A disturbing trend has emerged recently on the part of a number of analysts, policymakers, and pundits: They are condemning the nascent democratic opposition in Syria to a premature stillbirth. These observers argue that revolutionary anti-Baath organizations like the Reform Party of Syria could not possibly command the popularity and respect of the populace to mount any credible challenge to Baath dictatorial hegemony. Essentially, what they are saying is that because of such drawbacks, native opposition to the Baathist authoritarian regime is futile, and that the U.S. and its allies would be better off expending their energy in “constructive” engagement with Assad II’s government. But the yardsticks these commentators employ to measure the viability of grassroots opposition in the face of a historically brutal and ruthless regime leave much to be desired.
In a nutshell, Bashar Assad’s apologists claim that 1) the Reform Party of Syria cannot possibly be effective, because it is led by expatriates who were forced to flee Syria; 2) the democratic opposition represented by the RPS does not adhere to an ideology understandable to the Syrian masses; and 3) explicitly anti-Baath opposition groups like RPS do not possess the “street credentials” necessary to gain national acceptance in Syria.
These claims are, at best, vacuous; at worst, purposely misleading.
To begin with, the presence of exiles in the RPS leadership does little discredit to the party. The Baath do not hesitate to imprison en masse those deemed especially dangerous to their monopoly on power. If the opposition figure is deemed to be exceptionally dangerous to Baath rule–like the late great Sheikh Khaznawi and lesser-known but equally brave journalists and activist students–the Baath have proved quite capable of moving past any moral or institutional objections when reaching into their tried tools of domestic terror: torture and assassination. The authority of the Baath and its national “credentials” are products of the terror they sow into every aspect of civic life. In other words, from the very beginning of their brutal reign, the Baath have been assiduously constructing a social and political environment in which the very seeds of dissent are mercilessly and resolutely rooted out. Exile then necessarily became the sole option for those that wanted to keep the flame of opposition alive. Baathist apologists cynically claim that the diaspora their crimes have forced out are “traitors” and “foreign agents.” The absurdity of this assertion is patent, but it continues to be echoed in many media outlets.
In fact, the situation of the Syrian democratic opposition today parallels in many ways Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Poland, as it grew from a nascent labor movement into a nationwide critical mass of anti-Soviet and anti-Communist activism. The Soviet propaganda machine at the time did its best to discredit Walesa personally, painting him as everything from a drug-addicted philandering gangster to a stooge of “foreign agents” (a.k.a. the West); the Soviets also tried to portray Walesa as a prima-donna figure who was living the “high life” while his fellow Polish comrades–thanks, of course, to the Communist system–were living in poverty. In other words, Walesa, according to the Communists, was “out of touch.” Sound familiar? It should: The Baath are following to the letter the Soviet manual on how to suppress democratic opposition.
But in the end Walesa and Solidarity succeeded against the odds. Walesa was by no means assured of success when he embarked upon the long, exhausting struggle. At times, it seemed hopeless. He was ridiculed, his family was harassed, his integrity was questioned, and even his patriotism put in doubt. But he persevered. He persevered because he paid no mind to the “realist” analysts in the West who thought it unwise to lend moral and political support to an organization that for all practical purposes was likely to fail in its efforts against the full political and military power of a ruthless government with seemingly endless resources at its disposal.
The Solidarity experience has another important parallel among us. Because Syria is ruled by an objectively foreign regime, it would have been easy for us in the Syrian democratic opposition to use the old tools of ethnic hatred and xenophobia to drum up support against Assad II’s system of clannish oligarchy and minority rule. But just as Walesa realized that his struggle was not one of Poles vs. Russians but one of Freedom vs. Tyranny, the Reform Party of Syria has not tried to tap into the dark emotions of a frustrated populace. Walesa saw that Poles and Russians were brothers in arms in their desire for freedom. For our part, we view Sunni, Alawi, Christian, Jew, and Shiite all as brothers in arms in that same struggle. We did not choose our path for its expediency. Our ideology defines our method; and if in the eyes of the learned elites that increases our odds for failure . . . so be it.
Never forget, revolutions are not opportunistic things molded out of an environment ready for their launch. Rather, revolutions create the environment in which they thrive and grow. It is up to our will to follow them through–despite the misgivings of those comfortable with a status quo that if allowed to continue for much longer will spell a de facto defeat for not just democracy in the Middle East, but for stability everywhere.
–Farid Ghadry is president of the Reform Party of Syria.