Syria must overcome Assad's dark legacy
Wednesday, 25 July 2012 14:08 GMT
It seems the days of Assad's government are numbered. Though it remains uncertain what will follow it, the legacy of the dictatorship will carry a heavy burden, and continued violence seems probable.
Once a war has reached the capital city, a regime must start to fear the worst. Saddam Hussain found that out in 2003, when he was forced from power soon after US soldiers marched into Baghdad. And Muammar Gaddafi had to flee Tripoli when the Libyan rebels broke into his capital.
Now Free Syrian Army fighters have entered Damascus. Leading members of the government regime were killed in a bomb attack. If it hadn't before, President Bashar Assad's regime must be feeling seriously threatened. If it is not already inevitable, his fall from power can no longer ruled out.
But it remains uncertain whether a rebel victory would bring better times, for Syria will have to struggle with the legacy of the regime. Assad and his father have been in power for over 40 years. They both described themselves as secular, but that did not stop them filling key political, military, and economic positions with Alevi Muslims - the same Shiite minority that they belong to.
It's true that some members of the government came from the Sunni or Christian elites, but the centre of power stayed firmly in Alevi hands. And the brutality with which they defended this position is likely to have woken a thirst for revenge among the regime's many enemies. Should the Assad regime fall, it is likely that there will be a few nights of bloody reprisals.
Margret Johannsen, political scientist at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH), says it is very likely that the violence will continue if and when Assad falls. She points out that the country is split along many ethnic and religious lines - a circumstance that will not be changed a successful coup.
If the Assad regime does fall, it would be crunch time for the two major opposition groups - the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Committee (NCC). These two blocs claim that together they control over 90 percent of Assad's opponents, and both have declared they will represent all of them, regardless of ethnic or religious background, if they get to form a new government.
An SNC spokesman - who wishes to remain anonymous - said the council intends to set up a government of national unity. He added that since administrative and government experience would be essential, the SNC would work together with representatives from the old regime - as long as they are not suspected of any crimes.
"We will not make the same mistake as in Iraq, namely allowing society to fracture again," the spokesman added. "We will avoid that mistake. If we keep to this plan, we will be sure of setting up a new government."
But bringing the population to put their trust in a national unity government is such an immense task that it would require no less than a cultural revolution. After all, the Assad dynasty also enjoyed invoking Syrian unity, but then continually trampled on it. Most Syrians have become used to putting their faith not in the state, but in their own ethnic or religious group. Irrespective of what form the coming regime will take, overcoming Assad's political and cultural legacy will be no easy task.
It's questionable whether it's even possible, says Johannsen. "Of course, in the long-term, any new constitution or institutions must succeed within an overarching Syrian identity," she said. "But I fear that it will be impossible to avoid making concessions to the fragmentation of the country in the make-up of the state organs - which means the divisions will become institutionalised."
In any case, if the Assad regime does fall, Syria will face a host of more pressing problems - in particular, preventing violence between individual groups. Other examples have shown that this is possible, but it requires a round table at which every section of the population is represented, without exception - including representatives of the old regime.
But that will require plenty of self-discipline from the players, argues Johannsen. "Achieving such a balance of power is demanding," she says. "It means putting aside revenge and reprisals for previous wrongs."
Of course, there are successful precedents. But in Syria this process could take some time. "But on the other hand, there is really no other option," adds Johannsen.
There is currently a clear front running through Syria, dividing the country between the supporters and opponents of Assad. But if Assad were to fall or resign, his opponents will still have to prove that they can overcome the divisions in the country that the Assad dynasty has thrived on for over 40 years.