While one would never know it from the news, the reform process in Syria is actually going smoother than it is in Egypt. If this might sound crazy to the everyday headline reader, think of it this way: Syria has a popularly approved new constitution, a democratically elected parliament that the state actually recognizes and one with clearly defined powers and responsibilities. Egypt, on the other hand, has no constitution, a parliament which is not recognized by the state and a president whose role is ambiguous. While it would be easy to view the reforms in Syria cynically, the reality may not be so simple. In fact, throughout the Syrian uprising, President Bashar al-Asad has made substantial moves to resolve the conflict.
Prior to the “Arab Spring” uprisings, Asad was hailed worldwide as a reformer. Indeed, only several years ago the very pundits and policymakers that are now calling for his overthrow portrayed Asad as being committed to liberalizing the Syrian economy, normalizing relations with the global community, protecting women’s and minority rights, and gradually instituting democratic reforms. When the protests began, Bashar moved quickly to signal to the protestors that he had heard their concerns: he dismissed his cabinet, vowed to lift the emergency laws in Syria (which curtailed certain civil liberties), lifted 3-year old government bans on YouTube and Facebook and promised to increase the speed of the democratic transition in Syria.
And then, he actually came through on that promise. In February 2012, the President submitted a new constitution for Syrian approval. This constitution included serious concessions: it eliminated the Ba’ath Party’s guaranteed majority in parliament (for the first time in more than 40 years) and limited presidential term limits to seven years, with the potential to be re-elected only once. It is not an understatement to say that these concessions marked an end to Bashar’s hegemony over the country. And despite opposition calls to boycott the referendum (and occasional voter intimidation), more than 57% of the electorate turned out to vote, and more than 89% of these voters approved the proposal.
The opposition refused to acknowledge this new constitution, despite the ostensive purpose of their protests being to ensure respect for the popular will. American policymakers immediately called the referendum a “sham,” although they provided no evidence of ballot rigging or fraud. Thereafter, President Asad opened up Syria to the UN, the Red Cross, and the certain members of the international press. He also promised to quickly hold free parliamentary elections in accordance with the new constitution, and in May 2012, he came through on this promise as well.
Again, the opposition called for Syrians to boycott the elections; again, the majority of the electorate ignored that call. The election, which occurred in the presence of UN observers, had a participation rate in excess of 51% (despite the fact that voting was virtually impossible in rebel-held areas). And while the Ba’ath Party and its allies won the majority of seats, this is largely because most of those who would have voted for other candidates (i.e. the opposition) largely refused to take part in the process. But even without their participation, the parliament was elected by a majority of the electorate.
In Syria, as in all of the “Arab Spring” countries, the protestors represent a minority of the population ( typically, less than 1% of the population). And even within this group, the armed insurgency is an extreme minority— a minority of a minority. By all indications, to point to the aforementioned elections and the lack of involvement by most Syrians in the insurgency and/or protests uncovers that a sizeable population of Syrians want a diplomatic solution to the uprisings and seem content to leave Bashar al-Asad in power, provided he remains committed to the reform process (there are even substantial civilian counter-protest and counter-insurgency movements in Syria—although these, of course, get no media coverage).
Beyond all of the concessions highlighted hitherto, after agreeing to Annan’s Six-Point peace plan, the President ordered a cease to shelling in the rebel areas, and withdrew as many forces as he felt he could without jeopardizing security/stability— especially for endangered minority groups. And he held by this cease-fire. Unfortunately, the FSA (Free Syrian Army) and the SNC (Syrian National Council), neither individually nor collectively, have authority over many elements of the opposition, which increasingly include foreign fighters/ terrorists. Even regarding their own forces, the FSA/SNC leadership is decentralized and somewhat chaotic; and so, the agreement gradually disintegrated as a result of consistent infractions.
However, the President returned to the negotiating table, proposing a new approach which focused on deescalating problem zones first and then building outwards from there. The opposition was quick to reject this plan, bombing Damascus and killing members of the President’s cabinet. The opposition has since attempted (and failed) to take over Allepo. These actions by the rebels have radically escalated the conflict. Unfortunately, the only way to bring the opposition more seriously to the negotiating table would be for their primary state allies (Turkey, Qatar, the US, Saudi Arabia) to force them. They have no incentive to negotiate as long as the foreign aid keeps flowing, and the state actors fueling the resistance have been placing their geopolitical interests over the security and desires of the Syrian people.
In short, these moves on the part of the opposition, which defy the popular interests and the popular will, are an ominous sign for democracy in Syria, should the rebels prevail. In fact, armed and/or military revolutions like the one being attempted in Syria have virtually no precedent of establishing democracies, especially in the Middle East. The al-Asad family took power in Syria through just such a revolution, as did Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, Hosni Mubarak’s military government, the Gaddafi regime, and the Afghani Taliban (who were armed, trained and funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, in much the same way as the Libyan and Syrian rebels). And the coups which ushered in these authoritarian states also typically took place under the auspices of restoring power to the “common man.” It is no wonder that so many Syrians view President al-Asad as a more trustworthy and reliable partner for instituting democratic reforms— he probably is.