In Syria, the People's Demands Are Still Key

With extremists allying with tribal leaders to take over swathes of Iraq, and Russia and Iran helping keep Bashar al Assad in power in Syria, it is difficult to imagine we ever thought ordinary people had the power to change anything.
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In 2011, protesters across the Arab world took to the streets with the slogan "The People Demand the Fall of the Regime." At the time, it seemed as if people power was going to define not just the Middle East, but politics across the world. Time magazine even decided to honor "The Protester" as person of the year. But events and the news cycle move quickly. Now, with extremists allying with tribal leaders to take over swathes of Iraq, and Russia and Iran helping keep Bashar al Assad in power in Syria, it is difficult to imagine we ever thought ordinary people had the power to change anything.

It is difficult now to recall just how hollow Ghaddafi and other Arab leaders sounded in 2011 when they claimed the uprisings against them were organized by al Qaeda. At the time, it was clear al Qaeda's ideology was not what brought millions onto the streets. The people of the Arab world were demanding freedom and protesting against decades of brutality and corruption. Al Qaeda's rants about cosmic religious war just sounded irrelevant.

As the mood of optimism that greeted the Arab Spring has turned to despair, we have forgotten it began because ordinary men and women decided to take control of their destinies. Instead, we have gone back to thinking that regional powers, sectarian leaders and tribal elders are the most important power brokers. For many observers, analysts and policy makers, this is a far more comfortable lens from which to view the world.

However, after spending 16 months working as an adviser with the Syrian opposition, I believe the future of the region still hinges on the views and actions of ordinary people. Talk of the decisive power of state bureaucracies and tribes is comfortable for those of us trained in the politics and history of the region. But it is time to accept that - despite present appearances - the world has caught up with Syria and the wider Middle East. Public opinion can no longer be ignored.

If you look hard enough, it is possible to see the power of the people is still a key factor when it comes to ground realities. For example, earlier this year, a rebellion by ordinary Syrians against ISIS persuaded the Free Syrian Army to take up arms against the extremists.

The simple fact is that the uprisings - and the reaction towards them - have changed the relationships between rulers and the ruled. Egypt's return to military control and Assad's ability to cling onto power do not mean we have returned to the world as it was. As former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said in a recent interview; "I don't think the process of push and pull for change and political reform in the Middle East is finished... the final chapter isn't closed."

For Western policy makers, getting ahead of the curve requires accepting the new reality and working with it to bring about stability and security built on rights and justice instead of repression.

While it is important to continue to engage political leaders, tribal elders and military men, it is even more vital to help build ground-up politics that focuses on meeting the needs of ordinary Syrians. In a country where for forty years, book clubs were seen as grounds for arrest and torture, Syrians have made huge gains - under fire - in building the institutions needed to regulate civic life. These will be vital in bringing Syria back from catastrophe, healing sectarian divides, bringing military men under civilian control and restoring state services.

The age of the big men of state is over in the Middle East. Secular dictators and religious extremists share a similar approach; they are both bullies who believe the people can and must be forced to accept their rule. Al Qaeda is explicit in its rejection of anything that does not sound like its interpretation of Divine Will. Assad, on the other hand, is more subtle, suggesting instead that his people cannot be trusted with real freedom.

Durable peace, stability and prosperity for Syria and the the region needs support for grassroots politics. The Syrian uprising coalesced around three key demands; justice, freedom and dignity. This simple call brought people out on the streets unarmed and ready to face bullets. The question today is can those three words become a set of governing principles? Can Syrians answer their own demands? And, if they can, will their neighbors apply their lessons?

The future of Syria, and that of the wider region, depends on the answers to those questions. This is something the world can help support.

Amil Khan is a director at Breakthrough Communications and was an adviser to the Syrian National Coalition from February 2013 to June 2014

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