Rami G. Khouri
For months now, speculation by analysts, diplomats, scholars and journalists about the nature of the post-Bashar Assad transition in Syria has been as dynamic as the events on the ground. But with one big difference: Most analyses of events on the ground rely on facts; but discussion of how events will unfold in post-Assad Syria has been riddled with wildly unsubstantiated speculation and pessimism, often tarnished by doses of Orientalism, anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism, and plain old-fashioned amateurism and ignorance.
The prevalent perceptions I refer to include that Syria will long remain locked in domestic strife; the Alawites will face eternal hostility and revenge; sectarian civil war is likely to break out; the post-Assad struggle for power will be chaotic and perhaps violent; Syria could easily break up into several smaller ethnic statelets linked to neighboring states or compatriots; Syria’s collapse will trigger warfare across the region, and a few other such scenarios. While some or all of this might happen, I suggest that we must keep open the possibility that Syria’s post-Assad transition will be much less chaotic or violent than many fear, for several reasons:
The evidence from other Arab transitions offers no support for the expectation that Syria’s transition will be a sectarian free-for-all. Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya’s self-ignited regime changes (unlike Iraq’s Anglo-American initiated mess) have not only avoided major sectarian troubles or violence, but in fact the re-legitimized constitutional processes have included a serious and deliberate attempt to make sure that all population groups are given equal opportunity to partake in public life and governance – not on the basis of sectarian quotas, but on the basis of equal citizenship.
The Syrian people are too intelligent, sophisticated and cosmopolitan to allow themselves to sink into a dark pit of sectarian warfare, even if their sick Baathist-led, Alawite-run power elite uses sectarianism and the specter of post-Assad chaos as tools of intimidation – tools that have failed miserably, in any case.
Syrians of all identities will be so pleased to start a new life of normalcy, freedom, dignity and citizenship the day after Assad is toppled that they will be too busy re-creating their own country in their own image to be sidetracked into domestic warfare. The last thing Syrians want after 42 years of police-state rule and many months of violence since March 2011 is to keep fighting each other.
The day after Assad will not necessarily be a moment of chaos. A reasonably orderly transition could occur, because a credible, indigenous structure for governance already exists. The dozens, perhaps hundreds, of local committees across Syria that have been organizing the revolt against Assad family rule will emerge the day after with immense legitimacy, authority and logistical capability in governing at the local level.
The coordinating, revolutionary, resistance, information, services, medical and other local committees that have operated successfully across the country since March 2011 are likely to move quickly on multiple fronts after Assad falls – to create a national power-sharing transitional government that makes all Syrians feel they have a say in their country’s management. They will maintain order and security, resume normal economic activity, provide basic services, and initiate a transitional justice mechanism that will satisfy the widespread and understandable need for justice and accountability for those officials who abused their power and humiliated – and recently slaughtered – their countrymen and women for so many years.
Syrians know that Assad does not represent all Syrian Alawites, that not all Alawites support Assad’s vicious policies, and that only some Alawites and other government and security officials are to blame for the violence and intemperance of the regime that has mismanaged the country for decades. Transitional justice mechanisms and respectable constitutional guarantees of equal citizenship for all in the new Syria could prevent an Alawite-Sunni war, or long-term Alawite isolation.
Many around the world – in Dubai, Beirut, Istanbul, Washington, Berlin and other cities – are now working on plans for a post-Assad transition. Most of these will have only minimal relevance, because the only really credible political management work will be done by the Syrians who emerge from the resistance committees to shape the new government. The importance of the many transition-planning efforts abroad, however, alongside the handful of Syrian governments-in-exile now being established by opposition groups, is that they confirm the enormous intellectual, political, nationalistic and technical assets that a free Syria will have at its disposal to redefine itself.
It is entertaining – and politically or financially profitable for some – to speculate wildly about terrible days ahead in Syria. It is much more useful to focus on realities, the most important of which is that tens of millions of talented Syrians are eager to get on with their lives as free and equal citizens in a normal and sovereign country. I believe that will happen soon, and I will dance with joy for them when it does.
*Rami G. Khouri is a columnist for the Daily Star in which this piece appeared on Aug. 17.