A firm victory for absolute monarchy (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

May 31, 2023   8 mins

When Bashar al-Assad touched down in Riyadh last week, to be embraced by the Saudi king on the occasion of Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League, the Syrian War drew to a close, and with it the Arab Spring. His rule secure, his broken nation quiescent once again, Assad has indisputably won. Following its only tangible success, the Tunisian Revolution, being overturned by president Kais Saied’s bloodless coup, the final results are in — and, contrary to initial assumptions, they show a firm victory for absolute monarchy.

But though objectively a failure, the bloody, tangled events of the Arab Spring shaped the world of 2023. In a strange way, the war in Ukraine is downstream of the fiery suicide of a frustrated Tunisian street vendor in 2010, and all the dashed hopes and human suffering that flowed from it. The Middle East’s convulsions indeed changed the world, but not in a way anyone participating expected or intended.

As a reporter on the ground, it looked to me at first, as it did to many, as if the popular revolt across the Arab world was a vindication of Fukuyama’s much-misunderstood thesis of the arc of history inclining towards the worldwide victory of liberal democracy. Young, dynamic, idealistic protestors were leading their countries away from the autocratic regimes which had mismanaged their countries in the half century since independence from British and French colonial rule. It was the opposite of the failed attempt to impose reform that had broken Iraq: instead, long-repressed social forces from within had surfaced, ready and capable of leading their countries into a better future.

After all, within 10 days, Tunisia’s dictatorship had fallen following a wave of popular protest; within weeks, the protests had spread across North Africa and then the wider Arab world. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, in even Saudi Arabia and Jordan, it seemed as if the oppressive dynastic regimes of the Arab world were about to collapse under the weight of history. Instead, the Arab Spring represented the collision between our guiding myths and objective reality; rather than the apotheosis of the post-Cold War liberal order, it marked the beginning of its decline.

The vast and tragic gulf between what the protestors hoped for and what they got is, simply, a bitter lesson in reality. There were always two Arab Springs: the optimistic narrative of what was happening, boosted by a thousand high-flown journalistic comment pieces from abroad, and the darker, more complex realities on the ground. Like Russian families in Anna Karenina, each country’s own Arab Spring failed for its own unhappy reasons, tied to the hard, immutable facts of demography, history and power. The widening fissure between idealistic Western narratives, drawn from the teleological assumptions of unexamined liberalism, and the brutal reality helped shatter the post-Cold War order: but it was ordinary Arab civilians who paid the price. What became of the Arab Spring therefore holds many lessons for us, if only we are willing to confront them.

The Arab world is not so different to home, after all. Consider how Egypt’s 2011 revolution, and the coup which undid it two years later, uncannily foreshadowed the political convulsions of our own Western societies. In Egypt, it was the self-professed liberals who supported Sisi’s coup. Notionally committed to democracy and liberalism, Egypt’s liberals disliked the results of the country’s first-ever democratic elections and did everything they could do to undo them. The winners were seen as backwards provincials, dangerous social conservatives who wanted to return the country to a mythical, idealised past. Justifying their stance against a democratic result they detested, they created elaborate conspiracy theories involving malicious foreign actors, which invalidated the election results and justified any action necessary to revoke its results. Tracking the course of the Arab Spring, then, may help us to understand our own political order with greater clarity.

The first myth to be shattered was of the power of protest to express and impose the popular will. In reality, in every case in which Arab Spring protests successfully unseated rulers without external intervention, it was the armed forces who did it, and not people power alone. In Egypt, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, which first refused to fire on the protestors and then unseated Hosni Mubarak. The vast crowds in Tahrir Square, so inspiring and appealing to both local and international media, merely provided a colourful and dramatic justification for what was objectively a military coup. In Tunisia, the dictator Ben Ali had delegated the job of political oppression to his police force — he mistrusted the country’s small, professional army — and in the process unwittingly sowed the seeds of his own downfall. It was Tunisia’s army, under the guidance of military chief General Rachid Ammar, and not the protestors on the streets, which surrounded the presidential palace and forced him to flee after just 10 days of protests. The Tunisian revolution, essentially, was won in the barracks long before it ever began in the streets.

Yet the myth of people power unseating tyrants took hold across the West as well as the Arab World, encouraging demonstrators to take to the streets and pushing Western governments to rhetorically declare support for events about which they in fact felt deeply ambivalent. Browbeaten into military intervention in Libya against his better judgment by Cameron and Sarkozy’s desire to place themselves on the right side of history, Obama took Libya’s post-war chaos as a warning not to intervene in other Arab countries. But regional powers such as Qatar and Turkey, as well as civilian demonstrators in Syria and the Western commentators supporting them, erroneously drew the opposite conclusion: that after enough bloodshed, the United States would eventually find itself forced to intervene, unseating Assad and installing some form of representative government. This mismatch between hope and reality, empty rhetoric and action, would be tragic for Syria’s people, condemning them to a decade of war and destruction.

Before the war began in 2011, few observers had expected the protests to spread to Syria: sandwiched between the cautionary examples of Lebanon and Iraq, Syrians were assumed to be wary of state breakdown in a society riven by division. The armed forces, tied to the regime through ethnic solidarity and the fear of Sunni vengeance, in the case of its disproportionate numbers of Alawites, and through the patronage granted by secure middle-class housing projects in the case of the Sunni bulk of the officer corps, remained loyal to the ruling dynasty, eliminating the prospect of a military coup. Yet competing regional powers flooded Syria’s 1,500-odd armed rebel groups with weapons, condemning an already poorly-coordinated uprising to internal fracture and division from the start.

The country’s largely apolitical Sunni urban middle class stayed dormant: indeed, it was the Sunni middle classes of Aleppo and Damascus who made up the bulk of 2015’s refugee flow to Europe, voting with their feet to stay out of the conflict entirely. The country’s Christian, Kurdish, Alawite, Druze and Shia minorities, which feared Sunni dominance more than they hated the regime, presented an impenetrable hurdle to rebel success: in preserving Assad’s rule, Syria’s demography really was the revolution’s destiny. As regime crackdowns on Sunni protestors hardened attitudes, the war developed a sectarian dynamic quite alien to the explicitly inclusive aims of the original protest committees. Government warnings that the rebels were dominated by jihadists became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as rebel groups relied on jihadists’ superior commitment and discipline to win battles in the field, then found themselves outcompeted by them in providing stable governance and imposing order.

Unable to dislodge Assad through protest at the beginning of the revolution, the Syrian revolutionaries were forced to rely on a deus ex machina, American military intervention, which would never come. All sides were haunted, in different ways, by the Libyan debacle: trying to summon Western intervention into being, the rebels attempted to recreate the Libyan rebel capital and supply hub of Benghazi through their failed attempt to seize Aleppo, frittering away their limited resources in a gruelling years-long siege and counter-siege that would see the country’s commercial capital destroyed. The already intransigent Assad, seeing Gaddafi’s fate, became more determined than ever to neither give up power nor make concessions. Washington, meanwhile, traumatised by Iraq’s post-invasion carnage and fearing a rerun of Libya’s post-war chaos, resolved to stay away from a direct intervention, hoping that it could feed the rebels enough weapons to force concessions from Assad without bringing about his total collapse. Forced by moral and political considerations to be seen to do something, but fearful of doing too much, America’s haphazard drip of arms supplies was just enough to prolong the war interminably without ever allowing rebel victory. In this sense, the unintended anarchy that followed Gaddafi’s downfall  had already lost the Syrian rebels the war before their own revolution ever truly began.

But the Libyan example would also have another consequence, now playing out on our own continent: Putin was furious that the limited intervention to ground Gaddafi’s air force to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, reluctantly agreed to by Russia at the UN, evolved into a months-long campaign of close air support for Libya’s rebels, ending in Gaddafi’s miserable roadside execution. Eager to avoid a repetition in what was once a Soviet client state, Putin gambled that Russia could outcompete the US in Syria: carefully devised American escalation in training and arms deliveries could be thwarted by direct Russian intervention. Fine words and shiny new weapons would eventually prove no match for Russia’s firmer will and higher appetite for risk: through intervening in Syria, Russia could hasten the end of America’s unipolar moment.

In Syria, Putin’s gamble turned out to be correct: Assad’s victory was indeed a historic turning point, marking Russia’s return to the world stage as an actor able to direct the course of history. While American officials insisted there was no military solution to the Syrian war, Russia promptly delivered one. The Russian intervention in 2015 made Assad’s victory inevitable, allowing America to turn with some relief to the campaign against Isis, then ravaging European capitals, and to quietly divide the country into two spheres of influence separated by the river Euphrates. As Putin foresaw, even America’s final chosen proxies in Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Force, would find themselves abandoned over time as the White House’s revolving door upended any coherent long-term planning. In a hasty rewriting of recent history, the fractious rebel alliance which took part in Turkey’s invasion of north-eastern Syria, which included factions previously armed by the US, was now denounced by Washington as renegade war criminals. In Russia’s eyes, the uncertainties inherent in America’s increasingly chaotic democratic system were the greatest vulnerability for Washington’s allies. Rather than the arc of history leaning towards liberal democracy, the abrupt policy shifts inherent to its system meant that liberal democracy itself was its own greatest strategic weakness.

Far more than the Afghanistan withdrawal that inspired such liberal angst, it was the lessons Putin drew from the Arab Spring wars that surely encouraged him to invade Ukraine. For Russia, after all, Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution was as much an unwelcome European outcrop of the Arab Spring as of the post-Soviet colour revolutions he feared, as West-leaning demonstrators in the streets took down a Moscow-friendly ruler, with Putin warning darkly that unsavoury local actors were in fact controlling events on the ground. Russia’s first invasion, using local proxies and quasi-deniable Little Green Men in 2014, at the height of the Syrian war, was a success. In 2022, after the effectiveness of direct Russian intervention had seemingly been proved in Syria, Putin would try again, this time openly and in full force.

Again, Putin gambled that American rhetorical support for pro-Western demonstrators would not be matched by sufficient action to outweigh his fait accompli; again, he anticipated that America’s voting public, cynical of military intervention after the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would have no appetite for a risky foreign adventure. Though Putin’s hopes of swiftly decapitating Ukraine’s government last year were dramatically shattered, and his assessment of his own military capabilities proved wildly overoptimistic, it is still too early to judge the validity of his broader assumptions. Ukraine’s prospects of eventual victory will be greatly affected, one way or another, by who enters the White House next year. While liberal commentators — including Fukuyama himself — claim that Ukraine’s military successes are proof of democracy’s inherent superiority over autocracy, it is difficult, observing the Republican politicians currently bickering on social media, to share their triumphalism.

In the end, apart from the vast loss of life suffered by the Syrian people, and Libya’s lesser but still pitiful decade of destructive anarchy, the Arab world enters the post-Arab Spring era looking essentially the same as when its great convulsions began. The arc of history turned full circle: either the same autocrats are in charge, or cannier successors have taken their place; the region remains poorly governed by kleptocratic authoritarians and divided along much the same social and demographic fault lines as in 2011.

The only difference is that the very possibility of political change has been discredited: recent outbreaks of popular dissent, as in Lebanon and Iraq, are easily quelled without any international fuss. America’s local client states, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, are now openly indifferent to satisfying the changeable whims of their unreliable patron, and confident that they can pursue their own paths and forge new alliances without any repercussions. As Bashar al-Assad’s triumphant return to the regional fold shows, the Arab Spring may have failed to change the Arab world, but it firmly marked the limits of the West’s ability, and desire, to reshape the world in its image.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.