Syria on the brink of liberty?

So many nations – notably Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia – claim interests in Syria. It's easy to forget what still drives the civil war there: the seed of freedom planted even before the Arab Spring.

AP Photo
Smoke billows over Damascus July 18 as rebels advanced in the Syria capital. A bomb ripped through a high-level security meeting Wednesday, killing three top regime officials.

With the smoke from street battles hanging over Damascus, with Russian marines deployed to the Syrian port of Tartus, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar shipping guns to Syrian rebels, with Iran jockeying for influence, and with Israel edgy over Syria’s chemical weapons, it is easy to forget what is really at stake as the Assad regime appears to be unraveling and Syria hurtles into the unknown.

It is certainly not all those strategic national “interests,” as much as they might hold influence over Syria. Rather it is an idea planted almost a decade ago by a group of leading Arab thinkers in a major report backed by the United Nations. The eminent intellectuals declared there is a “thirst for freedom and justice in the Arab conscience.”

The report predicted an izdihar (blossoming) of fundamental rights and freedoms, based in part on a survey of Arab culture – its folk songs, novels, poetry, and siras (life stories). Its affirmation that Arabs do not want to be left out of history’s drive toward democracy helped set the mental climate that seeded the Arab Spring in 2011.

In the face of stereotypes about Arabs not being ready for liberty, the scholars stated a simple truth: “The individual is free only in a free society within a free nation.”

That ideal is what drove the first protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad 17 months ago and will likely remain the ultimate driver of events even if tribal, sectarian, or foreign interests try to thwart it.

The weapons of the rebels – who claimed credit for the killing Tuesday of Mr. Assad’s defense minister, his deputy, and the head of the crisis team – may have tipped Syria into civil war. But during much of this uprising, it has been the courage of nonviolent protesters that provided the moral momentum. As many as 17,000 Syrians have been killed – a stark reminder of how deeply felt and universal the desire for freedom is.

Assad’s fall seems a given, but when that happens Syria’s future may still be unclear. One precedent could be the former Yugoslavia. It broke apart two decades ago and lurched from one genocidal war to another only to eventually see newly liberated states embrace democracy. Freedom, like an irresistible force, won in the end.

Syria’s liberation could be as history changing as was Egypt’s, given its pivotal place in the heart of the Middle East. Many nations would need to adjust. But the constant in this churn of events has been that “Arab conscience” and its thirst for freedom.

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