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Bashar's first war…will it be his last? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A “war” is usually defined as either an armed conflict between two countries, or a conflict between two sides, one that represents the authority – the central government – or at least a party that aspires to this position. There are several classic academic works on this particular topic, including the “The History of the Peloponnesian War” by Greek historian Thucydides (395 BC), “The Art of War” by the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, or Carl von Clausewitz’s famous book “On War”, amongst others. The purpose of this article is not to define war, or talk about the books that have been written on this subject. Rather, I mentioned the term “war” because it is the best description of what is happening in Syria today.

The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), established by Uppsala University in the early 1970s, stipulated specific criteria for the classification of wars and conflicts, and provided mechanisms for measuring them; the UCDP is recognized by numerous international organizations and bodies. According to the UCDP, one criterion for a “war” is the death toll: the dealt toll must exceed 1,000 people killed directly in the armed conflict.

Five months on from the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria, and the death toll has now exceeded 1,000, according to some sources. This means that what is happening in Syria is more than just protests, but rather a military operation, which has also resulted in the deaths of at least 120 police and military personnel, according to official reports. The Syrian authorities can cast doubt over the accuracy of these figures, and may decline to call what is happening there a “war”, yet the fact of the matter is that the regime has deployed its army, divided districts between its troops, and imposed a curfew. There can be no doubt that this is Bashar al-Assad’s first internal “war”, or let us say his first internal conflict, as he has been forced to mobilize his army in order to quell areas of civil strife. However this is the second time that al-Assad has issued his military with orders to move, following the humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005.

Currently, the regime is fighting to survive, and although five months have passed since the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria, the authorities seem to be unable to quell the insurgency, whilst at the same time they are facing tremendous international pressures and sanctions for regime change. There is almost unanimous agreement that no matter what happens, the al-Assad regime will not be as strong as it was in the past, whilst others believe that the regime’s days are numbered.

Prominent Egyptian playwright Ali Salem wrote an article entitled “This is the era of collapsing dictatorships” in which he said that the Arab regime – any Arab regime – can no longer manage its affairs via a military dictatorship or by means of deceit. In this article, he referred to one of my previous articles, in which I asked what would happen if the Assad regime successfully remained in power [What if the demonstrations in Syria fail? 28/04/2011]. Mr. Salem considers what happened in the Arab world to be nothing more than an extension of the collapse of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, which began after World War II and continued through to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Salem said that he believed that the wave of change arrived late in the Middle East to uncover the false slogans of our regimes.

Ali Salem is correct in his assessments, for a number of Arab regimes – not to mention the Baathist and the Arab Socialist regimes – based their legitimacy on a mountain of lies, and there can be no doubt that these lies have today been exposed. Our problem is not restricted to telling lies, or these lies being exposed, but in regimes resorting to lies in the first place, in order to gain some legitimacy. This is because the masses believe in principles or views which the regime, either willingly or unwillingly, cannot implement. Mr. Salem was right when saying that these regimes are no longer capable of deceit in the current era. However allow me to add that the crisis is not only in the presence of dictatorial regime, but that the existence of dictatorships in the past was a justification for such lies.

Let us take the issue of peace [with Israel] as an example: Some regimes refused peace on principle, others advocated it and signed peace agreements, whilst others entered into negotiations before they again retracted, under the pretext that Israel did not want peace. The truth, according to several international polls, is that the peace process has not been popular in Arab nations. Rather, there has been a state of vague suspicion and negativity towards the peace process and its consequences. Regimes therefore lied, either by raising slogans of resistance, or by seeking to impede the peace process, because they were not serious about this, and because Arab societies are not interested in hearing the following truths: Firstly, that peace with Israel is an international necessity that is backed by the international superpowers, and secondly, Arab public opinion towards Israel – even if hatred of Israel is justifiable amongst Arabs – is regarded [by Westerners] as an extremist stance.

There is also the issue of the role of religious movements in politics. Some republican regimes raised religious slogans, whist others either accepted or rejected the role of Islamist movements. Yet every regime was forced to tread carefully around religious “salvation” movements, because no leader wanted to directly tell the masses that religion and politics should not mix in a civil state. It is for this reason that regimes, including the Syrian Baathist regime, lied with regards to this particular issue.

The problem is more than the existence of dictatorial regime, or such regimes resorting to deceit in order to gain false legitimacy, rather the problem can be seen in everyone believing outdated ideas, such as nationalist or extreme religious views, or “the resistance”, and other such ideas, as well as in people’s inability to move beyond such ideas and viewpoints. The result of this is that people continued to be ruled by dictatorial regimes, which told them what they wanted to hear, but acted otherwise.

There is a wonderful book written by late Egyptian author Ahmed Baha Al Din, entitled “The Legitimacy of Power in the Arab World” (1984), in which he indicates that the Arab regimes are facing three crises: democracy, rationality and legitimacy. The problem regarding the lack of democracy may be clear, but there is still a problem with the lack of rationalism, and consequently the lack of legitimacy. Here, the problem is not that the regime lacks rationalism, but rather that society does. The Arab people do not attach importance to rational reasoning; instead all issues are based on national, religious, or even personal sentiments. Thus it is not surprising that the regime does not act on rational principles when making decisions, and even if the regime did make pragmatic decisions, these will not be accepted because they are solely based upon a rational consideration of [national] interests. It is therefore surprising that people demand a legitimate regime in a region where rationalism does not exist. When people demand democracy, they should know that this is not represented by a ballot box, but a civil and a secular culture in the first place.

The Syrian regime may succeed in remaining in power despite all the surrounding circumstances. Its Iranian allies may offer assistance and advise it on the mechanisms through which it can circumvent the international sanctions, through trading in the black market. Al-Assad might emerge from this crisis as a weak and illegitimate figure in the eyes of the majority of his people, but as long as there are still those who defend his rule, he will remain a ruler, even if this is a ruler of a small piece of land. He is convinced of his own position, and will continue to believe that others, even his own people, are acting against his interest. The real problem with al-Assad is the values and principles that he and his party believe in.

We should remember that a number of such regimes, which are regarded as lacking legitimacy by their own people, have managed to remain in power not only because of their physical capacity, or because they know how to lie and deceive, but because many people are ignorant of how to establish a form of legitimacy that is acceptable to everybody, and that looks out for the general interests. In Syria, the minorities and a section of the middle class – both of whom sided with al-Assad, not out of faith in him but rather out of fear of their own futures – have perhaps accepted their dictator remaining in power. However this gives rise to a question: what is preventing another dictator, or another totalitarian regime, ruling them however he likes? It is clear that some people would prefer to be ruled by a dictator whom they know rather than the unclear form of government – whether this is sectarian or religious – that may emerge in the future.

Ahmed Baha Al Din said “the one who forcibly seizes power can surround himself with all forms of legitimacy…but these are nothing more than curtains that hide his lack of legitimacy. The law is not just a piece of paper signed by the ruler; laws are judgments that emerge from the people’s conscience and which are, in essence, an expression of them [the people].”

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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