08/08/2012 05:21 EDT | Updated 10/08/2012 05:12 EDT

In Syria, Simply Replacing al-Assad is Not Enough

In this Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers hold their weapons during clashes with government forces in at the south-west district of Salah al-Din in Aleppo, Syria. Syrian troops launched a ground assault Wednesday on the besieged northern city of Aleppo, but activists said rebels forces were fighting back in a battle for the country's largest city that has raged for more than two weeks. (AP Photo/Alberto Prieto)

While the world watched the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics on the first Friday after the start of the holy month of Ramadan, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent warplanes and tanks to bombard the commercial hub of Aleppo and declared victory in Damascus. The week before, al-Assad had promised, again, that his government was committed to moving step by step toward peace. The mode through which that promise is being fulfilled is the terrorization of the populace and wholesale demolition of neighborhoods in which opposition is strong.

As a sociologist who studies family and social change I have spent innumerable hours over the past two decades talking with women in Damascus. Neighbourhoods where I lived and formed friendships among ordinary Syrians are now regularly in the news -- Jobbar, Tadamun, Midan, Douma, Sayida Zeinab, Shaalan, Jisr al-Abyad, Abu Roumaneh, and Mezze. Friends and contacts in some of these areas send updates via email or postings on Facebook. They can't sleep because of the noise of shelling and gunshots now closer to home. Those who are fortunate have relatives in calmer parts of the city or in villages nearby where they can escape the chaos and skyrocketing prices of a city under assault.

Having listened to families across a range of social strata describe their hopes and struggles and concerns for a secure and better future, I believe there are two important aspects of the current conflict that have been omitted from much of the public debate. The first is that entrenched economic interests that cut across various religious and ethnic communities have been largely overlooked by the popular press and policy makers in favor of a singular focus on religious strife. Second, in order for the Syrian people to see their way to a democratic future, the culture of fear that has pervaded every aspect of Syrian life for two generations needs to be addressed. Both of these will have profound and lasting impacts on the outcome of this conflict.

Religion -- often referred to in cautionary statements as "the prospect of sectarian strife" -- is often synonymous with economic interests. Part of what has allowed the regime to stay in power for so long is that it rests on strategic alliances with economic and political elites across religious and ethnic groups within Syria. Whether or not particular Sunnis, Christians, Shi'i, or Alawites support the regime or oppose it is not a function of religion, but whether or not they have been able to integrate and ingratiate themselves to those who have control of the country's economic life.

The "sects" that matter are economic. This is not to say that religion is not important. But the real importance of religion is the ways in which it provides a moral narrative that gives meaning and motivates action towards specific ends -- whether donating food to neighbors made homeless by last week's bombardment, or appealing to broader concepts of brotherhood in order to bridge historically-segmented communities. Focusing on the prospect of religious conflict obscures the differences in opportunities and privilege across and within these communities that will shape the outcome of the efforts to oust the government that has ruled Syria for generations.

Another factor that will be pivotal in determining the outcome of this conflict is fear. Not the immediate fear of shelling or gun battles in the streets that is the subject of news stories seeking to put a human face on the conflict -- but the deep, habitual fear of the knock at the door in the middle of the night that results in some relative or friend disappearing for weeks, months or forever, without a trace. To this familiar fear has been added a new one -- the fear that decades of carefully cultivated relationships with customs officers, bureaucrats, or local security personnel are likely to collapse with the collapse of the regime.

Replacing al-Assad is not sufficient. As one longtime contact told me last summer, "We do not want to simply take off one coat and put on another -- we want to be free!" Her family is part of the Damascene trading establishment. They, along with Sunni and Christian families who have run shops in the old city for generations, members of the newer business class that came to power in the 1970s, and middle range officers from Alawite villages who have made careers of military service, all fear change from the status quo. All have begun to acknowledge that there have been problems with the regime -- that freedom and opportunities could be greater.

But shedding known problems for ones that are unknown is difficult. Many of the alternative leaders have been in exile and are unfamiliar to this generation. In Damascus, the ancient capital, or Aleppo, the nation's economic hub, exchanging a known set of difficulties (even terrible ones), for an unknown state of affairs is a fearful choice.

After the killing of four senior security officials in the very center of Damascus, the shelling of Damascus, the bulldozing of ancient groves in Mezze, and the wholesale bombardment of Aleppo, perhaps the risk of doing nothing will finally outweigh the risk of the unknown. A critical mass of the nation's economic, social, and military leaders might place their fortunes and futures on the line with the national opposition. Even then, they must be joined by a world that does more than watch (if they are watching at all) and wring their hands, if there is to be hope of a speedy and just conclusion to Syria's "civil war."