المدافع عن قضايا الأمة العربية... قراءة سريعة في سجل نظام شمولي
ابتسمت عندما قرأت خبرا في صحيفة الشرق الأوسط مفاده أن سوريين مؤيدين لنظام بشار الأسد تظاهروا (مظاهرة عفوية طبعا!) مطالبين بالاستيلاء على أملاك أمير قطر الشيخ حمد بن خليفة آل ثاني (استخدموا مصطلح "تأميم") متهمين إياه بالمسؤولية عما يحصل في سوريا، أي نظرية المؤامرة. ولكم الاطلاع على تفاصيل الخبر والرد القانوني والعقلاني لأحد الخبراء.
ما يهمني فعلا هو العبارة التي استخدمها المتظاهرون ومفادها أن "سوريا لن تركع وستبقى المدافع عن قضايا الأمة العربية بقيادة الرئيس بشار الأسد".
وبالعودة إلى سجل نظام الأسد في القضايا القومية فالنقطة الأساسية تكون دائما وأبدا قضية فلسطين، ولا بد من دراسة تفاصيل موقف الرئيس الراحل حافظ الأسد من هذه القضية قبل الوصول إلى مواقف خليفته بشار.
نبدأ من الساحة الخلفية (أو الأمامية) لسوريا، لبنان.
عندما قامت الحرب الأهلية اللبنانية عام 1975 كانت الحركة الوطنية اللبنانية تطالب بإصلاح النظام السياسي في البلاد المصمم للحفاظ على الدور الريادي للمسيحيين الموارنة والمكرس للطائفية في كل شؤون الدولة والمجتمع، وقد تزعم الحركة الوطنية الزعيم الكبير كمال جنبلاط الذي كان عملاقا صاحب فكر وفلسفة مميز في الحياة . وخاضت الحركة الوطنية، متحالفة مع قوات المقاومة الفلسطينية بزعامة ياسر عرفات، معارك في مواجهة اليمين اللبناني. وعندما دخلت القوات السورية لبنان في صيف 1976 (بدعوة من اليمين اللبناني) لمنع هزيمة اليمين وجه جنبلاط وعرفات نداءات للعرب لوقف ما وصفاه بالغزو السوري. لم تلق الدعوات المتكررة آذانا عربية صاغية، إذ كانت الخشية أن يتحول لبنان إلى دولة مواجهة فعلية مع إسرائيل تسيطر عليه الحركة الوطنية اللبنانية وحليفها الفلسطيني. عندئذ قام العرب بشرعنة التدخل السوري فأنشأوا ما سميت بـ "قوات الردع العربية" التي كان عمادها الجيش السوري. وفي الواقع فإن دخول القوات السورية إلى لبنان تم بموافقة إسرائيلية وضوء أخضر أميركي شرط ألا يتخطى الجيش السوري نهر الأولي، أي مدينة صيدا الجنوبية.
في عام 1977 اغتالت المخابرات السورية كمال جنبلاط، ليخسر لبنان والعرب أحد كبار المفكرين والسياسيين، وتوالت سبحة الاغتيالات التي استهدفت كل من عارض السوريين في لبنان. في 25 فبراير شباط من عام 1980 اختطفت المخابرات السورية سليم اللوزي الصحفي اللبناني وناشر مجلة الحوادث الذي عاد إلى لبنان من لندن لحضور جنازة والدته. بعد تسعة أيام من اختطافه عثر عليه مقتولا "ملقى على بطنه، في مؤخرة رأسه طلق ناري حطم الجمجمة ومزق الدماغ، ذراعه اليمنى مسلوخ لحمها حتى الكوع، الاصابع الخمسة في اليد اليمنى سوداء من جراء التذويب بالآسيد، كانت أقلام الحبر مغروسة بعنف في مؤخرته".
العرب يتذكرون مجزرة صبرا وشاتيلا ويحملون (محقين) إسرائيل المسؤولية عنها رغم أنها ارتكبت بأيد لبنانية، ولكن ماذا عن مجزرة تل الزعتر؟ كان مخيم تل الزعتر للاجئين الفلسطينيين يقع في المناطق الخاضعة لسيطرة اليمين اللبناني، وقد تعرض لحصار طويل دام لمدة أشهر قبل أن يتم إسقاطه في شهر أغسطس آب من عام 1976. وتتفاوت تقديرات أعداد قتلى تلك المجزرة بين ألف وثلاثة آلاف شخص، وقد تم إسقاط المخيم على أيدي اليمين اللبناني بمساعدة ضباط سوريين قاموا بتقديم النصائح العسكرية لميليشيات نمور الأحرار والكتائب اللبنانية وحزب التنظيم. ومن سخرية القدر أن اليمين اللبناني كان قد بدأ في تلك الفترة يتوجس خيفة من السوريين ففتح خطوط اتصال مع إسرائيل، وكان بنيامين (فؤاد) بن اليعازر، الذي أصبح لاحقا وزير دفاع إسرائيل، ضيفا على اليمين في إحدى مراحل حصار تل الزعنر وجلس يراقب المعارك الدائرة.
وخلاصة القول إن النظام السوري ساهم مساهمة فعالة في إسقاط تل الزعتر ويتحمل مسؤولية كبرى عما حصل بحق سكانه من قتل واغتصاب ونهب وتهجير جماعي.
وقد تكرر الدور السوري نفسه في حرب المخيمات بين عامي 1985 و 1987 في بيروت، حيث قامت ميليشيا حركة أمل الموالية لسوريا بحصار مخيمات صبرا وشاتيلا وبرج البراجنة للاجئين الفلسطينيين، وأمعنت في أهلها قتلا وتجويعا، وقد قتل خلال حرب المخيمات هذه من الفلسطينيين أكثر مما قتل في مجزرة صبرا وشاتيلا.
ومن المهم هنا التذكير بالغزو الإسرائيلي للبنان عام 1982، فقد كانت أوامر القوات السورية المرابطة في لبنان بعدم التعرض للقوات الغازية والاشتباك معها إلا دفاعا عن النفس، وصدرت الأوامر بانسحاب الوية الجيش السوري إلى سهل البقاع، وهذا ما حصل، باستثناء اللواء الـ82 بقيادة العقيد محمد عمر حلال الذي بقي في بيروت، وصمد مع المدافعين عنها إلى أن خرج مع الانسحاب الفلسطيني من لبنان في سبتمبر أيلول 1982، حيث تم تكريم العقيد حلال والاحتفاء به على الحدود السورية ليختفي بعد ذلك ويصبح نسيا منسيا. وإنني أتمنى، بعد استتباب الأمور في سوريا وانتصار ثورة الشعب، أن يتم البحث عن العقيد حلال وتكريمه بالدرجة التي يستحقها.
ولإحقاق الحق فإنه يتعين القول هنا إن القوات السورية خاضت معارك ضارية مع الجيش الإسرائيلي في سهل البقاع، وأوقفت تقدمه باتجاه طريق بيروت-دمشق التي عقد وزير دفاع إسرائيل ارئيل شارون العزم على قطعها ليتمكن من الضغط على دمشق (وليس احتلالها) كوسيلة للحصول على مكاسب سياسية في لبنان.
وفي أثناء احتلال الجيش الإسرائيلي لأول عاصمة عربية، بيروت، قامت جبهة المقاومة الوطنية اللبنانية، التي تشكلت من ائتلاف من أحزاب وطنية لبنانية من بينها الحزب الشيوعي اللبناني والحزب السوري القومي الاجتماعي ومنظمة العمل الشيوعي، فشنت عمليات على الغزاة دفعتهم للانسحاب من بيروت وإعادة الانتشار خارجها، فلاحقتها ضربات المقاومين بشدة وبسالة. إلا أن هذا لم يرق للنظام الحاكم في دمشق الذي طالب المقاومة اللبنانية بالتنسيق معه وإبلاغه بالتفاصيل قبل شن العمليات على قوات الاحتلال الاسرائيلي، فأبت المقاومة الوطنية اللبنانية ذلك، فكان قرار دمشق أن يتم انتزاع المقاومة ضد إسرائيل من المقاومة الوطنية اللبنانية و تسليمها إلى حركة أمل والقوة الصاعدة حزب الله المدعوم من إيران، أي إلى الشيعة. جاء ذلك في إطار تحالف حافظ الأسد مع إيران التي كانت تخوض حربا مريرة مع العراق، ولم تتوان طهران عن شراء السلاح من إسرائيل لمحاربة العراق الذي كان حافظ الأسد يناصبه العداء، ليتعمق الحلف السوري الإيراني أكثر فأكثر. ومن الجدير بالذكر أن حافظ الأسد مدين بالجميل للإمام موسى الصدر الذي كان قد وقع فتوى أعلن بموجبها أن الطائفة العلوية هي جزء من الطائفة الشيعية وبذلك يحق لحافظ الأسد تولي الرئاسة في سوريا التي ينص دستورها على أن دين رئيس الدولة هو الإسلام.
عام 1987 عادت القوات السورية إلى بيروت بعد غياب دام خمس سنوات، فبسطت سيطرتها ومارست سطوتها المعتادة، وبعد الغزو العراقي للكويت عام 1990 أعلن حافظ الأسد عن انضمامه للتحالف الدولي الذي تشكل لطرد قوات الاحتلال العراقي من الكويت، وكان الثمن الذي قبضه الأسد تفويض كامل وشامل في لبنان، فاستتبت له الأمور هناك، شنت قواته هجوما كاسحا على الجنرال المتمرد ميشال عون الذي كان قد أعلن أنه "سيكسر رأس الأسد"، فعل عون هذا بعدما تبين له أنه لن يخلف أمين الجميل في رئاسة لبنان بعد انتهاء ولايته عام 1988، فشن عون ما وصفها بـ "حرب التحرير"... فإذا به بعد عدة سنوات يعود إلى لبنان ويتحالف مع سوريا وحزب الله في مواجهة الطوائف اللبنانية الأخرى.
غرق حافظ الأسد في أزقة وحواري لبنان، كان يملك إمكانية صياغة لبنان جديد قوي فاختار أن يكون لبنان منقسما ضعيفا هشا تسهل السيطرة عليه، مارس سياسة فرق تسد، دخل في مفاوضات مع إسرائيل برعاية أميركا في واشنطن أوفد إليها فاروق الشرع، تركز الحديث عن الجولان (التي خسرها حافظ الأسد عام 1967 عندما كان وزيرا للدفاع) ولم يأت ذكر فلسطين في المفاوضات السورية الإسرائيلية.
أواخر التسعينيات أدرك حافظ الأسد أن الوقت بدأ يداهمه، ولا بد من ترتيب الوضع الداخلي في سوريا. كان خليفته المرتقب ابنه باسل قد لقي حتفه في حادث سيارة، فكان لا بد من البحث عن بديل جديد. دفع حافظ ببشار إلى الواجهة، تغير الدستور السوري ليسمح له بتولي الرئاسة رغم صغر سنه.
عام 2002 انعقدت قمة عربية في بيروت وكان الرئيس الفلسطيني ياسر عرفات يحاصره خصمه اللدود ارئيل شارون. لم يتمكن عرفات من الحضور إلى بيروت فحاول أن يلقي خطابه متلفزا أمام القمة فتم منعه، لم يأت القرار من بيروت بل من دمشق. إلا أن عرفات كان له ما أراد، خاطب القمة والعرب من خلال شاشة قناة الجزيرة التي قامت بكل الترتيبات اللازمة ليسمع العالم صوت الزعيم الفلسطيني المحاصر ويرى صورته التي حاول السوريون منعها. طبعا قناة الجزيرة مقرها الدوحة، عاصمة قطر التي يتهمها السوريون بالمؤامرة
كانت الآمال المعقودة على بشار الأسد كبيرة، بل وصف البعض الفترة التي تلت توليه الرئاسة بـ "ربيع دمشق". لم يستمر الربيع طويلا، سرعان ما حل الخريف، وتلاه شتاء قارس. ما لاتتحدث به وسائل الإعلام في معرض تغطيتها للأحداث في سوريا أن عشرات الآلاف من السوريين البسطاء، من مزارعين وفلاحين، وقبل ثورة الشعب السوري المباركة، هجروا أراضيهم نتيجة القحط والجفاف والإهمال وأصبحوا لاجئين في بلدهم.
من المؤسف أن بلدا هاما مثل سوريا لا يستطيع توفير الرعاية الطبية اللازمة لمواطنيه. لن نتحدث عن ذهاب فاروق الشرع إلى لبنان ليخضع لعملية القلب المفتوح في مستشفى الجامعة الأميركية في بيروت، إذ سيقول قائل إن زعماء عرب آخرين خضعوا لعمليات في الخارج، كحسني مبارك في ألمانيا والملك عبدالله في الولايات المتحدة وغيرهم وغيرهم.
ولكن ماذا عن المغني السوري المعروف في أوساط العرب، جورج وسوف، الذي اضطر للسفر إلى لبنان والخضوع للعلاج في مستشفى الجامعة الأميركية في بيروت؟ إن الانفتاح الاقتصادي في عهد بشار الأسد لم يستفد منه إلا الدائرة الضيقة المحيطة ببشار الأسد.
لا يسرني إطلاقا أن أكتب لأعدد هذه الحقائق عن سوريا الأسد، إلا أن المزايدات فيما يخص المواقف القومية والوطنية هي ضرب من النفاق والكذب. فمن الزعيم الكبير جمال عبد الناصر الذي خسر العرب تحت وصايته ما تبقى من فلسطين، إلى "الأمين على القومية العربية" معمر القذافي الذي دمر أحد أكثر البلاد العربية ثراء وهشم مؤسساتها تهشيما كاملا، إلى "قائدونا إلى الأبد (كما جاء في الشعار في بيروت) حافظ الأسد الذي خسر موقعا حصينا منيعا هو الجولان، حاول استعادته مرة واحدة عام 1973 ثم آثر بعد ذلك أن يضمن هدوء تلك الجبهة وسلامة نظامه فاستمر الوضع على ذلك الحال إلى يومنا هذا، كل هؤلاء خلقوا لأنفسهم هالة زائفة جوفاء... لقد نسي هؤلاء أن ما من خالد في التاريخ إلا بأثره العظيم، ونسي هؤلاء أن أحدا بالكاد يذكر ماو تسي تونغ في الصين اليوم، وأن ستالين تلاحقه اللعنات رغم الهالة العظيمة التي أحاطت بهذين الزعيمين إبان حياتهما.
كفانا اتهامات بالعمالة والتواطؤ والصهيونية وما إلى ذلك. إن الوطنية والقومية تقاس بالأفعال لا بالأقوال والمواقف الوهمية والخطب الرنانة. إن دول الخليج هي من أشهر سلاح النفط عام 1973 وهي تدرك أن ذلك يضر بمصالحها ولكنه يخدم المصلحة القومية العربية. لقد استثمرت دول الخليج المليارات، إن لم يكن عشرات المليارات في الدول العربية الأقل حظا من النصيب المادي. إن الدعوة للإستيلاء على الأملاك القطرية في سوريا لهو ضرب من الخبل، فأموال قطر ودول الخليج الأخرى المستثمرة في سوريا وغيرها من الأقطار العربية تصب في مصلحة شعوب هذه الدول، والظاهر اننا "مش خالصين" وأنا هنا لست خليجيا ولكنني في نفس الوقت خليجي وسوري ولبناني ومصري... فإذا استثمرت الأموال في الغرب قالوا استثمروا عند الغرب والخصوم، وإذا تم الاستثمار في دول عربية قالوا في البداية أهلا وسهلا وما أن تتغير الظروف السياسية تتحول هذه الاستثمارات بقدرة قادر إلى أموال قذرة تم توظيفها لغاية في نفس يعقوب...
إن طريق التقدم يكون عبر العلم والعقلانية، المستقبل هو في الأجيال القادمة وليس في طغمة تحكم هنا أو هناك اليوم، ولو دامت لغيرك ما وصلت إليك. والله المستعان
Bashar al-Assad, the despicable head of the ruling clique in Syria has committed a terrible atrocity, encouraged by an international conspiracy of silence. The Houla Massacre is a stain of shame on the record of all those in power pretending to be powerless in the face of this horrendous savagery and others committed by Assad and his stormtroopers under the watchful gaze of his benefactors and detractors alike.
Meanwhile the New York Times reports that Barack Obama wants to entice the Russians to accept a Yemen-style solution for Syria.
Does that include immunity from prosecution for the war crime of Houla, Mr Obama? And what about you Messrs Putin and Ahmedinejad...
Yesterday I said the stories of what really happened in Deraa would eventually come out. Today residents of the besieged city have uncovered a mass grave on the outskirts of town as the regime's attempts at crushing the protests continue. According to locals, 13 bodies have been found, including those of a woman and child.
Assad to be Charged?
Meanwhile, the Financial Times quotes Britain's armed forces minister Nick Harvey as saying it's "highly likely" that charges will be brought against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by the International Criminal Court. Is Mr Harvey declaring new policy or is he overstepping the mark in his statement to the House of Commons?
(This post is in response to a recent comment)
One of the failures of the Arab republican regimes has been their inability to create stable societies. The fear in Syria of the outbreak of sectarian hostilities is a possibility that cannot be discounted.
But I think that to say the regime is the guarantor of civil peace in the country is incorrect. I believe that the threat of sectarian strife is actually an indictment of these so-called strong, secure and stable regimes. Saddam's Iraq, Mubarak's Egypt and Assad's Syria are all examples of regimes that have been in place for decades yet at the first sign of trouble the foundations quake and the social fabric begins to bust at the seams.
I do not envy the Christians in the Arab world today. They predate the Muslims, and the Jews predate both. But to pose a question to the question: what if Syria were somehow to be threatened with Western intervention, would the minority regime in power continue to see the Syrian Christians as an ally or would they be viewed with suspicion, a fifth column?
There is no doubt in my mind that we are witnessing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Arab world. Indeed, the calls for revisionism or modernism in Islam cannot be effected by outsiders, or prompted by liberal Muslims or secular Arabs.
If such a transformation were to take place it must be brought about by those with Islamic credentials. I believe that today in the Arab world we are on the cusp of a resurgence of the MB and eclipse of the jihadist current that shook the world with its extremism. However, having said that, I do not believe that the future belongs to the MB or Islamist groups. They are part of the transition. Rather, it is the youth of today who will determine the future of this region. And even within the Brotherhood there have been dissenting voices from within the ranks, emanating from its youth who perceive it as out of touch with modern times.
Along to shepherd this process is Turkey, led by an Islamist government that adheres, so far, to the tenets of democracy and benefits of modernity and global association, cooperation and exposure.
The Americans' tracking Usama bin Laden down to a residential area in Pakistan and not a cave in Afghanistan – indicative in itself of his not being the guerrilla leader he was widely perceived to be by his followers a la Che Guevara – seals the bin Laden chapter. So who is there to address the problem of Islamic extremism of which he was the predominant phenomenon over the past 2 decades? Answer? See above.
Bin Laden was portrayed by his supporters, and there are millions of them, make no mistake, as the standard bearer of a resurgent and defiant Islamic nation. To them he was the courageous fighter, in the face of overwhelming odds, against an unjust world filled with domineering powers where the poor got poorer and the oppressed where crushed even more. He was a prophet of victory in an era of adversity.
But Usama bin Laden was a false prophet. The Arabs are a defeated nation desperately seeking a victory. They have been tremendously let down by their leaders in the age of independence. They have suffered defeat upon defeat in military showdowns, their standards of education have plummeted. The people therefore flocked to the fake, and sometimes extremist, leadership that presented itself as an alternative to the corrupt, failed regimes.
I find it interesting that one of the most prominent Egyptian MB leaders, Abdul Munim abu al-Fotouh, has recently said that he does not oppose the candidacy of Christians or women for the post of president. Abu al-Fotouh has declared that he's running for president and that he will appoint a Coptic Christian or a women as his vice-president, so whether his declaration is out of conviction or merely a campaign statement is open to question. But, nevertheless, it is a very important position.
Which is why I was critical of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya lamenting the passing of bin Laden: "We condemn any killing of a holy warrior or of a Muslim and Arab person, and we ask God to bestow his mercy upon him." Several days later Hamas announced that Haniya's statement did not reflect the position of the Palestinian movement, but the damage had been done.
Back to Syria. I cannot declare with any certainty that the Syrian leadership's choice to employ brute force against the protesters will lead to bloody sectarianism in the country. But it is certainly creating the conditions for it. Occupying mosques on Fridays and denying access to them is very short-sighted. Coming from a minority-led regime it doesn't take a genius to figure out what the protesters, who are mainly from the ruled majority sect, think about it.
I do not necessarily want to see the regime toppled in Syria, nor do I not want to see it ejected from power. That is a matter for the Syrian people to decide. But the fact of the matter is that Syria lags far behind in terms of development and progress.
I both recognize and appreciate the importance of Syria's position at the heart of the Arab world. Many times I played the devil's advocate and defended Bashar al-Assad in heated arguments, hoping against hope that the promise would be fulfilled.
Unfortunately he let me down. And I believe he let down his people and country.
I think the regime in Damascus has lost legitimacy and has been grievously wounded. It is one thing to want it to survive, especially if the survival is deemed to be crucial to the survival of other minorities, but completely another thing to recognize it as the leading force for a better society. Will it continue to be regarded as a guarantor of regional stability, the way it was before the outbreak of dissent on March 15? That is the question being asked and issue being considered by regional and international powers. And when the President's cousin comes out and states that Syria's stability leads to Israel's stability (and vice versa) I view it as pretty desperate.
To deploy tanks and armor in one's restive cities will not gain you the sympathy of the population there. I am waiting for the stories to come out from Deraa once the siege is lifted. I promise you they won't be pretty. For a city to be cut off for so long tells me that something is not right at all.
It is only secure and prosperous states that can guarantee the well-being and voluntary acquiescence of their people. Tito was Yugoslavia's strongman for 27 years. The breakup of the country and the vicious war that tore apart its ethnic and religious fabric began 11 years after his passing. And Tito was viewed as far more benevolent than Hafez al-Assad.
In the Arab world I see dictatorships of ignorance. What they will be replaced with will come from within, the natural by-product of societies that have been repressed and oppressed for decades. But change there will be.
We are now on the cusp of a new era. Muslims will always be the majority in this region. They have ample examples of glorious Muslim empires of ages past. That grandeur was partly the result of the Muslims embracing other cultures and nurturing ethnic and religious minorities. In other words, open minds. According to today's standards it would be called human rights and Muslims need to fight for and defend those rights, not just when it comes to them but also to make sure they employ them for the well-being for all who come under their care.
In Syria, the regime may be able to hang on... for a while. The tanks do help. You may call for a dialogue and maybe some political activists cannot resist the diesel fumes of heavy armor? But what has erupted cannot be extinguished. Not by force. Not anymore. Protesters still demonstrating, week in , week out, attest to that. The longer the use of force continues the greater the animosity, even hatred. And hate is a very difficult emotion to shed.
The regime in Damascus has fallen into a trap of its own making: it has taken the relative silence of the international community and the media's lack of prominence given to the Syrian issue as tacit approval for its military campaign to suppress popular dissent.
President Bashar al-Assad has received several messages over the past few weeks, and they have all gently prodded him in the direction of reform and excluded his person from any criticism. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called him a “reformer”, which he's not. Turkey lent him its support, France announced that the situation in Syria is incomparable to the one in Libya while Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim announced his country's opposition to sanctions against Syria. Most recently Bahrain's Foreign Minister arrived in Damascus with a message of support for Syria's stability, security and reform under the leadership of President Assad. That message is quite significant for 2 reasons: it can be considered a message of support for Assad from the GCC as a whole and not just Bahrain, and it comes from a country that is at loggerheads with Syria's most important backer and ally, Iran. Thus the message contains a message in itself.
Among the sanctions proposed by the Europeans none include the president's person while one is an arms embargo. Ouch! That's bound to hurt Damascus whose only source of weaponry is Russia! The message is clear: we are giving you a grace period to save your skin and your regime.
Unfortunately, President Bashar al-Assad is unable to fulfill the promise. The regime has so far killed an estimated 800 Syrians and arrested 7000. It is obvious that after a 10-day siege and subjugation of Deraa that the regime's strategy is to identify the trouble-spots and subjugate them by force. It is collective punishment at its worst. Analysts have described the use of tanks and armored fighting vehicles against Syrian civilians as “shock and awe”. Actually there's another term for it: terrorism. It is a strategy intended to terrorize the civilian population and prevent it from protesting. As does the treatment meted out to those who are arrested, as described in this report by the Independent:
Soon, an enormous man in a white T-shirt and pyjama bottoms emerged from behind the curtain. He seized a young teenager and took him behind the barrier. "He was there for around three minutes," said Mohammad. "All I could hear was his screams. When he was brought back out his head was covered in blood. They had tried to slice half of his face off."
The person most widely accused of heading the repression is Maher al-Assad, the President's brother. It should be hardly surprising that he would resort to such brutality against the Syrian people considering that, as a result of a family dispute, he shot his brother-in-law in the middle of the presidential palace in 2000.
Unfortunately for Syria, Bashar al-Assad has sown the seeds of sectarian strife into this internal upheaval that was and remains largely peaceful and non-denominational. It is something an increasingly exasperated Turkey recognizes and fears.
The regime's tactics are bound to fail, even with the mounting allegations of Iranian advice and support for the Assads.
The Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian armed forces, President Assad on Friday, May 6, marked Martyrs Day while his troops were busy cracking down on protesters. Strangely, after the one demonstration in support of the regime following his disastrous speech in parliament, there have been no further such rallies.
The regime is emboldened by the international complicity in the flagrant violation of human rights.
That Syria's mostly-Sunni middle class has not joined the protest en masse is no cause for celebration because a wedge is being driven, firmly, slowly and surely between the sects of the country.
The regional and international powers are ignoring one important factor: the dynamics of a popular rebellion have a momentum of their own. Some respected Syria experts believe Bashar al-Assad still has a slim chance of rescuing the situation, but even they think that it's quickly slipping away.
Politicians are advised to head to their nearest mall and seek out the kids amusement area. There they will inevitably find a Whac-a-Mole gaming machine, and no matter how many times and how hard you whack the moles, they always pop back up. The world's leaders are well-advised to urgently confiscate the mallets and stock up on tents, fire blankets and extinguishers.
The oft-repeated logic is that by propping up the regime in Damascus and helping it regain the upper hand, at whatever cost, the world is avoiding a firestorm. But rather than dampening the flickers of freedom the powers-that-be are assisting the rise of a much bloodier and violent conflict.
Now what was that about giving someone some rope to hang himself with...
The Turkish Sabah daily reports that CIA Director Leon Panetta secretly visited Ankara for 5 days at the end of March to discuss regional developments. The newspaper reports that discussions between the American and Turkish intelligence services assessed the situation in Libya as a "crisis", while Syria was described as being at a "critical threshold".
The visit, which preceded the beginning of the protests in Syria, predicted that any uprising would be "Sunni" and that if President Assad (whose Alawi background factors prominently in his decision-making according to the report) failed to "take an immediate step towards reforms, then the nation could be drawn into serious internal strife."
Interestingly, the Turks seem to have drawn up plans to offer refuge for President Assad and his family should the regime collapse.
To commemorate the Syrian army's assault on Deraa "In response to the calls for help from the citizens of Daraa and their appeal to the Armed Forces as to intervene and put an end to the operations of killings, vandalism, and horrifying by extremist terrorist groups... to restore tranquility, security and normal life to the citizens..." as reported by the official Syrian News Agency, here are a couple of videos of military action from the Golan Heights and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The first shows Syrian infantry advancing under heavy fire behind the cover of armor on the Golan Heights :
Actually the video was shot on April 23 in Syria with military units taking up "positions" to "secure" the country. You can tell it's quite a dangerous deployment with armed terrorists and salafi gangs - clearly visible - (01:08) looking on, preparing to slaughter the soldiers.
And the second video comes from the West Bank, Israeli forces, business as usual, doing the usual job of putting down the uprising by Palestinians calling for freedom. Note the sniper having a field day? Notice how no one is shooting back at him?
But wait... The uniforms don't look right. Oh! These are actually Syrian troops firing on their own citizens in Deraa on April 25! You have to admit this scene would not look out of place in the West Bank.
Oddly enough, on Monday as the Deraa story was developing I heard a news anchor interview an eyewitness in Deraa who said he was coming under fire from a Syrian army sniper:
Eyewitness: The sniper is shooting at me now
Anchor (sounding dubious): How come we can't hear the gunshots?
Maybe it has something to do with snipers being able to fire from distances up to 1500-2000 meters/yards or so away! Genius.
The murderous response of Syria's security services on Friday to the protests engulfing the country has struck the death knell for the regime in Damascus.
This short-sighted decision to crush the civilian protests will come to be viewed as a momentous day in the history of the modern Middle East. Syria is now headed on a cataclysmic path that threatens the very fabric of the country and may very well bring into play the dangerous forces of an ethnic and sectarian conflict. That the country did not even exist a century ago is a portent for how the situation might unravel in the medium- to long-term run of history if wise minds do not take hold, quickly, of the situation.
By making the decision to offer concessions President Bashar al-Assad accelerated the inevitable demise of a regime that was founded on the principle of being immovable in the face of popular dissent. The horrific number of civilian deaths on Friday has set the President on a blood-stained path and stripped him of much of whatever public goodwill he had remaining. His actions have vindicated his critics. I have always tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, genuinely hoping he could herald something truly positive for Syria. But the more I think about him, and the more that I recall his speeches, the more convinced I become that his performances were just that. And not very good ones. His lecturing on issues of patriotism, resistance and defiance always rang hollow to me. Which brings to mind his calling other Arab leaders in 2006 little men, “half men” for their criticism of Hizbullah's instigation of the disastrous war with Israel that year. This coming from the leader of a regime that Israel, his declared foe and enemy, deems a guarantor of stability in the region.
It would be a terrible miscalculation to presume that the Assad regime will ultimately prevail, no matter how violent the tools of repression it yields and unleashes. A Syrian expat today said Bashar al-Assad is paying the price of his alliance with Iran. But the price Assad is really paying is that of marginalizing and ignoring his own country's and citizens' dire needs and overwhelming desires for a dignified existence and bright future. It is an insult to the hundreds of Syrians killed, wounded, tortured and humiliated by Bashar al-Assad's thugs over the past month to put this in the context of a regional vendetta. His so-called economic reforms and openness have benefited those closest to him, not ordinary Syrians. He has fostered a culture of corruption that exceeds anything in existence during the long-reign of his father.
The calculation in several world capitals is that the fall of the regime will bring into play forces of extremism and sectarianism, and therefore it is more judicious to await the outcome of the transition currently in process, and hope Assad survives, than to get involved. The idea is that he may pull off another Hama. But while Hama in 1982 was isolated and butchered, this is an altogether different situation in 2011. The traditional, hypocritical chant of the masses, birrooh, biddam, nafdeeka ya ____, we sacrfice our souls and blood for you ____ (fill in the blank with name of your favorite autocrat), this time the call was birrooh, biddam, nafdeeki ya Deraa. People across Syria rallied to the aid of Deraa. That is the turning point that no one has latched onto.
Unfortunately it is the Assad clan itself that has already unleashed the specter of sectarianism. By scaremongering and playing that card and pitting the Alawi-led security forces against a mostly Sunni popular opposition the regime has pointed the gun towards its own head. The nervous finger on the trigger is set to tremble even more as the earth quakes underneath its wobbly legs.
This is a regime that for decades has inflicted much cruelty and death on its people: “Former prisoners, detainees, and reputable local human rights groups reported that methods of torture and abuse included electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; burning genitalia; forcing objects into the rectum; beatings while the victim is suspended from the ceiling and on the soles of the feet; alternately dousing victims with freezing water and beating them in extremely cold rooms; hyperextending the spine; bending the body into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts; using a backward-bending chair to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the spine; and stripping prisoners naked for public view. “ On this particular issue the Arab League needs to backtrack and quickly rescind its decision to support Syria's shameless bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
It is hardly surprising then that the regime's statement of intent is clear: we will not go down without a fight. Unhappily, this is going to be a very bloody but one-sided fight, both ways. The regime has all the weapons but the people have all the might. Make no mistake, sickening scenes like the child's skull split apart, the stare of the eyes forced wide open in the horrible shock of death, the bits of shattered brain blown out of the little head are too terrible for me to provide a link to. But it is that unforgettable stare which now locks onto the pinnacle of the Assad clan's throne.
Notwithstanding Turkey's alarmed silence, Iran's muted rage, Israel's nervous worry, Saudi Arabia's classic reluctance to acknowledge change and Barrack Obama's long-overdue condemnation, uttered because it was unreasonable to have no comment, and the Arab League's rediscovering the blessing of its deaf and mute attitude, the wheels are turning, the people are agitating and they will no longer be silenced. The evil shadow of extremism will only take hold of the new Middle East if forces conspire to thwart the people. The Islamic face of terror witnessed by the world over the past 2 decades is not the face of Islam; it is the by-product of repressive regimes and international, read Western, tolerance, and even aiding and abetting, of them. More of the same will produce more of the same. And what of the flames that the rulers in Damascus may try to start in the neighborhood as the regime begins to topple?
By turning the pall bearers and mourners of Friday's victims into victims themselves the regime in Damascus is wagering on all-out repression to save it from itself. It is taking the world's silence and reading the various analyses which proclaim that the fall of the regime is not in the interest of a perceived regional status quo as a green light to reimpose state authority. By acting in that manner it has publicly declared its political bankruptcy, denuded itself of nationalistic legitimacy and exposed itself as a regime that has for decades put the narrow interests of a ruling clique ahead of building a united, prosperous state.
The Deraa child's death-stare from his shattered skull bores into the hollow colossus of the hereditary dictatorship in Damascus. There is no longer a way out. It is now just a question of time.
The protests in Syria are now entering their second month with no let-up in sight. On Friday which passed relatively peacefully I was of the view that the regime seemed to have recognized that the iron fist policy of the past few weeks had backfired which is why Friday's protests seem to have passed with no reported fatalities.
Unfortunately, there have been more deaths over the past 48 hours (Sunday/Monday) with Homs turning into the latest flashpoint.
Significantly, on Friday thousands of protesters attempted to make their way to the Abbaseen (Abbasids) Square in central Damascus. They were thwarted with baton charges, tear gas and water cannon. The last thing President Bashar al-Assad needs right now is a repeat of the mass sit-in at Tahreer Square that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
The regime in Damascus is at a loss as to how to handle these protests. When the first protests broke out in Deraa, faced with several tough choices President Assad took the easy way out, the tried and trusted tactic of repression.
That backfired spectacularly and other villages and towns rallied to the aid of the people of Deraa.
Faced with mounting popular dissent, Presidential Spokesperson Bothaina Shaaban announced that the nation's 48-year-old State of Emergency would be lifted soon, while Deraa's own, Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa, told the nation to expect some good news.
The president then headed to the notional seat of people power and delivered his now much-maligned speech in parliament. There he was told by one deputy in no uncertain terms that he was too good to rule in the Arab world and should lord over the whole world. Expending what political capital he had left President Assad blamed a conspiracy, said Syria would not be pressured into hurried reforms and left matters there, with not a word about the hated State of Emergency. The people did not think much of the speech or of their supposed representatives and went back on the street to press their demands for liberty, reform and dignity.
Doubtless stung by the reaction to his speech Assad made two announcements that were expected to be recognized as concessions, to a repressed minority and to the devout: he issued a decree naturalizing Kurds and an announcement was made that female teachers barred from their jobs for wearing the niqab would be reinstated. And the government suspended the license for the country's only casino. He then spent the ensuing couple of weeks meeting delegations of Syrians from Deraa and elsewhere, announced the release of all those detained during the protests except those charged with crimes against “the homeland and citizens”, and waited to unveil his new government.
That did not placate disaffected Syrians and the protests spread, reaching Latakia, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Suweida and finally Damascus. Always a step behind, the President appeared on television on Saturday giving his “directives” to the new council of ministers.
In another of his long-winded oral deliveries, Assad addressed the compliant ministers arrayed in front of him. He told them he realized from meeting the people's delegations that there was a gap between the people and government, instructed the ministers on the need for transparency and humility, announced that attending conferences abroad was to be curtailed for the time being, stated that corruption in government circles must be stamped out, ministers should delegate authority to their subordinates... The list of points and instructions raised by Assad goes on and on, the full text of his speech can be found here.
The problem the President needs to concede is that the lid on the pressure cooker that has been Syria for the past 3 or 4 decades has exploded and cannot be replaced.
While there are those who found Assad's speech in front of his ministers positive, I do not concur. What bothered me most was that this was the cabinet's first meeting and the President lectured his ministers. I find it troubling that they sat there for a substantial portion of the President's directive taking notes like diligent school kids. I would have imagined that they were selected for their posts because of their perceived competence. Every single minister had a microphone in front of her/him, yet the only microphones in use were the President's, and therein lies the problem. While he spoke of dialogue as a means of getting Syria out of its current crisis there was no dialogue between the President and his most senior chosen officials.
To fight corruption Assad suggested that public officials submit a “statement of their property” but avoided what every Syrian I've ever met whispers about; that the worst corruption is right at the top, in the circles surrounding, or related by blood, to the President himself.
It is no surprise then that protests started up again almost immediately, if they had stopped at all, after Assad's speech.
The gap between government and people that the President spoke of is nothing new. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War a Syrian officer hitched a ride with me in Beirut. He climbed in at the Syrian army checkpoint in Ouzai. As I drove he started talking about the build-up of US forces in the Gulf and how much of a slight it was to Arab honor, how he supported Iraq, and so on. Syria, of course, had been at loggerheads with Iraq's Saddam Hussein for almost a decade with Damascus even supporting Iran in its war with Baghdad. I was non-committal despite the officer's enthusiasm. He then produced from inside his uniform a carefully folded sheet of paper and proudly pronounced, “This is a poem I have written about Iraq.” I glanced towards it as he started to read aloud and sure enough in blue ballpoint there was row upon neat row of Arabic script detailing Saddam's heroism, Arab pride and Iraq's coming victory over the foreign invaders. This while Syrian forces were being readied to join the US-led coalition to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait! A gap, indeed.
It is claimed that Bashar al-Assad has had to contend with obstacles to reform put in his path by the old guard. That is a fallacy that needs to be laid to rest. The so-called old guard, the men who faithfully stood by his Father Hafez al-Assad and formed the backbone of his regime, have all been methodically cast aside by Bashar al-Assad. In their place President Bashar has ensconced his brother Maher, brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, cousin Rami Makhlouf, and the heads of the various state security agencies who swear allegiance to him. What does survive and thrive is the old mentality.
Some analysts have expressed the opinion that the President's wife, Asmaa, may have a calming effect on him. I think if a female member of the Assad clan can exert any influence on both Bashar and Maher al-Assad then it is their eldest sibling, their sister, Bushra who also happens to be the wife of Assef Shawkat, deputy chief-of-staff of the Syrian armed forces. In 1984 during the attempted coup by her uncle, Rifaat, she was incensed to see posters of him plastered on the walls near the Presidential Palace and proceeded to rip them off. Some of Rifaat's Defense Companies saw her and according to one of their accounts they escorted her to the Presidential Palace.
The regime in Damascus will latch on to the latest batch of Wikileaks' releases which claim that the US State Department has been financing Syrian opposition. Of course the Syrian opposition groups in exile have to be getting their money from somewhere so it doesn't surprise me that some of it may be coming from Washington. In my view this does not in any way taint the grassroots opposition movement in the country which was born out of genuine popular anger and frustration and not hatched in some foreign capital. It could very well come to haunt those accused of receiving Washington's money and the Syrian people will be the judge of that.
The regime has made much of a plot to destabilize the country. It has cried wolf several times now; “armed gangs”, “criminal elements”, agents provocateurs, a Lebanese deputy, Saad Hariri's March 14 Movement and finally a weapons shipment from Iraq, they are all to blame for the crisis in Syria. The iron fist with which it has controlled the country for decades seems to be slipping. The Syrian regime has been crying wolf since the outset of this popular uprising. Perhaps if a real wolf does eventually come along the audience will have been so tired of the cries that it does nothing.
Bashar al-Assad had the unenviable task of filling the vast space vacated by Hafez al-Assad. He has attempted to emulate his late father's stance as an opponent of American and Israeli hegemony of the region and carved for himself the mantle of leading a Syria that is a state of mumana'a and muqawma, objection (to foreign diktats) and a hotbed of resistance (supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents). Indeed Assad in Arabic means lion and Syria has been called Areen al-Assad, the lion's den.
However, Hafez al-Assad waged his most critical battles with the Israelis and Americans supported by the unwavering backing of an ailing but still powerful Soviet Union. Assad senior's battling performance in the early to mid-1980s in the “Showdown in Lebanon” is now the stuff of legend. Indeed, Assad's special forces clashed with Ariel Sharon's armored columns in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley in 1982 and halted the Israeli advance. But it must be recalled that Hafez al-Assad also kept his lines of communication open with the Americans, met with several US presidents, joined the American-led coalition to eject Saddam from Kuwait in 1990/91 and directly engaged the Israelis in US-sponsored peace negotiations.
Unfortunately the younger Assad seems to have decided that he too could put all his eggs in the foreign policy basket, exert regional influence through Hezbollah and Hamas and simultaneously retain strict control of a cash-strapped Syria suffering from poverty, unemployment and a population explosion. I find it difficult to comprehend that he did not realize that the world has changed a great deal since the 1980s. Gone are the days of lethally suppressing an entire city for weeks with hardly a peep from the international press (Hama). The USSR is no more and in its place we now have near-instantaneous communication in the form of the internet, as well as mobile phone cameras that surreptitiously record every incriminating and embarrassing detail. From what I hear President Assad used to spend a considerable amount of time on the web, so I'm surprised he did not grasp early on the significance of what was going on in the region.
There have been views expressed that the Syrians are playing for a repeat of the stifled Iranian protests of 2009. They fail to understand that in Iran the world witnessed an uprising that did not attract much grassroots support. It was fueled mainly by university students and therefore was somewhat elitist in that sense.
But in Syria the explosion of anger began amidst the poverty of Deraa and continues to be carried by run-of-the-mill people.
President Assad could have, and should have, done what Mubarak, Ben Ali and Ali Saleh did not: instead of waiting for the people's delegations to come to him he should have gone to them. Opportunity lost.
Images like the ones in this video showing the abuse of protesters labeled as “traitors” by Assad's security forces will be indelibly ingrained into people's memories. Regime apologists like Dr Issam al-Takrouri doubting its authenticity and claiming the gunmen are Kurdish peshmerga only add insult to injury.
As I write reports now confirm that at least 8 Syrians have been killed over the past 48 hours, other sources put the number at 17.
Notwithstanding the Wikileaks cables, and notwithstanding the Syrian regime's charges of foreign plots, conspiracies and outside involvement, the fact of the matter is that the protesters out in the streets are thousands of miles away from Washington and London, they are frustrated and angry and they are clamoring for dignity. Perhaps there are dirty hands stoking the fire and shooting at the army and protesters. This in no way diminishes the state's responsibility for the safety and well-being of its citizens. Especially a state that for decades prided itself on the ruthless efficiency of its security agencies and “unity” of people and government.
This has yet to turn into a mass popular uprising. But demonstrators are getting more numerous and bolder. Discontent among the population is rising. The chants for reform, liberty and dignity are now being transformed into ones calling for the fall of the regime. The dead are not “traitors” but flag-bearing Syrians whose demands embody what a truly strong and thriving Syria should be and offer its people.
There are fears and warnings of a sectarian bloodbath, ie the majority Sunni population exacting retribution against the minority Alawites who have held the reigns of power since the mid-1960s. But the Alawites as a sect are also ruled by the regime and are in no way unanimous in their support of the regime. Nor are they complicit in anything going on. Saturday's convening of the new cabinet and the President's speech were meant to be a new beginning. The renewed bloodshed signal another chance squandered. One person holds the key. He can be remembered as the leader who ushered in a new dawn for his country or the president who oversaw the demise of his dynasty. I still hold on to my sincere hope that Syria's social fabric will not be ripped to shreds, that it can avoid the senseless violence of civil strife. Hope is one thing, naivete another and realism yet another.
The wall of fear has been broken. It seems to me that the Syrian regime is in this for the long haul. I believe we are in for more bloodshed until this uprising reaches its denouement.
Hamas (in Gaza), which early on supported the Libyan people's anti-Gaddafi uprising, yesterday stated that events in Syria are an "internal matter" (i.e. we support the government) and denied that the head of its politburo in Damascus Khaled Meshal had made a widely-quoted statement criticizing Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi.
The statement by Meshal was made out of "loving admonishment" and called on Qaradawi to refrain from playing the sectarian card in Syria affairs. Meshal painted a glowing picture of Syrian support for the Palestinians, something that will doubtless be hotly contested by many Palestinian factions and individuals with a long history of rivalry and confrontations with Damascus. For a detailed rundown see my War of Lebanon and PLO: History of a Revolution documentaries.
Syria has always viewed the cause of Palestine from the prism of its strategic interests which were rarely compatible with Yasser Arafat's vision of "independent national Palestinian decision making".
As former Syrian Foreign Minister (and later Vice President before defecting in 2005) Abdul Halim Khaddam once famously said, "Palestine is southern Syria" and "Syria is not a hotel" where Palestinian factions shack up for free.
Back to Qaradawi who in his Friday sermon on March 25 condemned the "atrocities" against protesters in Syria and said President Bashar al-Assad is treated by the Syrian people as a Sunni while he himself is captive to his own sect. A week later on April 1 he responded to calls for a lawsuit to be brought against him in Syria on charges of incitement of sectarianism. Qaradawi decried Syria's constitution that has "no place" for Islam in it and enshrines the Baath party's role at the vanguard of the state. He also denied that he is a proponent of sectarianism and retorted that a country shaken by his words is "not a country, it is weaker than a spider's web... This is the era of change. He who does not change gets trampled underfoot. These regimes have enslaved people..."
It will be interesting to see if Qaradawi tones down his speeches regarding Syria, especially following the visit to Damascus on Saturday of Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani bearing a verbal message from the Emir of Qatar to President Bashar. The Syrian News Agency said the message affirmed "Qatar's support for Syria in the face of efforts to undermine the country's security and stability." The Qatar News Agency described the message in general, non-specific terms.
Both Qaradawi and Hamas are disciples of the Muslim Brotherhood. To see the outburst from Meshal is unprecedented, especially as both Hamas and Qaradawi have close links to Qatar which has had very warm relations with Bashar al-Assad.
A man on a long journey through a perpetual desert.
The opinions expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the views of any of my employers, past, present or future.