I recall that when the Arab Spring first started, I was fairly pessimistic. At the time I was studying China under Deng Xiaoping, and I thought that the Arab Spring was dangerously similar to the protests of 1989. At the time, I don’t recall that it was even being called the Arab Spring – that would have been a euphemism. I suspected that the protests would either fizzle out or end in a fashion similar to that seen in Tiananmen. What I had underestimated, as many did, was the importance of social media, and the specific conditions in the middle east. The result was, of course, the successful and relatively peaceful overthrow of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. There were some tense moments but I think that by the time Mubarak lost power there was growing confidence in the protests in other countries – namely Libya, Syria, and Bahrain.
At this point the protests in Syria were mostly peaceful, and with attention focused more on escalating violence in Libya and the harsh crackdown in Bahrain, many were grateful that the calm prevailed in Syria. People like me, who watched the Arab Spring with a somewhat liberal perspective, began to get the idea that the revolutions would be good for the region as a whole. They promised to bring true democracy to the middle east, and with this democracy we assumed there would be greater freedoms as a result. I started to anticipate an escalation of the spreading revolutions, and with these anticipations came attached hopes and expectations. I secretly hoped that the revolution in Syria would escalate – this, I must admit, is something I wanted, because I had believed that a peaceful revolution like in Tunisia or Egypt would be a good thing. However, some doubts remained. What if the revolution turned violent, as in Libya? In that case, I thought, further escalation might not actually be good – a repeat of a Tiananmen style crackdown would be more likely.
As events progressed, attitudes began to change again. In Libya, Western nation-states gave backing to the rebels, including considerable military and logistic support. Suddenly, what would otherwise be a far more costly civil war began to wind down quickly, as the rebels gained ground. As this happened, expectations about Syria began to change. I think that at that point I relatively optimistic that even if the revolution turned violent a positive outcome could still be achieved. Suddenly the Syrian opposition had gained credibility. Assad’s days were numbered, as with his fellow tyrants, Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi et al. He would lose power to the ever-growing liberal wave sweeping the middle east. Escalation would bring change, and that change, I assumed, would be good. Yet this was naïve, to understate things.
The result of escalation has been a stalemate, a growing quagmire that has engulfed the country in an all-out civil war exceeding the scale seen even in Libya. I realized all too late that change can come at a price, and in this case that price is very high. At the same time, disillusionment with the change brought about in other countries has set in, as we watch the pitiful conflicts that have paralyzed Egyptian politics, the assassination of a major opposition leader in Tunisia, and the trouble with security in Libya. On the whole, the confidence I had at the height of the Arab Spring is fading rapidly, as a struggle to comprehend the changing realities in the middle east.
I feel regret, guilt, a sense of wistfulness as I question my previous attitudes toward the revolutions. Did I really wish for the coming of this horror? Did I really hope that the conflict in Syria would break out, all because of my abstract desire for what I define as “progress” and the “spread of democracy”? I ask myself, must this be the price of change? I find myself drawn into a Syrian quagmire, constantly questioning my own hopes for what happens in Syria. Suppose I hope for a bright Syrian future. Suppose I accept the propaganda drawing I recently saw from the Syrian National Council, showing, on the one hand, the war-torn Syria of 2013 contrasted with an ideal, rebuilt Syria in 2023. There is a sense of shame with which I harbor these desires for a better, renewed Syria, for I now realize that before this progress and change in Syria, many more lives will have to be lost and the situation on the ground will first deteriorate even more. I am at a loss for what to think, for what to hope for in Syria.
The result is a meta-tragedy. On the one hand, there is the shear suffering on the ground in Syria, as lives are shattered and the human condition reaches previously unseen extremes; this is the tragedy. On the other hand, the Syrian observer, in seeing this and trying, but failing, to comprehend it, faces a crisis of diminishing confidence and hope accompanied by increasing despair; this is the meta-tragedy. The observer is forced to reevaluate its appraisal of values at once simple and complex. Suddenly one must ask, are these values so important that they must first be bought with such bloodshed? Or is there something else to prize, in stability and subservience to a ruling minority, if at least it holds off a darker alternative?
Any person will have at least two views of the world: a view of the world as it is perceived, and a view of the world as it should be. To view the world as it should be, one inherently desires change of the status quo, and one wishes that this change be forced upon the entire world, including other people. The Syrian meta-tragedy is result of the fracturing of the observer’s view of the world as it should be, when it is ascertained that such a world view is untenable and must be bought at great expense on the behalf of others. The result, so as to end the meta-tragedy, is to shift the view of the world as it should be. And yet how does one choose to shift it?
The problem is that the observer realizes that no matter how this world view is shifted, someone will lose out. In the Syrian conflict, people are now so devoted to their various factions that it is, for most of them, an all or nothing scenario. Compromise is, for the moment, impossible. No matter what action is taken, no matter how the conflict is resolved, immense suffering will continue for the meantime, and some people will lose more than others. And as long as no practical resolution remains in sight, there can be no end to the meta-tragedy either.
If I were a Stoic or a Buddhist, then at this point I would probably realize that I should simply do away with all hopes and expectations as to what happens in Syria. However, as I am a humanist and an absurdist, I must reject this as a failure of the individual’s sense of responsibility. Man is condemned to be free, and part of that freedom is to expect and hope that the world changes in a specific way. As I have seen, If I expect too much then I shall feel a sense of responsibility for the consequences, however bad they may be. Yet, what would happen if I expected too little? Would I not lose any sense of the values I currently hold?
For the moment I shall continue to monitor events in Syria, plagued by my own interpretations of a tragedy I cannot even comprehend in a land now ruined. I shall reflect upon my values and my views of the world. I shall watch, with timidity and caution, the response of the international community to the ever-changing practical circumstances in Syria. Above all, I will continue to hope, if not for a specific, resultant Syria reflecting my values, then for a vision of a Syria that others can agree on and hope for.