End of the Arab Spring, part III: Syria

A continuing series: the first two parts are here and here.

I’ve got a piece in Crikey yesterday that sums up a bit on the “end of the Arab Spring” theme and introduces the third and perhaps most critical topic, Syria:

And then there’s Syria, where the Arab Spring most obviously came to grief. Its ruler, Bashar al-Assad, showed that he had more backbone than [Hosni] Mubarak and more sense than Colonel Gaddafi, and has gradually gained the upper hand in a bloody civil war.

It’s a sign of Assad’s confidence that the presidential election scheduled for June 3 will apparently go ahead. Nominations close this week, but there is no doubt that Assad will run and will be overwhelmingly “re-elected” — since of course the polls will only be open in government-controlled territory, leaving most of the actual opposition with no say.

Syria has never had anything approaching a democratic presidential election; Assad got the job in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. His succession was ratified by a referendum in which (according to Wikipedia) 99.7% voted in favor. An only slightly less absurd margin of 97.6% supported his re-election in 2007.

But part of Assad’s skill is that since 2011, unlike Mubarak and Gaddafi, he has spoken the language of democratic reform. On paper, the one-party state was abolished, and parliamentary elections in 2012 resulted in the return of a token number of opposition MPs. Now nominations for president have been solicited (they close today), and no doubt a tame opponent or two will be found to flesh out the ballot.

No dispassionate observer would be convinced by these charades, but they have provided something that Assad’s apologists can point to – particularly when the opportunity is there to contrast them with the al-Qa’eda-linked wing of the Syrian opposition, who have equally little devotion to democracy.

Early this year I suggested that the Syrian military stalemate, even more than the Sunni/Shi’ite divide, was the key thing that had halted progress in the Arab Spring. Since then, Assad’s forces have made further gains, but they are still well short of outright victory. The recent deterioration in relations between Russia and the west has made it less likely than ever that great power co-operation will succeed in imposing a settlement.

Fawaz Gerges at Al-Jazeera has a good assessment of the planned election and the strategic situation in general:

The rough configuration of forces on the ground, including the deepening involvement of regional and international powers, ensures that neither side could deliver a decisive blow. At a minimum, [Assad] calculates he has survived the violent storm and that while in tatters, his ship is not sinking as many had falsely predicted. In effect, he is right to assume that for the foreseeable future, his survival is assured.

That stalemate, and the geopolitical polarisation that has helped to produce it, provide in turn a powerful deterrent against further rebellion in the Arab world. Assad has demonstrated that insurrection can be stymied, if not defeated, at an appalling cost. It’s understandable that potential opposition movements would decide that almost anything is better than turning their country into another Syria.


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