The Syrian Knot

January 12, 2012 at 12:16am



The Syrian Knot


by Dr. Jürgen Todenhöfer


With the generous support from Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the Arab revolution has reached all of Syria.  The Syrians have discovered their right to political participation and they are not going to abandon it again.  The triumph of democracy is unstoppable; also in Syria.  And that is good.

The need for democratic transformation is essentially accepted, even amongst the government and the insurgents. The ultimate and only question is, whether there will be democracy with or without Assad.


 Also, Assad meanwhile refers to the democracy for Syria as “compulsory”. He wants to, as he told me, introduce it gradually, "from scratch".  This would be by means of parliamentary elections in spring, and the development of a new constitution and subsequent presidential elections. The insurgents, however, want democracy immediately and without Assad.


The President’s chances to reshape the country from the top have diminished in the last months due to the slowness of his reforms and the harsh actions of the security forces. The support for Assad was considerably greater during my visit in June compared to my following one in November.


Nonetheless, the Syrian Revolution differs fundamentally from the ones in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya:


1) the majority of Syrians still differentiates between Assad and the regime, as incomprehensible this might sound to some Westerns.

Many Syrians still have hope that Assad will lead the country towards democracy, without a civil war.


2) Unlike Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the President still gets to a great extend the support of the army. The number of defectors gets overestimated in the West. The behavior of the army, however, is a crucial factor during revolutions.


Syria is not simply a case of a popular uprising against a hateful ruler. The frontline is much more complicated:


  • In the interior countless young people have been demonstrating  peacefully for months risking their lives in their struggle against dictatorship.


  • At the same time hundreds of thousands have been demonstrating in favor of Assad- and in favor for democracy- in the urban centers of Damascus and Aleppo; many ordered, many voluntarily.


  • Guerrilla commandos have formed in the cities of Daraa, Homs, Hama and Idlib taking action against the security forces with heavy weaponry. According to the government, they are increasingly killing civilians, mostly Alawites. These statements are confirmed with concrete examples by inner Syrian opposition politicians, who themselves spent years in the dungeons of Bashar Assad’s father. Fact or Fiction?


  • The Syrian army proceeds mercilessly against these guerrilla commandos, whose financial resources are obscure.


  • Simultaneously, police units and intelligence agencies try to keep the peaceful protesters under control. In doing so they often use totally unacceptable violence.


  • The war is getting dirtier with every day. Also, because both sides in the meantime try to pin the blame for their murders.


  • It is all getting even more complicated by the mere fact that the internal Syrian opposition and the opposition in exile differ on key issues. The internal Syrian opposition, which is relatively outspoken since the beginning of the revolution – is in favor of a peaceful democratic transformation, while parts of the opposition in exile favor a military intervention by the NATO – similar to the one in Libya.


How truthful is the information we get here in the West on the complexity of the situation in Syria? The media opinion leaders Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya come from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two avowed dictatorships. Shouldn't we raise certain doubts whether democracy is really their primary concern? Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among the closest military allies of the United States.  Shouldn't at least the question be allowed whether this is not about something completely different, something much larger - the reorganization of the Middle East according to US ideas?


It is rather strange that of all the "Arab League", a club of dictators allied with the US, is now presented as the spearhead of the movement for democracy. 

This reinforces the suspicion that Syria is part of a great political power re-shuffle in the Middle East, where a coldly calculating West is exploiting the Syrian revolution.

Nevertheless, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were indeed courageous pioneers for freedom and resistance in both Afghanistan and Iraq. One can only be curious to see which position they will take when the democratic tsunami will one day reach their countries.


The statements of Western politicians on the events in Syria that I read on a daily basis don’t do justice to the realities I have experienced there for four weeks.  Whenever I was going through the international online reports in the evenings, it seemed to me as if was I was reading narratives from another planet.   Everyone has a right to an own opinion, but none to his own facts.


According to my personal experiences in Damascus, Daraa, Homs and Hama at least half of the reports on Syria are simply false – almost like before the Iraq war. Unfortunately, this also means, that many of the horrible news messages are true.


The Syrian government is partly guilty of this information meltdown. Who shuts out the international press is not allowed to complain about false reports; besides, the credibility of the Syrian state television is similarly low. But what about the foreign embassies, aren't they compelled to inform their governments objectively? And aren't governments duty-bound to tell their public the truth? Why has the truth to be the first casualty in a war?

The Syrian knot is still solvable. Paradoxically, it is Bashar Assad, who could most likely achieve a peaceful transition towards democracy, because he still has the power and still holds the authority among the majority of the population. However, the regime and especially the despised secret services have lost all trust. The Syrians don’t want to have anything to do with them.


The guerrilla commandos whose methods differ little from those of the state's security services, have also forfeited their trust amongst many Syrians. They robbed the revolution of its innocence and they have also harmed the peaceful demonstrators who have the historical merit of having initiated the process of democratization.

Assad hasn't much time left to peacefully resolve the Syrian knot. His window of opportunity is almost closed. What should he do?


1) He has to face up to presidential elections in near time, taking the full risk of loosing office. But this also comes with the opportunity to win democratic legitimization. Everyone must have the right to line up against him. Ultimately, Assad has to detach himself from the current system.


2) He must enforce an immediate ceasefire with the armed guerrillas and withdraw his tanks from the rebel strongholds. The killing must stop. The chances for a peaceful resolution diminish with each person killed; a small universe dies.


3) He must initiate a fair dialogue between the Syrian inner-opposition and the opposition in exile with the ultimate goal of national reconciliation and the transformation of the country into a democratic state under the rule of law. The exiled opposition has no right not evade this dialogue. They also bear responsibility for Syria.

The West must also revise its politics. During this revolutionary turmoil of the Arab world it should act as a mediator not as an agitator. Many Syrians perceive the position of the West as unfair. This is because it overlooks everything that it heavily criticizes in Syria in the case of friendly dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, because it abuses the Syrian longing for democracy for the pursuit of its interest-driven-politics, and because its current sanctions have senselessly destroyed the existence of hundreds of thousands of Syrian low-income workers.

Where are the western foreign policy makers - like once Kissinger, Genscher and Bahr - who would board a plane and try to defuse the problems on the ground through shrewd negotiations? The doors for such talks are wide open in Damascus.

The goal of far-sighted Western politics should be to help that:


  • All countries of  the Arab world, including our buddy-dictatorships, get to enjoy the freedoms of a constitutional democracy and the rule of law in a few years from now.


  • This transition to democracy is realized without bloodshed, but through negotiations and elections.


  • The Arab world finally also becomes free in the formulation of its foreign policies - free from Western domination. After centuries of colonialism and post-colonialism the West should finally become a friend and partner of the Arab world.


The attempt to transform Arabia by means of a series of remote-controlled civil wars and interventions is the most dangerous of all solutions.  For the Middle East and for us.