HKS Faculty, Student Reflect on Political Uprising in Syria

August 2, 2012
by Doug Gavel

With the battle for Aleppo now underway in Syria's largest city, the world is watching to see what happens next in the latest violent political standoff in the Middle East.  The nation's military leaders are promising to defeat rebel soldiers, just as they did in Damascus. But rebel leaders and freedom activists are pledging to prepare for a "long, hard guerilla war" to drive President Bashar al-Assad from power. 

Nicholas Burns, Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), writes in The Boston Globe that "the revolution may have reached a turning point...following [last] Wednesday's bombing and defections of two senior leaders as well as Russia's ban on future arms sales. Assad is now weak and isolated."  And he states that "the United States will now be pressured to adopt a much more aggressive effort to push Assad from power and stop his heartless slaughter of innocent civilians." 

More than 100,000 civilians have reportedly fled the country, and those who remain are suffering, according to a Syrian student at the Kennedy School who has remained in close communication with many friends and relatives back home. 

"My in-laws fled to Lebanon last week. My uncle’s house was bombed, and luckily no one was there. A cousin of mine lost his 15-year old son who was killed during a demonstration coming out of school few months back. Several relatives fled their homes with their families and have been moving around aiming for safer grounds," he says. "Of course this is nothing compared to the suffering of the thousands who have seen their homes demolished and their loved ones killed before their own eyes. Massacres, atrocities and stories of rape and torture are beyond one’s ability to describe."  

The student, who does not wish to be identified by his name for this article, claims that many Syrians have long hoped for political change in their country, but they were not prepared for or expecting a violent revolution like the one they are now experiencing.  

"It took the majority of the Syrian people a long time and a very high price in human suffering to finally realize that change will not take place unless Assad and his regime are gone forever," he writes.  "I believe it is clear in the hearts and minds of the Syrian people that the point of no return has been reached.  For whatever it takes, this regime will definitely go." 

But Joseph Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, argues in a commentary in The Korea Times that there may be little or no international intervention to assist the rebels in Syria, despite some similarities between the uprising there and the one which resulted in the overthrow of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi last year. 

"Many observers highlight the important physical and military differences between Libya and Syria that would make Syrian no-fly zones or no-drive zones problematic. Some Syrians who oppose President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, pointing to Baghdad in 2005, argue that the one thing worse than a cruel dictator is a sectarian civil war," Nye writes. 

The Syrian student is disappointed with the lack of a forceful international response to the conflict, but he argues that there are myriad reasons why other countries have refused to intervene. 

"It is an election year in the US, Europe has its problems, the UN is completely paralyzed, Russia would like to keep its last foothold in the Mediterranean, Iran would like to enhance its regional positioning by preserving the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon connection, Turkey is sandwiched between Iran and Russia and would like NATO to show some interest, Saudi Arabia is worried about Iran’s danger to the Gulf States, and so on," he states.  "Syria has become an arena for numerous actors to play their cards and settle their accounts at the expense of the Syrian people! It seems that the people of Syria have realized this and have become increasingly hopeless of the international community.  Slogans by the masses on streets, such as 'We have no one but you, O’ Allah' are a vivid manifestation of this sentiment." 

What will happen in coming days and months is anyone's guess, but Charles Freilich with the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is worried that the outcome might not be a significant improvement beyond the Assad regime. 

"The tragedy of Syria, as in Egypt and other regional countries now undergoing transformational change, is that the chances of a moderate democratic regime evolving are minimal," Freilich writes in The Diplomat. "Indeed, it increasingly looks like the tyranny of Assad will be replaced by an Islamist regime, possibly with strong jihadi and even al-Qaeda influences, and Syria itself may fragment. We may yet miss the relative stability and predictability of the Assad years." 

Yet Freilich does express the hope that "a new regime in Syria, if more moderate, might ultimately also pose new opportunities for peace" in the region. 

Syrian protesters

A boy holds a flag used as a symbol of protest by rebel sympathizers during a rally in London, March 2012. Photo credit: Thomas Fuchs

"It took the majority of the Syrian people a long time and a very high price in human suffering to finally realize that change will not take place unless Assad and his regime are gone forever," says a Syrian student at the Kennedy School. "I believe it is clear in the hearts and minds of the Syrian people that the point of no return has been reached."

Photo of Syrian protest

Protesters on the streets of Damascus, Syria.


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