The Syrian people rose up for their own reasons. Syria's circumstances and Bashar al-Assad's tyranny have a history and a geography that well justified hard-headed calculations by the US, Britain, France and many other countries that they should seize this opportunity to help the rebels get rid of this particular demented regime.
And much of the conventional wisdom in recent weeks has been that the Arab spring is turning into a dreary summer. Not so dreary. Assad's fall will renew a sense of momentum. The struggle in Syria, slowly escalating, will move even more into the foreground. Much of the drive in Arab spring policymaking is currently coming from the Persian Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. It is their hour. The Saudi government is playing a critical role in the Arab diplomacy now isolating Syria.
The UAE, with the Saudis, came up with the funds that allowed Egypt’s interim rulers to hold off the conditional packages being offered by the international financial institutions. The Qatari government has played a vital role in the Syrian revolution. I would feel better if France, Britain, the US and those three countries were having regular working group discussions at a senior level on a nearly daily basis to co-ordinate strategy. Perhaps they are.
The argument in the papers now seems to be running something like this: there are three major possible outcomes to all these revolutionary situations. One is that a new group of authoritarians take control – the forces of reaction reassert themselves as the victors quarrel. Second is that Islamist extremists, like modern-day Jacobins, take control. Then, as usual, there is the hope for the “third way” – of more open societies along lines familiar in the west. At the moment, it looks as though the betting has been on track one, with the assumption that this is also the option backed by Arab Gulf money, which has been flowing more freely than funds from constrained western coffers.
My argument is only this: do not downplay the chances for some new and distinctive way that emerges, one that doesn’t fit into these preconceived categories. It may be crafted by exhausted cadres of newly successful revolutionaries in tiresome bargaining with wary existing elites, worrying over how to fuse concerns about traditional values, stability, and more open societies. There are intriguing developments going on across North Africa and south-west Asia, not yet quite comprehended or digested by many observers, in places such as Morocco, Turkey and even inside a seemingly conservative emirate like the UAE.
Many leaders in Arab and other Muslim communities know that, somehow, it won’t do just to create a new oligarchy of cronies controlling all the key jobs and lines of credit. The men calling the shots in the Gulf states are not mere reactionaries. They know they must adapt; they are very anxious about how to do it. They know that the Iranian regime, whom they regard as a deadly enemy, is eagerly trying to exploit the unrest for its purposes.
Consider the dilemmas Syria's new leaders will face at the outset. Their economy relies overwhelmingly on the oil complex, which the state will want to control. Their politics will turn on the distribution of power and resources among several contending groups filling the vacuum left by the dictatorship’s demise. The leaders will be weary of fighting and chaos. Rather than re-impose a new dictatorship to force all into a single mould and pay for it with the oil and gas revenue, the natural course will be to make deals granting more autonomy to various communities and shares of the national revenue. This is not unusual. Multi-ethnic communities in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Syria are and will be experimenting with federal or perhaps even confederal solutions. In this part of the world, it is the “total state” model itself that is crumbling, the decrepit son of decolonisation. That unitary, statist model has been the vehicle for all the cronyism and it is giving way to something new.
Outsiders can help all this, by offering information, ideas and incentives. But the outsiders will not be the deciders.