By Sharmine Narwani – The New York Times, February 6, 2012
Commentators on the Arab Awakening sometimes make the mistake of assuming that 22 Arab states are one and the same, all destined to oust dictators with the same sequence of events that follow either the Tunisian or Libyan models.
While President Bashar al-Assad has made some gross miscalculations since the crisis began in March, he is still favored by a slight majority of Syrians, according to recent online polls. But popularity is not why his government remains intact. The regime still enjoys the support of its key constituencies: the army, the major cities, the business/regime elite, minorities and Sunni secularists, with limited defections of the sort experienced by other Arab states.
On the flip side, after 11 months, the opposition still remains fundamentally divided along ethnic, religious, political and geographic lines, and is unable to articulate a detailed political platform. Furthermore, the armed opposition groups – brought to light in the recent Arab League mission report – lack a central command, are locally based, and have limited, irregular access to the military supply lines essential for operating on a larger scale.
Also, external parties have very little leverage in Syria. The country has adapted to living under sanctions and has a small but cohesive group of allies on which it relies. It functions largely without the web of dependencies typical of other Arab states, does not have a national debt problem, and has recently gained a valuable buffer from the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), which insist on Syria resolving its crisis internally.
The view from inside Syria, meanwhile, varies starkly from the narratives spun outside. A closer look at the U.N. death toll of 5,000 shows a critical lack of discernment between pro-regime and opposition casualties, and fails to highlight the 2,000 dead regular soldiers whose funerals are televised daily within the country. In contrast to external opposition figures, mainstream domestic ones — even those who seek regime change — tend to reject sanctions, military solutions and foreign intervention in favor of a peaceful political resolution of the crisis.
If Assad delivers a new constitution and national elections by the summer, it may be all the space he needs to confound his critics. Increased militarization and sectarianism are likely to cement opinions rather than fragment: People may yearn not so much for bread, but for the ability to walk to the market and buy it.
This short essay was in response to a query posed by The New York Times: “Throughout an 11-month uprising, how has Syria’s leader outlasted his peers in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere? Is Assad’s time running out?” Fellow debaters include Andrew Tabler, Ed Husain and Anne-Marie Slaughter.