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If Assad Goes: Syria's Options

by RASHA ELASS

19 Aug 2011 03:38Comments
Assad-wife.jpgPondering a post-Assad Syria.

[ opinion ] The United States has finally called on Syria's president to resign. Assuming he did, who would succeed Bashar al-Assad?

Some analysts say the Syrian regime has ensured that the country has no unified and prominent opposition, and that Assad has long turned a blind eye to the proliferation of Islamist influence in his country. This way, they claim, his regime always looks like the "best option" for Syria.

Since the insurgency began to escalate in March, there has been a barrage of reports about brutal government suppression against unarmed civilians, with more than 2,000 dead at last count.

The regime has stuck to its script, claiming it is fighting "armed gangs." But now, even Damascus's stanchest supporters in Moscow and Istanbul have distanced themselves from this rhetoric. Only Iran remains by Syria's side.

Yet questions abound about the opposition. Who are they? And who has the most grassroots support?

So far, the big picture looks something like this.

There is homegrown opposition, and opposition living in exile. Both can be Islamists, or secularists. Some are socialists, even communists, though insiders say the latter are irrelevant.

When I lived in Syria as a journalist, I met a few of each. The Islamists were the most active, most visible, and acted with the greatest moral gravitas. They converted many private schools into conservative Islamic learning centers. They prevailed upon restaurants in their neighborhoods to stop serving alcohol, and shamed coffee shops into closing during Ramadan.

My most memorable run-in with them happened a couple of years ago. I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop during Ramadan, grateful that it was open during fasting hours so I could use the WiFi to file a story.

Two young women walked in and approached the barista. When I looked up, I saw them gesturing to her with their hands, as if they were skewering something. They were telling her that she will burn in hell, "just like this," like a chicken on a skewer, for serving food during fasting hours in Ramadan.

I asked the two women why they thought they could bully the barista. The law in Syria was clear. Only the owner of the coffee shop decides whether or not to shut down during fasting hours.

"This is not Saudi Arabia," I pointed out.

They called me an infidel and left. They returned the next day and the one after. The coffee shop owner, himself from a prominent Sunni family, gave in to their requests before the end of that Ramadan. He shut down his business during fasting hours, and I was unable to use WiFi until after sunset.

Those two women were part of a women's group whose raison d'etre was to "remind" local business owners of the virtues of Ramadan. There are dozens of these groups. And they send out teams of two or three young recruits to "spread the word," bullying and shaming businesses to "be good Muslims."

They are the "poison pill," one analyst told me. Just like a corporation might take on undesirable debt to make itself a less attractive target for a hostile takeover, so Assad turned a blind eye to growing Islamist influence among his people to make himself look like the best option for Syria. During his ten-year term, he has endeared himself to secularists by claiming to support the separation of church and state. Yet he never bothered to clarify to his own people what that meant. Ask the average Syrian what "secular" means, and they will say it is "atheism," or an infidel state hostile to the freedom to practice religion.

This strategy of ambiguity worked for a long time. To this day, Assad's diehard supporters keep saying "at least he is secular," and point to the growing Islamist influence in Syria as an example for a bleak future without him.

As for the secular opposition I met, they are intellectual, hard working, and have lived their lives under a microscope. They are also poor, and they do not trust the regime. Many have not been allowed to travel outside Syria for years. Few speak any foreign language. Yet, remarkably, without exposure to international conferences and the global ideas du jour, they are well-oriented in their understanding of human rights and have a clear picture of what they want Syria to look like after Assad.

They are mainly Sunni or Shia secularists, along with members of minority groups, including Christians and Druze.

And they are unimpressed with the Syrian opposition that lives in exile. They resent that such Syrians become darlings for the Western media and might one day have power in Syria.

"What do they know about life here?" one activist told me, referring to exiled dissidents. "When they lived in Syria, they were raised as part of the elite. Then they left in protest. And now they seduce the Western media with their perfect accents and clean-shaven look. What do they know about real life here?"

"They are the Ahmad Chalabis of Syria," said another Damascus-based dissident. Chalabi was once dubbed the George Washington of Iraq by his American supporters. But after Saddam Hussein's regime fell, the allies discovered that Chalabi had no support at all among Iraqis and no understanding of the country's dynamics.

Also in exile, though without Western support, are some former regime personalities who never stopped eying power in Syria.

Syria's former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam is one example. He fled into exile to Paris in 2005, and he is reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars. As are the exiled Rifaat al-Assad and his sons, Bashar's cousins.

Some insiders say those exiles are financing opposition movements within Syria, including armed gangs and flash mobs that purposely create chaos. But these allegations are difficult to prove.

Moving forward, here are some dynamics to watch for in a post-Assad Syria.

Chaos. Sectarian strife. Endless violence. All while the West courts the wrong successor, some Syrian equivalent of Chalabi.

Meanwhile, real opposition with its ear to the ground in Syria might go unnoticed. Secularists and religious minorities might opt to leave the country, seeking asylum elsewhere. These groups were among the first to flee Iraq when the war there started, and the first to flee Lebanon during that country's civil war.

This will shift the balance within Syria in favor of Islamists. And if that happens, then Assad's "poison pill" will have really been poisonous.

Rasha Elass is writing a memoir about the Arab world. She has lived in and reported on Syria and Islam.

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