It certainly would not be an overstatement to argue that political science has not only failed to predict the Arab Spring but that political scientists even quite recently maintained that Arab regimes were stable and that any opposition would have been unlikely to succeed. I am currently working on a paper trying to come up with a more sustainable explanation for regime failure and the success of popular uprisings (as I am sure hundreds of colleagues will also be doing), while the Arab Spring meets its most serious challenge as of yet. It is in Syria that president Bashar al-Assad has apparently decided to do what his father had done once. Quell resistance by a brutal military crackdown and without decisive action by the international community, the new dawn of the Arab Spring might well be fading. The Syrian regime has cut off entire cities, Homs, Deraa, Banias, and began shelling them with tank grenades, which will certainly lead to indiscriminate killings of civilians. Opposition groups claim that government forces have so far killed between 600 and 900 demonstrators, with even the United Nations saying that 850 deaths sound about realistic. Al-Assad is fully aware that the demonstrations are a make or break moment for his regime, which is based on the very small Alawi community and has never managed to come up with a cohesive vision for the state. While the conflict is escalating, there seems to be some sort of revolution fatigue in Europe, where Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain are slowly dropping out of the news cycles. But the question remains, and I for one shall volunteer to raise it: What are the strategic implications of the Syrian crackdown? Here is my take, which will almost certainly turn out to be a bit premature.
- The various attempts to foster some sort of rapprochement with the Syrian regime (the latest attempt was made by the Obama administration) did with certainty fail. The uncomfortable truth is that the regime in Damascus never really could move to a more cooperative position. Illegitimate regimes without broad-based popular support such as the Syrian need external conflicts to deflect domestic opposition. The Syrian regime needed the conflict in Lebanon and was therefore never really willing to abandon its most important proxy, Hezbollah. It is against this background that the Syrians repeatedly stalled negotiations with Israel on a peace treaty.
- Perhaps the most interesting reaction to the Syrian uprising is coming from the government media in Iran. They simply do not cover it at all. While Iranian media was quick (and for that matter intentionally wrong and misleading) to assert that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprising were fuelled by an anti-American sentiment, the Syrian uprising cannot possibly be interpreted in such manner. The pure fact that Tehran's most important regional ally is facing such a widespread rebellion is making leaders in Tehran uneasy.
- Which raises the question, whether Syria can remain part of the so called resistance group, even if its regime manages to remain in power, when even Palestinian organisations have already voiced stark criticism of the Syrian regime. Turkey's prime minister has already said that Syria increasingly resembles Saddam Hussein's Iraq (and that's quite a terse statement coming from Erdogan), even though there has been some rapprochement between Syria and Turkey in recent years and even Qatar is now trashing the Syrian regime. And rightly so, one might add.
- While entire families are being detained in Syria, the opposition movement did not break down. The Syrian regime is apparently is copying the crackdown of Iranian militias on its democratic opposition in 2009. But so far, protests have widened and not died down. And while I suspect that even some Western governments quietly thought that the protests would flame out, it is now clearly time to do something a little more effective than just condemning violence.