In March 2011, tens of thousands of enraged Syrians gathered in the southern city of Daraa to attend an anti-government demonstration. There a group of protesters toppled a statue of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's late father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. Days later, hundreds of Syrians climbed on top of the rubble of the statue, shouting slogans denouncing the Assad regime, which by that time had begun using violence to crush popular protests calling for political reforms. Still, despite the regime's brutality, the Syrian people had hope for a better Syria, one that was a little freer, a little more prosperous. Then the mass slaughter began.
Eight years later, after killing some 500,000 Syrians and displacing millions more, Assad won. Indeed, barbarity won. With the support of Russia and Iran, the Syrian president is still in power, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But victory is not enough, apparently. Supporters of the regime are now rubbing the Syrian people's faces in the dirt, erecting the statue of Hafez in the same spot where protesters tore it down.
In response, hundreds of Syrians took to the streets in Deraa, the cradle of the Syrian uprising. "Syria is ours, not for the house of Assad!" the protesters chanted, walking through the old quarter of the city. "Long live Syria, down with Bashar Assad!" others chanted, as well as, "Your statue is from the past, it's not welcome here!"
— FSA News (@FSAPlatform) March 10, 2019
Security forces closed off the area to prevent residents from other parts of Deraa from joining the protests.
The latest demonstrations are a reminder that a Syria ruled by Assad will never be stable. Some commentators and politicians have argued the opposite for years, claiming that, while Assad may be brutal, he is necessary to ensure stability and to prevent Islamist terrorists from taking control. This notion, often articulated as some deeply intellectual notion of hard-nosed realism, is deeply misguided.
The Syrian people will never accept the Butcher of Damascus, whose regime probably raped, tortured, or murdered their friends and families, as their legitimate leader. What's more, their desire to topple Assad has not gone away, nor has their rage. Yes, the regime has defeated opposition forces through shocking savagery, which can crush and deter them for a time. But that is no recipe for a stable and sustainable—let alone prosperous—situation, especially today, when social media and other new-age technologies make political movements so much easier to spread.
Even now, there is evidence that the protests in Deraa will continue and grow. "There have been small, peaceful protests after prayers on Friday for a few weeks now," one resident of Deraa told the Telegraph by What's App, another tool that can help the opposition organize and solicit outside help. "But the Russians are in charge of everything, so everyone's scared."
"But," the resident added, "people are testing the limits now, seeing how far we can push back."
On cue, protests continued Monday in the nearby town of Tafas. Residents protested against the regime's corruption and brutality, including its shelling of Idlib.
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) March 11, 2019
The Syrian people have been demoralized, their homes leveled, but their spirit and dignity seem to remain intact. Moreover, their level of hatred for the regime is a powerful force, one that should not be underestimated. And Assad continues to provoke that rage, even after conquering most of Syria. Just look at Syrian refugees who have returned home. Some of them have disappeared into the country's notoriously brutal prison system. No one is safe from the regime's persecution.
More broadly, the situation that sparked the Syrian conflict is still in place: a brutal regime is oppressing its people, who want better lives and a more responsive government. The key difference now is that the Syrian people want the Assad regime thrown into the sea, not to institute reasonable reforms, as they wanted in March 2011.
Beyond the Syrian people, recall how the Islamic State grew in power in Syria after the American surge in Iraq in 2007-2008. The terrorist group waged an insurgency in Iraq, as it is doing now, and then moved into Syria following the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. It gained strength from revenue courtesy of the oil fields in eastern Syria, but also from thousands of disgruntled Sunnis opposed to the Assad regime. And there is the small detail that Assad strengthened ISIS and other terrorist groups to discredit opposition forces and ensure that Western countries did not intervene against him. ISIS is going back to its old playbook in Iraq. It is not that crazy to imagine a similar sequence of events happening again.
Assad's survival also risks a region-wide war in the Middle East. It is no secret that Assad has allowed Iran to entrench itself militarily throughout Syria, which the Islamic Republic has sought to make a forward operating base against Israel. As Iran and its proxies continue to threaten Israel, and as Israel responds with military strikes against Iranian assets in Syria, the two sides move closer toward a large-scale conflict, one that could be disastrous for the entire region. While Assad remains in power, this dynamic is sure to continue to hold, forming a storm cloud over the Middle East. The question is if and when the cloud opens up, and it begins pouring.
It is not just a moral stain on humanity for Assad to remain in power, but also a major threat to American and allied interests. But now there are reports that some European countries want to recognize that Assad won the Syrian conflict and help him reconstruct Syria. Under no circumstances should any Western country do such a thing. Rather than help the Syrian people, Western money for reconstruction will further entrench Assad's control over Syria, enrich those who committed war crimes, and bolster those who would do harm to the United States. Put aside morality for the moment: Assad is no force for stability; he is a walking time bomb.