One of the most painful unanswered questions of the Syrian civil war is how an uprising touting the values of democracy, universal rights, and inclusion devolved into an international conflict, with multiple foreign interventions, in which sectarian and ethnic tensions rose considerably. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has argued it was fighting the forces of extremism from the beginning. The narrative of the secular opposition is that the Assad regime intentionally allowed extremist foes to flourish while crushing other activists, in order to discredit the uprising; the opposition was further doomed to failure by the interventions of foreign powers, both regional and global.
While secular activists’ position is closer to the truth, it still omits an important part of the reason for the revolution’s failure. Syria’s mainstream opposition failed to articulate an inclusive definition of citizenship and an inclusive alternative that could allay the fears of minorities, secularists, and other sectors of the society—including Sunnis, who opposed the Assad regime but failed to see a place for themselves in the future envisioned by the armed opposition. Regime violence, repression, and international support best explain the Assad regime’s resilience, but the opposition’s own platform still bears scrutiny. The armed opposition’s failure to craft a compelling vision of Syrian citizenship and an inclusive alternative explains a significant degree of the limits on its popular appeal. It was never able to reflect the inclusive appeal of the initial protest movement that gathered large sectors of the Syrian population from various backgrounds.
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