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.
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.