On June 27, 2011, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion debating prospects for change in Syria and analyzing the various challenges faced by both the opposition and regime. Panelists included Obeida Nahas, director of the London-based Levant Institute and spokesman of the Coalition of Free Syrian Revolution Youth, Yaser Tabbara, a Syrian-American attorney and activist, and Mustafa Kayali, member of the Damascus Declaration movement. The event was moderated by Brookings Doha Center Director Salman Shaikh and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic and media communities.
Obeida Nahas began the discussion with an analysis of President Bashar al-Assad’s handling of the uprising thus far. He argued that the speed with which Assad’s claim to legitimacy “fell away” was remarkable, given that only months ago he had cast himself as a bulwark of “stability,” arguing to foreign media that he was “ahead of the curve” when it came to reform. Nahas stated that the dual track of the regime’s response – promising reform while engaging in a brutal crackdown on protesters who were “not anti-Bashar, but pro-freedom and dignity” – represented nothing more than “a wasted opportunity.” On the inadequacy of regime efforts to reform, Nahas stated that much was promised but nothing done on the ground. He went on to say Assad himself was the protests’ “best organizer” given the track record of his speeches which have only served to frustrate demonstrators and return them to the streets.
Referring to the international response, Nahas emphasized that now that the regime’s illegitimacy “is clear to the Syrian people,” it is up to the international community to “get on board.” He argued that international actors had an important role to play in making the regime understand that “it can no longer play the same cards – it must know that the rules have now changed.”
Mustafa Kayali compared the Syrian uprisings to those that successfully toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. He identified a number of factors that affected the pace of change in each case, including the countries’ demographic and ethnic make-up, the maturity of opposition movements, the role of regional influences, and speed of the international response. Kayali argued that regime has long suffered an inherent illegitimacy “emanating from its narrow base and reliance on ideology and regional exploits.” He compared the evolution of the regime’s strategy for survival over the last 60 years to that of Israel, saying that both states “when existentially threatened” sought to build alliances abroad – in Syria’s case, most importantly with Turkey and Iran. He argued that it was particularly important therefore to read the reactions to the crisis in Ankara and Tehran, as well as in Tel Aviv.
Moving on to address the challenges facing the opposition, Kayyali suggested that given its fragmented nature, there may be a need to form a “national body for transition” that could focus not only on the “downfall of the regime, but also on the establishment of a modern state.” Kayyali laid out a number of areas on which such a program should focus, including: a redefinition of Syrian identity that is “inclusive of all”; a foreign policy that focuses on real national interests rather that regime survival; proper popular representation in the army and security forces; and the formulation of “full political, social and cultural programs” that genuinely respond to people’s demands.
Yaser Tabbara began his address by emphasizing that despite long maintaining an independent position on Syrian politics, the regime’s response to the current crisis –which he termed “an incredible show of inhumanity” – now made that position untenable. Tabbara insisted that the “criminality and illegitimacy of the regime was no longer in dispute,” but that the alternative to it remained unclear. Despite the importance of formulating a future program, however, the current opposition meetings, both inside and outside Syria, were necessarily focusing on consolidating what remains a disparate and fragmented movement. Tabbara spoke of the revolution as a “methodological or logistical” endeavor, rather than an ideological one. As such the most important efforts for the time being consist of establishing networks, setting priorities, and dividing tasks among different opposition groups.
On the issue of engaging the international community to further isolate the Assad regime, Tabbara spoke of a “two pronged” approach focusing on ensuring a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). On the one hand, this involves lobbying the ICC to begin a “preliminary analysis” of the case against the perpetrators of the crackdown (as was done in Libya). On the other hand, there is a need to communicate with UN Security Council members in order to secure a resolution referring the case to the ICC, while also emphasizing that there is no demand whatsoever for foreign military intervention. Tabbara said that augmented international pressure would be key in encouraging further defections from the regime.
Following presentations from all speakers, the floor was opened for questions. Moderator Salman Shaikh asked who could successfully lead a dialogue on reform, and whether the current regime should be involved. Obeida Nahas argued that the regime itself did not represent any true leadership. He pointed out that Asad was unable to refuse the hawkish demands of his generals and that this was undermining his role in any dialogue. Meanwhile, there was a struggle to identify leaders among the opposition on the ground in Syria, though it was clear they have been “far ahead” of the opposition in exile, and will eventually provide the country with new national leaders. Tabbara added that it was difficult for these potential leaders to emerge into the limelight, given the ongoing crackdown.
Asked about the prospects for the success of their movement in the face of a persistent and regionalized counterrevolution, all panelists said that they remain optimistic. Nahas said that Syrians were “paying the price for the mistakes of other revolutions.” He argued for a need to resist the Egyptian impulse to “seek revenge” against former regime members: victimizing the 2 million Baath party members would only “fuel the counterrevolution,” he said. He emphasized here that the revolution’s goal was to “dismantle the regime, not the state, as happened in Iraq.”
One audience member asked about an opposition meeting in Damascus, which had been permitted by the regime. She said that despite criticisms of the meeting as giving the regime a veneer of legitimacy, it nonetheless provided an important opportunity for the opposition to meet and present its case. While the panelists all agreed that the meeting was useful in providing a forum for debate, both Nahas and Kayali insisted that it was being used by the regime as a tool through which to “marginalize and discredit the opposition in exile.” Nahas added that before any dialogue took place with the regime there had to be a total end to the crackdown.