Here are four different scenarios for rate, direction and extent of change in Syria:
1) Before protests started, President Assad originally wanted to try to be re-elected in 2014 for another 7-year period that ends in 2021. Since the ongoing pressure of dealing with a highly hostile American (Bush) and French (Chirac) administrations, and heir numerous international and Arab allies, started in 2008 to ease, Assad paid more and more attention to economic reforms. He told visiting Westerners who asked him about political reforms that he will tackle those at the slowest and safest pace but will focus on accelerating economic reforms. He explained that he learned from talking to ordinary Syrians that their main concern is their standard of living; jobs, income, housing, and education.
Even if this were true, the Arab Spring eventually reached Syria and young Syrians today are very much interested in political reforms and they would like to see them taking place at a faster pace. The president’s previous plan to start political reforms near the end of his 2014-2021 term (see curve [A] below) is probably not practical anymore. With the exception of die-hard regime supporters, most Syrians now seem to be willing to take some risks for sweeping reforms, although there is disagreement over the direction, extent and speed of change.
2) Many in the Syrian opposition, like other political oppositions elsewhere, believe that everything can be changed if the right people are in control. They find President Assad’s current accelerated pace to be not fast enough and they give the impression that everything will be fine and Syria will have democratic elections soon after the overthrow the regime. Chants of “the Syrian people are one” suggest unity of hopes and goals among the Syrian people that will unite everyone against the regime and for speedy democratic changes. (see curve [o] above).
This scenario is also not realistic. Change will not be as smooth if the opposition insists on the overthrow of a regime that many Syrians, civilians and army, still support
3) The most promising scenario is the one where the President and the reform-compatible parts of the regime work with the opposition to reach successive agreements regarding all areas in need of major reforms in Syria. National dialogue taking shape in a newly and freely elected parliament and a new coalition government is the only realistic way to minimize resistance to change and to take the widest range of opinions into account before drawing the shape of future Syria. Maximal demands have no chance of appealing to all Syrians. Those participating in national dialogue need to understand that they cannot impose their extremist positions on others. (see curve [b] above). There will certainly be ups and downs. Resistance to change will not disappear overnight. Therefore, setbacks should not be used as an excuse to conclude that the regime is not serious and to boycott or walk out of Parliament or a national coalition government.
Under this scenario, a three year period should be sufficient to reach a point where the 2014 Presidential elections are freely contested and where new, and reformed old, political parties are ready to seriously challenge each other’s candidates.
4) The worst case scenario is the one where demonstrations don’t relent and the country splits into different camps (regional, sectarian, or nationalist); the economy continues to suffer until it collapses and foreign powers interfere more intrusively in Syrian affairs (see curve [w] above). Were that to be the course of events, it would set the country back and at best, Syria would need many years to get back on its feet. Permanent division into smaller sect-based states is a real possibility. Idealists and the maximalists in the opposition, eager to replace the current regime, claim that Syrian exceptionalism will protect the country from such a scenario. While a majority of the Syrian people are indeed not sectarian, a significant number of more militant Syrians will still take up arms against each other at some point if dialogue is not started. This scenario (or a downward heading curve) is very real and cannot be brushed off through well staged, feel-good revolutionary slogans and PR stunts. The sizable minority of the population that is compatible with violent expression of its desires and/or fears will not abide by slogans. Their psychology is rigidly shaped through years of experience with their environment. Calls for calm by the secular regime or opposition leaders will have little effect on their actions. Outside powers will promote different sides and will provide them with financing and weapons. The conflict can easily spread to Lebanon and Iraq, and possibly to Turkey.
Camille Otrakji is a political and strategic analyst specialized in the Syrian affairs. He is the editor of the Syria Page, and the founder of many dialogue blogs over the past decade. He has recently joined Syria Tribune's list of guest editors.