The Syrian Civil War began during the 2011 Arab Spring. Civilians took to the streets protesting the violent regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Assad regime responded with horrifically violent crackdowns. Unlike other Arab Spring revolutions the Syrian Army, for the most part, remained loyal to the Assad regime even when faced with orders to deploy the state’s chemical weapons arsenal against unarmed civilians. The extraordinary loyalty shown by the Syrian Army, when presented with legitimate opportunities to defect, stems from the sectarian rule employed by Assad. Assad is a member of the Alawites, a religious minority in Syria. During his rule, Assad promoted Alawite officers in his military’s ranks opposed to Sunni soldiers. Along with this, Assad built a community called Dahiet al-Assad, a suburb of Damascus, which houses 100,000 people- the majority military officers. Regardless of political beliefs, the isolation and concentration of Syrian officers (i.e. ghettoization) has created an environment where they are unable to defect- with the soldiers under their command- to the rebel camp. Even if able, officers, many who originated from the poor countryside, risk losing their entire wealth, personally bestowed upon them by the regime in the form of their property, and also risk rejection from the majority Sunni rebel groups. It is in the officers best personal interests to remain loyal to the Syrian Army, which has devolved the resistance, led by the Syrian Free Army, into a brutal civil war especially when compared to the meager conflicts, like those of Mubarak’s Egypt, that saw leaders lose military support and fall from power within months. In the power vacuum created by the civil war, the eastern half of the country became a fertile breeding ground for extremism which led to the growth of the Islamic State. With Iranian and Russian soldiers now engaged in the warfare and Kurdish forces occupying land in the north, the Syrian civil war continues to spiral into a disastrous, far-reaching conflict. Amongst all this chaos, the Syrian people have endured unspeakable atrocities and are, without a doubt, the group who has suffered the most.
Let us suppose for a moment that a majority of Syrian Army officers did defect from the Assad regime or that the Syrian Free Army eventually defeats the Assad government and takes power in the country (this is extremely unlikely due to the Assad-Russian alliance). The revolution in Syria would still fail- the war in Syria would still be lost. The extreme loss of life would prove in vain. How is this possible? To answer this question we must examine Egypt after the disposition of Mubarak: due to uncontrollable inflation which led to rampant unemployment and skyrocketing grain prices, the people of Egypt organized in Tahir Square and joined what would come to be known as the Arab Spring. After a brief interim government organized by the leaders of the military coup d’état, a democratic election was held and the Muslim Brotherhood, under President Morsi, ascended to power. The Brotherhood, the only organized political party that predated the revolution, inherited a dysfunctional bureaucracy of governmental institutions. The Interior Ministry, long functioning on patronage instead of merit based appointments, lacked the competence to support a democratic transition. The judiciary system, containing judges appointed by and loyal to the previous regime, openly opposed the new government and many security services abandoned their responsibilities. Widespread black outs and poor management of oil and gas resources incited anger among citizens and galvanized the self- preservationist military generals to initiate a second coup d’état and instill a second military government which continues to rule today. The lack of an established and independent civil society in the country and brittle government institutions centered around the will of a single authoritarian ruler created an environment which made democratization unsustainable. The hollowness of the Egyptian state doomed the Morsi government but his alienation of both the elite and common citizen accelerated his demise.
Before the Syrian Civil War, the Assad government possessed many of the same characteristics of the Mubarak regime. Assad did not allow for opposition parties to gain governing experience in his administrations stunting their ability to mount a destabilizing, politically-affluent dissent. As seen in Egypt, parties without governing experience lack the ability to effectively rule a nation. Along with barring all opposition politics producing a difficult environment for united parties to form and rule after a revolution, Assad structured his government around weak institutions. Patronage filled the state bureaucracy with corruption and incompetency that inhibited any sector of the Syrian administration to gain power and threaten Assad’s rule. The strong military Assad built dogmatized policing protestors more then protecting the country from existential threats. Along with this power protecting centralization, Syria did not contain a strong and independent civil society that represented the public interests of the citizens and could provide stability during a governmental transition. The structuring of the regime relied on Assad wielding unlimited authority over every aspect of Syrian life. In order to maintain this power, Assad never allowed any institutions to gain influence and this brittle system would never have supported a Syrian Free Army led transition into a stable democratic government. Just like in Egypt, the lack of functional, well-established public institutions (such as impartial judicial courts, effective interior ministries, and other systems which carry out the policy of the state to support and protect the public) would have resulted in an unsustainable democracy that would have devolved into war. The Syrian Civil War, even if won by conventional definition, would in all likelihood have ended in failure and chaos. No democratic revolution, no matter how organized, would be able to build the necessary framework to implement beneficial policies and maintain economic prosperity as well as peace in the streets of Syria.
The Arab Spring demonstrates the misguided philosophy of the United States’s foreign policy strategy. We cannot promote democracy in countries without adept civil societies. We should pressure authoritarian rulers to, instead of consolidating power, establish strong bureaucracies that could withstand a transition to eventual democracy. Tunisia successfully arose from the Arab Spring as a peaceful nation with a representative government. The lesson we can gain from this is the necessity to, before championing democracy, champion strong public institutions and a independent civil society that fights for the interest of all civilians and can implement beneficial reform. A government built on the charisma of a single leader will not provide the framework necessary to sustain that government or bolster a new one. Inevitably, the lessons we have learned through the now dormant Arab Spring demonstrate that the war in Syria is one that cannot be won. Syria will not be a victory for democracy. Syria will not be a victory for peace. No matter how much money or resources we provide the moderate Syrian Free Army it is all too late to matter. Now if that money had been spent over the last decade pressuring and supporting a Syrian regime to develop efficient bureaucratic institutions, we might be celebrating a victory in Syria- a victory for democracy, a victory for peace, but upmost a victory for the embattled Syrian people.