Almost a year before the Iranian Revolution, former US President Jimmy Carter visited Tehran on New Year’s eve in 1977. While he was toasting with Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, he declared that "Iran, because of the Shah’s great leadership, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world." Given that the protests that eventually toppled the regime began just weeks after Carter made this statement, he would later be considered one of the worst political analysts in world history.
Jimmy Carter’s misjudgment of the Shah’s regime does not stem from his imprudence. Rather than an inability to read the political situation in Iran, this distorted perception of the Shah regime was a consequence of the intrinsic obscurity that surrounds all autocratic regimes. Since these regimes are void of transparency and freedom of speech, much of what we know about them remains limited to what the regime says about itself. We never truly know their real power. Maybe we can sense or predict that some level of dissent is brewing in society, but we don’t ever know the exact depth of this anger. We don’t know the number of people whose loyalty to the regime is just lip service, or at what point these pseudo-supporters would join in action against the regime.
Had we known these things, we would have been able to predict the Arab revolutions, which came as a great shock to Middle Eastern analysts.
Syria has been in turmoil for more than 18 months now. Though it is getting more and more embarrassing to report death tolls as mere statistics, it is estimated that more than 15,000 people have died. The average daily death toll is over 100.
Meanwhile, the international community is teaching Syrians a hard lesson: don’t expect anything from international institutions. Since diplomatic talks on Syria have a proven record of failure, the ambiguous outcome of the Geneva meeting came as no surprise.
What about the domestic situation in Syria? Can the regime collapse due to internal dynamics? The Syrian opposition is optimistic that it will.
Burhan Ghalioun, the former leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), appeared on Al-Arabiya last week to speak of the details of his visit to Idlib. According to Ghalioun, the Syrian regime and the military have lost real control of the area. He said there are many liberated zones and that the regime is very weak on the ground. Therefore, he asserted, the regime has devised a new, “cowardly” strategy of “assembling in certain areas outside the villages for the main purpose of shelling cities from afar, mainly at night while citizens are sleeping.” This is why the SNC is insisting on the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria.
Some may see this as wishful thinking, but others share Ghalioun’s views. A US journalist who was recently in Hama and Damascus says that the Syrian state has all but collapsed in the field. People have overcome the threshold of fear and there is considerable sympathy for the opposition, even within the Christian community.
Similarly, the director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, Paul Salem, suggested in a recent article that the Syrian regime is in its final phase. Pointing out that the opposition is suitably armed and capable of inflicting serious damage to the regime’s army, Salem says that “more towns and regions have slipped out of the regime’s control and government forces have become increasingly desperate in their use of violence.”
Assad has played his cards well and used the current international conjecture quite smartly. Nevertheless, it will be difficult for him to sustain his regime for long. The prolongation of this transition period is increasing the number of deaths, radicalizing the opposition and exacerbating the crisis’ spill-over effects. However, it is safe to say that we are on the verge of a new era. Aside from supporting and enhancing the Syrian opposition, it may very well be the time to start debating how to build a democratic Syria respectful of minority rights.