Syria: The Case of the “Arab Spring” Transforming into the “Arab Revolution”


When “the only man”, “strong dictator” Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had to leave his long-lasting rulership, being unable to stand against the mass demonstrations that took place in the middle of January 2011 in Tunisia, no one in the world thought that the “Arab Spring” had begun.

When the developments in Tunisia recurred soon in Egypt, “the Last Pharaoh”, Hosni Mubarak left his seat, unexpectedly, as a result of the demonstrations joined by hundreds of thousands of people at Tahrir Square in the middle of February, all the world came to the conclusion that the “Arab Spring” had blossomed.

Then Libya, located between these countries, came forward. In Libya, the seat of Muammar Gaddafi, who had been in power for more than 40 years, had begun to rock. The progress in Libya was different from that in Tunisia and Egypt. This country, with its long coast, was virtually divided into two in line with its historical and geographical features. While the old Roman period’s Benghazi-centered Cyrenaica region adjacent to Egypt rebelled against the regime and brought an end to it, Tripoli-centered Tripolitania, adjacent to Tunisia, remained under Gaddafi’s control. Libya was virtually divided between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. The country, which depended on a clan structure, began to experience a civil war between the clans.

When the possibility of Gaddafi surviving by seizing Benghazi appeared, France and England, remotely controlled by the United States, interfered. The bombardment, led mainly by France, prevented Benghazi from being seized by Gaddafi in the final stages, but Libya was not similar to one of the blossoming branches of “the Arab Spring”. External intervention came into play. External intervention acquired a NATO dimension.

The developments leaped to Bahrain, which is situated on the Gulf, and to Yemen, which is at the bottom. Bahrain was not like Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. Bahrain, which has a population as small as one of the districts of Istanbul, with its Shiite-majority population ruled by a Sunnite Royal family, represented something much bigger than its size: the conflict of Iran-Saudi Arabia on the basis of the Sunnite-Shiite division in the Gulf. Yemen was a totally different story, an altogether different geopolitical area.

After the images coming from Libya, the Bahrain turmoil and the uncertainty in Yemen, American media has given up the term “Arab Spring” and articles on the “Arab Winter” began to be published. As if spring has changed into winter without experiencing the summer.

The Arabs themselves have referred to the developments that passed through North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula “Revolutions”. Some intellectuals used a more cautious language; they found the phrases of “Arab Rebellions” or “Arab Enlightenment” appropriate.

All these names and definitions could not become a reality before they touched the “heart” of the Middle East, Syria. Syria was not only the geopolitical heart of the Middle East, but also the centre of “Arabism”.

The “Arabist missionary” of Syria goes back to before the 14th century, to the first years of Islam. Islam, after being born in Mecca and Medina established, its first state based in Damascus in the lands of what is now Syria. Between the years 661-750, the Umayyad Dynasty established the first Arab-Islam Empire. They did not only establish it, but conveyed Islam to North Africa, and from there to Spanish Andalucía.

During the long Ottoman centuries, the name Syria did not exist, but there was “Bilad-› Sham”, the Damascus County that included today’s Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Arab nationalist opinion and action, in other words “Arab Enlightenment” and “Arab independence idea”, appeared in the “Damascus County”.

Major historian Arnold Toynbee, talks about the two geopolitical pivots of the world in his 12-volume work called “A Study of History”. He defines one of them as Syria, in which, for one millennium long civilizations and religions had mingled “in a way to leave deep traces in human history”.

The developments that started in Tunisia, acquired the most important “epicentre” in Egypt could maybe be called the “Arab Spring”, but could not attain the character of an “Arab Revolution” unless they reached Syria.

The bottom waves of change had caught even Bashar al-Assad, the ruler of the Syria regime, unprepared. Tunisia and Egypt, which are in a different political axis, or even Libya, did not ring the alarm bells for al-Assad. He seemed happy with the developments in Tunisia and Egypt and was busy telling the foreign press why the same developments could not happen in Syria.

On 15 March 2011, the flames of the “Arab Revolution” came into Syria from the most unexpected place, from Daraa, near the Jordanian border in the South. The children of the Internet and Al-Jazeera watched what happened in Tunisia and Tahrir in Cairo on their screens. Writing “Bashar Irhal”, meaning “Bashar Move”, as graffiti on the walls of Daraa returned to them as torture and death.

The tyranny in Daraa has returned to al-Assad in the form of the people of Syria rebelling everyday in greater numbers.

With the argument of solidarity with Daraa, first Banias and Latakia on the shoreline, then Idlib just on the edge of the Hatay border, continuing with Deir ez-Zor near to the Iraq border, and in consequent periods, one of the cities forming the country’s backbone on the Damascus-Aleppo motorway, Homs, came onto the scene. Homs was the centre of the massacre, where ten to twenty thousand people lost their lives in 1982 during the era of Bashar al-Assad’s father’s rule. Homs became “Syria’s Stalingrad” and according to some, “Syria’s Sarajevo”.

After one year of the beginning of the chaos in Syria, ten thousand people lost their lives. More than a hundred thousand people took refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, twenty-five thousand people to Turkey. Twice that number had to move within the country. The country’s third biggest city had been mostly evacuated and those refugees accumulated in the capital Damascus as migrants.

To take things back in Syria, to return to the “status-quo ante” is impossible now. However, the rulership did not change as in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and even Yemen. It cannot rule the country as before, however, it does not come down. It is experiencing a situation like a “stalemate” in a chess game

There are many reasons for this situation. The most prominent one is the geopolitical location of Syria, where many of the regional and international fault lines intersect. The Assad-Makhlouf family is grounded in a religious order, which composes 8-12 percent of the country’s population, the Alevis. The regime has been continuing its rulership grounded in this religious order and the implicit coalition with the other minorities for more than 40 years. During this period, people belonging to this cult had settled in the key points of the two most important institutions of the regime, intelligence-security bureaucracy and the armed forces.

The Alevis, Christian minorities, most of them being Greek-Orthodox (10-14% of the country’s population), the Druze minority, who is worried about Sunnite dominance (about 3-4% of the population) and the passive support of the Ismailite cult (about 1%) form the mass configuration of the rulership.

If we add the Kurds (about 10%), forming another ethnicity who have been mostly neutralized, 35-40% of the Syrian population either is together with the regime due to existential concerns or are not among the active components of the rioting.

Also, if it is considered that the trade bourgeoisie of two biggest centres, Damascus and Aleppo are in a “co-habitation” with the regime to a large extent, enough mass support is established for a merciless, oppressive regime.

If this kind of a regime resorts to boundless violence to stay in power, it prolongs its existence on such a mass ground. In this case, the Sunnites are faced with an asymmetrical disadvantage, although they are the majority of the population to a large extent.

However, if the most important support of these kinds of regimes, the “Horror Wall”, comes down, meaning the masses without weapons risking everything and go out to the streets, it is not possible for the rulership of the country to continue.

This situation inevitably leaves Syria with two options:

1. An instability lasting in a chronic and violent environment;

2. Possibility of civil war.

The country, being the intersection point of regional and international fault lines, steps in here. Syria’s rulership configuration and foreign allies (Iran) naturally transforms it to the area of struggle for the regional Sunnite-Shiite conflict.

In this aspect, the fault lines that Iran-Saudi Arabia, Iran-West, also Iran-Israel and, most importantly, the unnamed Turkey–Iran rivalry expresses settles on Syrian land.

In addition to all this, Russia; who has the only sea base left in the Mediterranean, in the Tartus Harbour of this country, wants to return to Middle Eastern politics, as in its Soviet Union days, over the Syria crisis and calculates to force its hand in the international agenda. With this calculation, it was one of the supporters of the Syrian regime, it used its trump card of being a member of the UN Security Council, and it also dragged China and India, two important members of the developing markets alignment called “BRIC”, to be supporters of the Syrian regime.

Turkey, who considered Syria as the centre base of the Middle East initiative and developed very special and intimate relations with al-Assad, in the 2000’s made a dramatic turn and cut loose with the Syrian regime. It became the initiator of the “Syria National Council” (SNC) opposition, to prepare the rulership in case of the fall of the Syrian regime, in Istanbul in 2011 October.

The reason for Turkey transforming from being the closest ally in the region to the position of being the enemy of the regime are as follows:

1. Turkey has played the role of the pioneer in the position of “sponsor” of the regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and, as a rising regional power, changed from being “pro status quo” to “local power supporting change”. It could not maintain its position as a regional power by opposing the changes in the Arab World. When the change wave came to this country as a natural outcome of its attitude in the Tunisia-Egypt-Libya axis, it had to support the option for change also in Syria.

2. The cultural and even organic union of the mass nucleus that AKP is grounded on with the Syrian Sunnites left the rulership in Turkey with few options at a historical era when they rose to their feet. Moreover, the “centre gap” that Sunnites were experiencing after the Iraq war against the “regional Shiite axis” that Iran composed, had to inevitably be filled by Turkey as the traditional Sunnite power of the region.

3. The political position Syria holds helps Turkey to be in close relationship with the USA, not being negatively affected by the Turkey-Israel relations when the Israel relations are very bad; also its determining active role in the region provided an opportunity for an indispensable partnership with the European Union, which was struggling with its internal problems and could not spare energy to deal with the Middle East. So, Syria was presenting an opportunity for Turkey to put together its relations with the West and cooperate.

Turkey’s variable politics that changed step by step between March and October 2011 and resulted in opposing the regime has to be understood within the rationality of Real Politics.

Of course, there is the unnamed “Syria’s Kurdish problem” which defines many actors’, prominently Turkey’s Syria politics. Syrian Kurds represent ten percent of the population in total and they are the biggest national group after the Arabs. However, the lands they live in are not permanent like the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan or the Kurds in Turkey. They mostly live in the northeast of the country, next to Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey’s south-eastern cities, in the Al-Jazeera area, also where Syria’s oil reserves exist and in the region where the city of Afrin is located between Hatay and Aleppo.

They came together under the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which was established under the authority of the Iraqi Regional Government by more than ten Kurdish parties whose representing power is debatable. KUK did not come together with SUK yet, which is accepted as the “representative” of the Syrian opposition. Moreover, it is said that the power of the Democratic Change Party (PYD), known as PKK’s Syrian branch, is as much as KUK by itself or even more than that. PYD’s other advantage to other Kurdish organisations is that it is an armed organisation. Also, PYD, though it may be temporary, has a manoeuvre area that can move on the Iran-Syria axis.

The uncertain situation of the Syrian Kurds increases the rapprochement between Ankara and Erbil under USA support, which needs to position itself against the Iran-Syria axis, but it also complicates the political moves towards this country.

It is believed that Kurds are in a role that can determine the fate of the Syria insurrection; together with this, it abstains from being involved in a game that does not have a certain winner and loser yet and has suspicions because of the fact that Turkey had not been able to solve its own Kurdish problem yet.

All of these aspects create a much bigger question mark about the direction of the developments in Syria and the remaining life of the regime in Syria.

Of course, the fact that it is an election year in the USA and the Obama government is avoiding putting the necessary and adequate stress for the regime change in Syria also helps the al-Assad regime to continue.

Between all these question marks, one thing is certain for now: The developments in Syria, and whatever changes will happen as a result, will determine all of the Middle East’s future. It will change the course of history.