The popular upheavals that have rocked Syria for months make it clear that the fear is gone and the country is at a turning point. But what kind of change, and at what cost?
Syrian regime now threatens the entire region's stability
In July of 2002 I was in Syria on an invitation of the US embassy to deliver an address at Damascus University. I was delighted that the auditorium was full, but a touch nervous since I would be speaking about the challenges facing the country.
In the words of one of my heroes, the American peace activist and Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, always try to "give an audience what they need to hear, not what they want to hear". Syria needed to open up its political system, I said, to allow its young the chance to freely participate in shaping the future of their country. The country also needed to open the economy so that the entrepreneurial spirit of its business community could better compete and prosper in the world marketplace.
Everyone in the audience, from students in the back row, to faculty members in the middle, to government officials in the front, all nodded their approval. With so much agreement, why didn't change occur? Quite simply, for decades a rigid political apparatus ruled Syria with an iron hand, setting limits on allowable discourse and using fear to govern.
The popular upheavals that have rocked Syria for months now make it clear that the fear is gone and the country is at a turning point. But what kind of change, and at what cost?
From the size and the geographic distribution of the demonstrations, it is clear that many Syrians want the regime to go and desire a more open and free society. They no longer fear the violence of the regime. As the violence against them continues, the resistance continues to grow and, quite remarkably, has remains largely non-violent.
But what is also evident is that large numbers of Syrians are afraid of change. The urban secular middle class and many of the minority religious communities are deeply concerned about their future and safety. Christians in particular look next door to Iraq and see its dispersed Christian communities. As a result, the regime in Damascus retains some degree of support from vulnerable groups.
The regime has, indeed, lost legitimacy and trust. Over decades of rule the political elites have been corrupted by power, focusing solely on maintaining control. In the past, their repressive policies may have succeeded in silencing critics, but no longer. Their repression has only deepened the resolve and expanded the numbers of protesters.
On the one hand, the authorities have feinted in the direction of creating a Syrian perestroika, promising reforms (a new constitution, freeing political prisoners, ending travel restrictions on opposition figures, national dialogue, a multiparty system, etc), while at the same time using lethal force. Snipers and thugs have exacted a deadly toll.
For their part, the opposition appears fragmented, without a clear direction or national programme, and not representative of every segment of Syria's complex society. Even US officials suggest that this opposition "is not ready for prime time".
There is serious concern that this drama may get worse. Syria is fragile, and exists in an even more fragile neighbourhood - with deeply divided Lebanon on one side and still volatile Iraq on the other. Syria hosts more than one million Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, and is home to a large disenfranchised Kurdish community. Turkey and Jordan are concerned that the violence of a destabilised Syria might spill over their borders. The fate of the region is tied to Syria's domestic turmoil.
Given what is at stake, Syria, its people, its opposition and its regime need help. The regime must be convinced that its self-destructive behaviour has left it no option but to change. The opposition needs support and time to mature in order to become an effective and inclusive agent of change. And Syria's people, including minority and majority religious and ethnic communities, must be assured that they will be included as equal citizens.
The only way forward is through national dialogue leading to a process of transition. Because of its record of violent repression, the regime has forfeited its right to lead this transformation. If the political elites cease this senseless violence, they and the social forces they represent can still participate. If they do not stop, the violence and the protests will continue, potentially spiralling towards chaos.
An expanded regional contact group, including Arab countries, could play a critical role to convince the regime to abandon its self-destructive behaviour, assist the opposition and facilitate a national dialogue. First, however, the violence must end.
What is at stake is more than legitimacy. It is the future of the country, its people and the stability of the entire region.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute