Syria's opposition has failed to offer a viable alternative
Shortly after the execution of Saddam Hussein in December 2006, two stories began to circulate about his fate. One told of otherwise sane people reportedly seeing the face of the late Iraqi dictator on the moon on the night of his death. Another told a more believable tale: that the "real" Saddam was alive and well after a body double died on the gallows. It would only be a matter of time before he rose again.
These stories were, of course, nothing more than paranoid fiction. But they spoke to the psychological hold that Saddam maintained over much of the Iraqi public. People simply couldn't believe his reign of terror was over. Indeed, some people didn't want it to be.
A similar scenario is playing out in Syria today. Much like his father before him, Bashar Al Assad's political decisions have rendered him illegitimate in the eyes of many. But fear of what could come next has kept his regime alive.
Mr Al Assad, like all totalitarian rulers, holds on to power in different ways: by force, by coercion, or by a combination of both. Decades of brutality have pushed some to accept tyranny.
But there are others who support the Assad regime for legitimate reasons. These Syrians, predominantly minorities, have profound concerns that must be duly addressed. And so far, the Syrian opposition has failed to reassure those sitting on the fence.
"It hurts every time I say that I don't want the [Assad] regime to fall," a Syrian Christian friend told me recently. "Deep down I know it should go, but survival instinct tells me to support it."
Although the opposition has little political and diplomatic experience after decades of suppression, it is fair to say that it bears some of the blame for the continued bloodshed.
Many of the dissidents are widely perceived as seeking personal political gains.
On Monday, a number of dissidents announced a "national council" in Istanbul. But the council was unilaterally announced and did not include any credible dissidents, such as Haitham Al Maleh, a former judge who has a track record of dissidence from within Syria and has spent many years of his life in the Al Assads' prisons. Unilateral, irresponsible acts by self-styled opposition members - people who command no credibility from the majority of Syrians - only reinforce the regime's propaganda.
"Who is the alternative now?" said another Christian friend from Damascus. "And why do the US and the West support the opposition? Believe me, had the opposition been more patriotic than the regime, we wouldn't have heard the voice of the Americans as we do now."
Syrians' fears are further reinforced by the fact that most of the opposition conferences were organised by the Muslim Brotherhood, the only non-state actor in recent history to slaughter other Syrians along sectarian lines. (In the 1980s they assassinated dozens of Alawite officers as part of their armed campaign against the former president)
It is worth noting that there was a perception that the 1982 massacre in Hama, where as many as 30,000 people were killed, was carried out only by Hafiz Al Assad and his brother Rifaat al Assad. Now the dominant perception is that the current killings are carried out by the sect to which the regime belongs, the Alawites, posing a potential risk of sectarian violence.
"I wholeheartedly want the regime to fall but, to be honest, I began to feel slightly scared a few days ago after I heard some stories of sectarian violence," said a Druze friend from Syria. "If sectarian violence breaks out after the regime falls, we will be the first to suffer from it."
Such reasoning explains why many of those in Suweida, the province where the majority of Druze live, have been largely silent. For one, the Druze are uncertain about their future after the downfall of the Assad regime. Also, the province has 11 tribes and tribal leaders who could stanch any protests by talking to their elderly men.
The regime has also been careful not to clamp down on areas where a minority is based, especially as long as they can make use of influential elders. The Baathist regime has somehow convinced some in the religious minorities that they could only be safe under its rule.
As the situation stands now, the only sect that is likely to face sectarian violence in the regime's downfall is the Alawites. Associating the killings and torture with Alawite militias and security forces means many families will seek revenge on the Alawites.
Families of protesters often repeat that they will "take revenge on the Assads and their gangs". If the Assads fall, a tricky situation will emerge; who will be put on trial so that the families feel that justice is being served? Estimates put the numbers of regime-affiliated Shabbiha - Alawite militias - between 60,000 and 100,000. Revenge attacks will likely take place in several cities across Syria. Currently, some of these families vent their anger through defiance of the brutal regime.
The driving force behind protests is still a thirst for democracy. But as time passes there is an increased risk of chaos that could develop into civil strife.
This risk can be prevented or contained with the establishment of a unified body for the opposition that represents all society sectors. The body should be truly representative and preach an inclusive, non-sectarian and moderate political discourse. The apparent lack of alternative to Mr Al Assad will simply prolong his regime.
Updated: August 28, 2011 04:00 AM