I’ve been watching the protests in Syria over the past few days with a cautious feeling of hope. But I maintain a deep-seated skepticism that Syria is primed for revolution like Tunisia and Egypt were. Much has already been written about the viability of a Syrian revolution, and most of it, needless to say, has been highly pessimistic. Syria is too religiously and socially stratified, it is too politically repressed, it has no civil society, its army is too loyal, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Nonetheless, the country has slowly started to come alive as some Syrians seem eager to emulate the example of their Arab neighbors. And, just as in Tunisia, where a revolution was kindled in the small town of Sidi Bouzid, in Syria it is the quiet southern town of Duraa that has served as the catalyst for broader unrest.
Why Duraa has become the epicenter of the protests in Syria is something of a mystery. Unlike Hama, long a center of Islamist activity in Syria, Duraa — as far as I am aware — has no recent history of political activism. Perhaps the small-town nature of Duraa has helped to bring people out into the streets. Remember that the initial spark was the arrest of fifteen local children who scrawled revolutionary slogans around town in commemoration of events in Tunisia and Egypt. I would imagine that in a small town like Duraa, many people probably knew those children, or they knew their parents. It’s not hard to see why they might have felt particularly connected to, or offended by, the arrests. Syria observers I’ve talked with have also speculated to me that because Duraa is so far from Damascus — the center of Syria’s much feared security apparatus — there was a much more limited security presence in the town, which almost certainly allowed the protests to gain some initial steam.
Whatever the case, it is important to point out that most Arabic TV networks — particularly Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the most widely watched in the region — have been scant in their coverage of events in Syria. Al Jazeera’s attention has been focused on Libya and, to a lesser extent, Yemen (on a side note, the station is almost completely ignoring the dramatic events in Bahrain, an indication that regional Gulf political considerations are playing a role in their decisions regarding news coverage.) Al Arabiya, for its part, has also been focused primarily on Libya. Both networks have run occasional stories on Syria and done several infrequent interviews. The lack of attention to the Syrian protests is certainly not helping the cause of the revolutionaries. Without the type of publicity that Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries received, Syrian dissidents have relied on Facebook in order to spread the word and to organize additional protests.
As of now, the primary Facebook page that appears to be covering these protests, issuing appeals for reform, and calling for additional demonstrations is this one [Arabic]. It is updated virtually every half hour. There are a few odd things about the page, however. As a Syrian friend pointed out, the Arabic is at times strange. Certain phrases that are used are highly uncommon, making us wonder whether the author of this particular page is either not himself a Syrian or is a Syrian ex-pat who has lived abroad so long that his Arabic is no longer up to par. The other Facebook page that is becoming increasingly important is that of Shabakat Sham, a news site covering the demonstrations. It seems to be a counterpart to Shabakat Rasd, which was an extremely important source for news during the Egyptian revolution.
Looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, what worries me about this protest movement is that there has so far yet to emerge any clear leadership amongst the demonstrators. Moreover, their demands remain scattered. The latter issue is probably of greater concern; the Syrian demonstrators appear to not have united around a common message. Whereas the leading Facebook organizing page is calling this a revolution “against Bashar al Assad,” few demonstrators are following that line of attack. Some are calling for a release of political prisoners, others for an end to corruption, others for a vaguely defined notion of freedom. But what are the unifying demands around which this budding protest movement is united? Is it democracy? If so, the discussion of democracy by Syrian activists online — from what I have seen, which is admittedly limited — appears not to be very developed. So what is it that unites these protesters? Only a call for change. But the protest movement has thus far failed to unify around a clear definition of exactly what kind of change they’re looking for.
Okay, okay. It is probably unreasonable of me to think that Syrians, less than a week into this protest movement, would already have established a common vision for change. But I worry that without visionary leadership that this movement will either quickly be crushed (a distinct possibility) or that it will take an increasingly sectarian path. A Syrian protest movement needs to offer clear reasons why theirs is a national movement — not a Sunni one. Allawis and Syrian Shiites in general — not to mention Syrian Christians, who generally tend to say when asked that they’ve “had it pretty good under Bashar” — have less incentive to revolt. Sunnis, in contrast, “the majority that does not rule,” have a bigger bone to pick. So I worry that this will become a Sunni movement, a movement to reclaim the rights of the Sunni majority. Some of the talk on Syrian internet forums seems to indicate that some Syrians see it as such.
If this movement is going to be successful, it needs to be broad-based and non-sectarian. And it needs to be united around common and clearly defined principles and goals. The arguably sectarian nature of the Bahraini uprising, I would argue, has played a significant role in undercutting the movement’s viability. In contrast, where revolutionary movements in the region have united disparate social and religious groupings around a clearly defined common cause (Egypt, Tunisia), they have been more likely to succeed. Syria must learn the lessons of its neighbors.