A relative of mine was in Damascus last week on business, and he told me about a conversation he’d had with a government official. The official dismissed the protests as being organized by “terrorists” and “hoodlums” who had no interest in real reform in Syria. When I mentioned this conversation to a Syrian friend of mine, he bristled and said: “Of course that’s what the government wants people to believe. They are the real terrorists.”
This interchange is emblematic of the increasing polarization of commentary about Syria that we’re getting in the press. As protests gain momentum across the country, the Syrian “condition” is finally being explored on an international stage. I’ve found it very interesting to follow the debate about the legitimacy of the protest movement, the agendas of its supposed instigators, the brutality of the regime’s crackdown, and the role of opposition parties in exile over the past few weeks, and it seems to me that one is starting to witness the coalescence of certain “camps” among the commentariat.
The biggest camp is certainly the pro-democracy, anti-regime camp that has generally shaped the debate on Syria for the past several years, inhabited by folks like Andrew Tabler, Tony Badran, Radwan Ziadeh, Steve Heydemann, and Patrick Seale. Interestingly, this group is also starting to attract people like my friends Robin Yassin-Kassab and Rime Allaf, who have generally been supportive of Syria’s foriegn policy but today are no less critical of the regime’s domestic crackdowns than the folks at WINEP. This is an interesting development, in and of itself.
The regime’s defenders are a far more quiet bunch, but they have a voice and a constituency. Alastair Crooke wrote a much-discussed article for the MidEast Channel a few weeks ago that was about as laudatory a sweetheart piece as Bashar al-Assad could have hoped for outside the pages of Vogue. Michel Kilo, one of Syria’s most famous former prisoners of conscience, wrote about the need for a “political solution” to the crisis (rather than a revolutionary change driven by the anger of the street) for as-Safir late last week. And Joshua Landis has, in my view, tried to walk a middle path with regard to the regime’s fate. (He has cut Bashar some slack and given him the benefit of the doubt, but he has also courted criticism from regime supporters by painting the standoff in sectarian tones.)
No matter what happens in the near term, it is very difficult to imagine things returning to the status quo, now that the system has received a shock and an opposition has been mobilized. Then again, the Iranian Green Movement seems to have been successfully strangled by Team Ahmadinejad…
Next up, more Wikileaks.
Update: A comment by a reader, J of Chalcedon
“Well spotted. Do you think someone like Michel Kilo, even at this stage, would recognize himself as a “regime supporter”? Maybe the unspoken point of his comment in Assafir was that the regime has taken itself to a point at which it can’t hope to change things even by addressing the very modest demands of such dissidents?
Keep in mind that this is someone who was very adamantly about not kicking over all the chessmen, with Iraq as the referent, and got years of harassment for his troubles. Now the ground his shifted under his feet as well, and satisfying those reasonable demands looks insufficient to save the people who wouldn’t have him as an interlocutor.
I’m wrong all the time, but it looks to me like the effective authority has hit on the idea of palliative measures long after they could have helped. If they have the support of Michel Kilo, it’s because – and after – they made him irrelevant. Now it’s about a system that can only break; bending is beside the point.”