The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies organized a two-day symposium on "Syria, between the Choices and Interests of Political and Social forces, and the Possibilities of Change" on July 30 and 31, 2011 in Doha, Qatar. The symposium brought together a remarkable array of researchers and scholars concerned with the topic, featuring long in-depth discussions exploring the theme in all its aspects.

In his opening statement which he made at the beginning of the meeting, Dr Azmi Bishara, Director of the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar (the Doha Institute, ACRPS), expressed his conviction that regime change in Syria was a certainty. In this regard, Bishara said, the Syrian regime was teetering and would have to face the same fate as other Arab governments. Bishara opined that there was no real question of regime change in Syria, but rather "the type of regime change and the way in which it would take place".

Bishara underscored how a repetition of the Tunisian and Egyptian models, where the military took the side of the protesters, was unlikely, however. The Syrian authorities were already working, according to Bishara, at splitting up the Syrian people through fomenting sectarian divisions in an effort to thwart popular unrest, alongside their violent suppression of the protests. Bishara also expressed the view that the Iraqi-Libyan scenario was equally unlikely in the Syrian case, for a number of reasons. The primary obstacle to this scenario is in the revolutionary movement itself: the Syrian people know only too well how such situations pan out, and they do not want to lend credence to the regime's charge that they are following an international conspiracy.

ACRPS General Director Bishara went on to explain that this conference should not be seen as an opposition convention, but rather as a venue for prominent intellectuals and scholars to present a vision and discuss ways in which a peaceful transition might be possible. As a result, the attendees were carefully selected amongst to form a group who had demonstrated clear, deep knowledge of the situation in Syria, in order to explore the current situation there and the potential prospects from various perspectives.

Bishara further expressed the view that change was necessary in the Arab reality, due to the nature of despotic regimes in the region, the political structure of the ruling elites, and the way in which the governments used military might to retain their grip on power. The Arab people, on the other hand, have simply lost the will to be subjected to that kind of rule under their repressive regimes. Bishara noted that there would have to be a difference between one Arab country and the next in the shape that these revolutions took.

One of the crucial differences between Syria and other countries was that its despotic regime relied on a political ideology with a particular following and which had a legacy and its societal base. In the past, the vision presented by that party attracted a number of followers, who hoped to achieve that vision which they presented. Yet the regime in power had lost its course, and had instead chosen to build its alliances with businessmen and capitalists who were drenched in a miasma of corruption; that regime went on to use repression to silence its critics.

Bishara then went on to address the question of the intellectuals and writers, the Syrian revolution as well as the Arab revolutions. who serve the regime. The ACRPS Director presented the view that the "regime intellectuals" had been shown to be morally bankrupt by the wave of revolutions in the Arab Spring. No longer could they justify the despotic regimes which they supported on the basis of value premises, but instead could only defend them using Machiavellian arguments about the regime's intransigence and resistance to change. Likewise, however, a number of other thinkers and intellectuals who have championed a supposedly revolutionary cause for decades have also been left shocked, confused and speechless by these revolutions, which have not taken the form they expected. Bishara invited the participants not to rush to ideological judgments with regards to the revolutions; the people, he said, had come out demanding an end to tyranny, and so the best and only way to satisfy them would be to bring about democracy.

The Social Class Dynamics of the Popular Revolt

The first day of the conference also saw four different sessions, with the attendance of a number of well-known intellectuals and scholars from Syria and abroad. These included Haitham Manaa, Aref Dalila, Al Tayeb Tayzini, Salam Al-Kawakibi, Burhan Ghalyun, Mohammed Makhlouf, Hassan Chalabi, Samir Taqi, Samir Awdat as well as others. The first session was set aside to discuss the nature of social movements which were taking part in the Syrian uprising, with special attention paid to the class dynamics, as well as try to understand the socio-economic and civil dimensions which bred resentment. The participants who contributed to these discussions spoke of the socio- economic factors which set the protest movement alight, focusing on the spread of poverty and the destruction of the middle classes, as a result of a system which lavished benefits on businessmen who had clientist relations with the regime but which left all others behind. The same participants also discussed, however, how the demands of the revolution quickly developed to become political; the root causes of unrest may have been economic, but they were no longer so. 

Dr Haitham Manaa made clear in his contribution to the proceedings that the Syrian people remained committed to fighting all signs of sectarianism, despite the authorities' efforts to bring about a sectarian rift. As far as he was concerned, there were three red lines which the revolutionary movement would not cross: there would be no violence; there would be no sectarianism; and there would be no foreign intervention. The regime on the other hand, according to Manaa, was doing its utmost to break the will of the revolutionaries in a number of ways. The regime is accusing the protesters of violence, as well as sectarianism and it is blaming them for complicity with foreign conspiracies in its attempts to shame and silence the revolutionaries. Jamal Barout, another participant, spoke of the socio-economic situation which the Syrian regime had produced over 40 years of its rule, making the point that the distribution of wealth in Syria was lacking the kind of legitimacy which would be gained from social justice. The poverty rate in Syria had in fact, according to Barout, risen from 11.5% to 34.3% over the past decade.

The Nature of the Syrian Regime and the Possibility of Change

The second session of the conference was dedicated to an analysis of the popular unrest in Syria, its demands and the composition of the movement. It also examined the nature of the Syrian regime, its economic pillars and its amenability to change. The session went on to discuss the relationship between the Baath Party, the army and the security services. The conclusion to this second session, which was chaired by Wajih Kawtharani, was that any change in Syria which kept the present regime in power would not be enough to do away with the single-party state, and thus would not achieve the aim of establishing a pluralistic democracy.

The Role of the Syrian Opposition

The first day's third session revolved around the opposition's role and went on to evaluate its performance in the popular movements, as well as the opposition's ability to help shape a vision of a future Syria. In the fourth and final session, the participants discussed the probability of change and the role which might be played by world powers, with the discussions focusing on the roles of the United States and France in the Syrian popular uprising; the same needed to be considered, said the participants, with regards to the roles of Turkey, Iran and the Arab states. The same session also went on to discuss the Syrian confrontation with Israel through the resistance groups in Lebanon, and what role this confrontation would play in the unfolding revolution.

A roundtable discussion was held on the second day of the symposium, and was chaired by the General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Dr. Azmi Bishara. The open discussions brought out views of the participants and attendees, focusing on the various issues and questions related the Syrian topic in all its aspects