Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian says perhaps the most telling symbol of the so-called Arab Spring was a placard he saw in Tunisia bearing the Arabic word for "enough."
"Enough of autocratic rule, enough of the lack of political participation by citizens, enough rampant unemployment, of critically deficient education opportunities, enough social injustice, enough of the wide disparity in these countries between the elite and the people," said Djerejian, who served as ambassador to Syria from 1988 to 1991 and now is a founding director of Rice University's Baker Institute in Houston.
Djerejian said in a telephone interview with UPI it has taken more than 60 years for citizens of the Arab world to try to reclaim the promise of economic reforms that bloomed shortly after they gained independence following World War II. That promise was "quickly stubbed out by one military coup d'etat after another. It started in Syria in 1949. What we've seen other than monarchies is one military man after another come to power and put on a civilian suit and be elected virtually president for life.
"What we've seen since 2011 was the end of this period."
Djerejian said Syrian President Bashar Assad's days are numbered even if he has yet to realize it. He said he met Assad in 2003. At the time, Assad was perceived as a reformer.
"I'll never forget," Djerejian said. "He said, 'The people have to be ready for structural reform. One cannot rush into it. Therefore, I will be instituting administrative reforms.' That's fine if you're talking about 2003. When I heard the same thing in 2011, I knew the regime was not serious about reforms."
And as the bloodshed worsens, Assad's grasp on power gets more tenuous. What has kept his ouster at bay is the relative quiet in Syria's two largest cities: Damascus and Allepo.
"The regime can hold on tenuously as long as major protests are outside the two major urban centers," Djerejian said. "That's the difference with Egypt," he said.
Just a few weeks of demonstrations in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities last year led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
What has kept Damascus and Allepo relatively quiet?
Djerejian said it's the clan-based military-security-political apparatus set up by Assad's father, Hafez, who died June 10, 2000, after seizing power in 1970 in the Corrective Revolution.
That's beginning to change, Djerejian said, referring to reports more incidents are occurring in the two urban centers as well as their suburbs.
Another factor keeping Assad in power is the lack of cohesiveness among opposition groups and their geographic distribution. Unlike Libya, where the opposition was entrenched in well-defined regions, the opposition in Syria is spread out, making any outside military intervention problematic.
"There can be a Srebrenica moment in Syria where the humanitarian crisis … becomes so overwhelming that the international community acts decisively despite more level-headed thinking," he said, referring to NATO intervention in the Bosnian war following the Srebrenica massacre. "In absence of that … I think the West is going to have to be deliberate in its diplomacy, … pressure the regime and support the opposition, … [exhibit] patience but strong resolve."
The fundamental goal in Syria is a post-Assad regime, the former ambassador said.
"Either it is going to be through a continued bloody confrontation or through an internationally supervised transition [former U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan is trying to put together whereby … in order to get the Russians and Chinese on board Assad wouldn't be required to step down immediately."
Whether Assad would go along with delegating some of his powers is anyone's guess given the lack of flexibility he's shown to date.
"If the Russians could lean on him, maybe he would do that," Djerejian said.
"I think it would be the arrogance of power to think the United States or Russia or any outside power could determine events in Syria. This is a popular uprising akin to what is happening in the rest of the Arab world. The international community can influence but can't determine the evolution of events in Syria."