Western approach that leaves Assad no choice but to leave. A good case can be made for a unified Western policy that unequivocally calls for Assad to step down. Such a stand could encourage the Syrian army to revisit its cost-benefit calculations and possibly decide to side with the protesters.

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Fighting against all odds

It is no wonder the Syrian opposition movement is having great difficulty moving forward. It has to not only fight an adversary that continues to kill and maim but it must also overcome its own shortcomings, while trying to make a believer out of a still skeptical West.

In this context, the Syrian people are fighting against all odds. However, if they pull it off and manage to oust the Baathist regime, it may well be a more impressive demonstration of people power than that in Egypt – and one more consequential for the politics and security of the entire Middle East.

Bilal Y. Saab is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland’s Department of Government and Politics, in College Park.

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