We have learned many things about Syria during the past year, while some other aspects of the situation there remain unclear.
The most important thing that we have learned is that President Bashar Assad is not the modern, liberal reformer that many had painted him as being during the past decade.
The truth is that nobody really knew the reality of Assad’s personality or political instincts. In the past year, since many of his own people have openly risen up against him and demanded his ouster, he has responded with consistent force and the employment of frequently inhuman tactics, lies, and broken promises.
This has culminated to date in the two recent massacres of helpless villagers in Houla and Qubayr. We now know, without any ambiguity whatsoever, what Assad represents, and what he will do, and it is very ugly indeed.
The Syrian president has pursued a policy that requires the continued use of massive and cruel violence against his own people. Assad’s expectation is that he will terrorize and traumatize the Syrian population into submission. That policy has not worked in the past year. In fact, repression usually does not work for long in any other such authoritarian police state that relies on fear rather than legitimacy as its basis for authority and incumbency.
Rather, Assad’s violent approach has only caused the rebellion against him and his circle of equally cruel rulers to grow, while also eliciting greater regional and international support for the opposition that wants to bring down Assad rule and end the terrible security state that he and his father have managed for 42 years.
The growing opposition to the Assad regime and the intensifying international calls for the Syrian president’s downfall will ultimately bring about precisely that fate for him. The only thing that remains unclear, however, is how and when he will leave office, and allow the Syrian people to rebuild their country as well as their governance system on what we assume will be a more rational basis.
I wrote about nine months ago that Assad had lost the critical legitimacy – namely his domestic, regional and international legitimacy – and that it was that he needed to rule over Syria, only a question of whether he would depart peacefully or after having provoked a bloodbath.
I wondered then if Assad had it in him to recognize his loss of legitimacy, and initiate from the top the similar kinds of changes that the onetime Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had introduced in the Soviet Union over a generation ago.
We now know the answer, which is that Assad was incapable of embarking on any peaceful reform process that would bring about a democratic Syria or, for that matter, end the rule of his family.
The most critical trend now underway in Syria is the improved performance and capabilities of the local opposition groups and some of the opposition groups abroad. This has resulted in the creation of patches of territory from which the Syrian government has withdrawn, and where opposition groups control the terrain.
As these areas expand, an outcome that is likely, the political and military ability of the opposition groups to demoralize government troops and officials will expand steadily; and this trend will be bolstered by significant injections of Arab and foreign assistance.
When the revolt against Assad began in late March 2011, most of the world thought that trying to remove his regime would result in local and regional consequences that were both too dangerous and unpredictable to risk bringing about.
In the last year, however, Assad has pursued such an incalculably stupid set of policies that most of the world now feels that the dangers of allowing him and his regime to remain in place are greater than the dangers of toppling him.
The world has given the plan of the U.N.-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, many months to achieve a breakthrough, but without success. This is mainly the case because of the Syrian government’s inability to stop killing its own people.
I would guess that the next step now is for the international community that opposes Assad’s rule to explore formal diplomatic means of delegitimizing and strangling his government, by helping to form and then officially recognizing a unified Syrian opposition movement as the official government-in-exile of the Syrian people.
This will not happen quickly, due to the fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition. The enticement of official international recognition – which has informally started with the support that opposition groups already receive from abroad – will probably oblige the movement to achieve at least minimal coordination among Syrian opposition movements inside and outside the country.
The increased sectarian nature of the killings in Syria are a problem, but a problem that has only recently emerged, mainly due to the sectarian-based regime’s apparent determination to stoke this fire without considering its ultimate consequences.
Neighboring Iraq is a sad example of what happens when sectarianism is allowed to become politicized and then militarized, leading to years or even decades of internecine violence.
We know much more now about Assad than we did last year, but we also know more about the people of Syria, who have demonstrated mind-boggling courage and determination to live as free and dignified citizens in a democratic and modern Arab state. Their day is nearing.
The writer is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, where this article was published on June 9, 2012.