Assad Responds to Clerics’ Demands

I leave for Paris today and will not be blogging until I return Sunday. Here is my latest Foreign Policy article: As quiet returns, Syrians ponder the future. It covers the ground of my last post, but I have changed a number of elements in response to reader criticisms on SC, some of which I have posted below. Here are some thoughts on the reform process that is now taking shape.

President Assad has swung into action meeting with important leaders from different sectors of the Syrian population in an effort to hear their concerns and shore up support for the Baath Party and his presidency.

Sheikh Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Bouti

Most important have been his meetings with the Imams of Syria’s leading cities. These will be the key figures who can help repair his relations with the observant Muslim inhabitants of the cities. Most of the protests have been scheduled for Fridays because that is the day Syrians are allowed to assemble in large numbers. The sermons that are given and the level of criticism that is heard from the minbar can influence the mood of the public. Thus, it is little wonder that President Assad has been fulfilling the principal demands of Syria’s clerics.

Sheikh Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Bouti, Syria’s most respected cleric, stated that the President responded to the suggestions of the religious leaders

to grant freedoms and reform, fight corruption and end one-party rule.” He said during his weekly lesson aired by Syrian Television last night, that the Syrian command responded to many demands presented by a group of clerics, namely the re-employment of women wearing the niqab and the engineers who were distanced from the provinces, the issuance of a decree to found the Sham Higher Institute for Religious Studies and the delivery of instructions to open religious satellite channels that would sponsor “the real Islam that is neither inclined toward the east nor the west.” He added that President Bashar al-Assad told him he would address another speech to the Syrians, after the message of reform appeared to be vague.

President Assad has also accepted to close the country’s only casino and reversed a ban on teachers wearing the Islamic veil – moves seen as an attempt to reach out to conservative Muslims ahead of calls for pro-democracy demonstrations. Syrian activists have urged protesters to take to the streets on Wednesday and the following two days to honor more than 80 people who were killed in a crackdown on demonstrations that erupted nearly three weeks ago.

A number of Kurdish leaders have refused to meet with President Bashar al-Assad because he has refused to address their political concerns, although, he has sent out orders to treat the Kurds who have been refused Syrian nationality as if they were Syrians.

The naming of a Prime Minister who was a past Minister of Agriculture and is from the Southeast of Syria is widely viewed as a move to placate the demands of people from the region of Daraa who have been the worst affected by the protest movement that has swept Syria.

There is some question whether the President will strengthen the presence of the Baath Party in the next government in order to keep his party close as well. One reader worries that this article in al-Watan means that Dardari and the free market liberals in the last government will lose authority to the Regional Command of the Baath Party. The Party hawks believe that cutting socialism and subsidies is a cause of the unrest in Syria.

How these measures will be accepted by the public will depend to a large extent on whether demands for greater civil rights are met by the lifting of the Emergency Law and the new “Anti-Terrorism” law that will be passed by Parliament. If political reforms are given short shrift in favor of concessions to clerics and the Baath Party, many young Syrians will take the view that the country’s leadership is moving backwards and not forwards.

Bouti: President Assad ordered opening of religious channel…” [Thanks to]
Al-Watan, April 6, 2011

Scholar Sheikh Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Bouti stated that the Syrian command responded to the suggestions of the religious leaders to grant freedoms and reform, fight corruption and end one-party rule. He said during his weekly lesson aired by Syrian Television last night, that the Syrian command responded to many demands presented by a group of clerics, namely the re-employment of women wearing the niqab and the engineers who were distanced from the provinces, the issuance of a decree to found the Sham Higher Institute for Religious Studies and the delivery of instructions to open religious satellite channels that would sponsor “the real Islam that is neither inclined toward the east nor the west.” He added that President Bashar al-Assad told him he would address another speech to the Syrians, after the message of reform appeared to be vague.

“He continued: “The issue is not about decrees. The decrees are coming out but are awaiting implementation by the committees due to legal considerations,” explaining that the country will witness additional freedoms, the ending of the state of emergency and the discontinuation of the rule of one party…, that many steps have already been implemented and that they will soon be announced…

Ziad haidar in as-Safir, Tuesday, April 05, 2011

مشيرا إلى أن الوفد تقدم باقتراحات وأن القيادة وعدت بتلبيتها. وفي هذا السياق، صدر أمس الأول مرسوم بتأسيس معهد الشام العالي للتدريس الشرعي والبحوث الدينية، كما أعيدت مجموعة من المعلمات المنقبات إلى العمل بموجب توجيه رئاسي وفق ما ذكر وزير التربية في حكومة تصريف الأعمال علي سعد أمس. وقدر عدد اللواتي أعدن لعملهن بـ 1200 معلمة. وقد شكل هذا المطلب أحد مطالب المحتجين في غالبية انحاء البلاد

Friends had the following to say about this sermon by the Imam of the al-Hassan Mosque in the Midan quarter, which is the heart of Damascus.

I watched this sermon three times. This shaikh is brilliant. I have never agreed with a religious man in my life. But this is absolutely superb. The talk about the economic hardship, the mukhabarat, the simple and poor people and the use of his minbar plus his love for Syria is very moving. Is this the same Kuraim family of Aleppo?

His accent is very Shami. He is from Damascus. He is the Imam of the al-Hassan Mosque in Midan in the heart of Damascus.

I loved it how he held the approved paper they gave him for his sermon and kept looking at it disgustedly while ignoring it. Freedom of speech is creeping in everywhere in Syria. Even the Syrian state TV has been transformed. I hope people upstairs all understand the changes, otherwise if they will decide to be stubborn then it’s going to be ugly. People will snap if they feel that they are being tricked and their intelligence is being insulted.

Kurdish leaders refuse to meet with Assad envoys…” []
Al-Sarq al-Awsat , April 6, 2011
by Irbil Shirzad Shikhani

A number of prominent Kurdish leaders active on the Syrian political scene decided to boycott the meeting that was held between representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a number of tribal and political Kurdish leaders. This decision to boycott the meeting came after the Kurdish political council that includes nine different Kurdish parties and organizations announced that it refused to take part in the gathering. In this respect, a prominent Syrian official source was quoted by Asharq al-Awsat as saying: “Both Abdul Rahman Darwish, the secretary general of the Kurdish Democratic Party, and Saleh Kado, the deputy Secretary General of the Leftist Kurdish Party have boycotted the meeting.”

“For his part, Saleh Kado who is present in Syria was quoted by Asharq al-Awsat as saying: “The Kurdish movement has always affirmed its attachment to and its support of dialogue. And although we are not opposed to such a dialogue with the regime, we have decided to boycott the last session that was held with representatives from the regime. We took this decision because we do not want to allow them to claim that the Kurdish cause or demands only have to deal with small services. The governmental delegation came to listen to the Kurdish social and economic demands and not to the Kurdish political demands.”

“Kado added:….. Currently, the Kurdish street is very upset and angry and everybody is carefully watching the developments on the ground. A number of Kurdish movements have called for protests this Friday and I believe that it is time for the regime to talk to us in regard to our national demands. They must cancel the emergency laws, amend the constitution and recognize our presence as an independent entity…””

Ankara: Leaders should be more courageous than their people…”
On April 6,  Asharq al-Awsat, Beirut Thaer Abbas

“Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is expected to arrive to Damascus today. This would be the first visit made by the Turkish foreign minister to the Syrian capital since the incidents that erupted in Syria last month. In this respect, Turkish sources described this visit as being very important. The sources considered that the Turkish leadership decided to deal with the Syrian crisis without any reservations and that this constituted an important development, especially since bilateral relations had improved drastically since the Justice and Equality Party came to power in Turkey.

“Davutoglu’s visit to Damascus comes after days of dispute and accusations in the Turkish media over the best ways to deal with these events. Many media reports had called on the government to keep its distance from the current Syrian regime and to show a willingness to cooperate with any new regime that might be instated in Damascus. Turkish official sources considered that Davutoglu’s visit to Syria signaled the importance that Ankara gave to President Assad, but also reflected its attachment to the strengthening of bilateral relations between the two countries. However, other sources said that Davutoglu was carrying with him a clear message to President Assad, considering that Ankara was very disappointed with the Syrian president following the speech he had delivered before in parliament. The sources added: “Davutoglu will be carrying with him many pieces of advice regarding the best way to deal with the current crisis in Syria.”

Sana: Davutoglu met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Wednesday, following visits to Qatar and Bahrain. Davutoglu expressed his country’s support for the reform package adopted by the Syrian authorities,” the official SANA news agency reported, citing a statement from the Syrian presidency.

Samir Aita has a very smart article: “Follow the money” in Le Monde Diplomatique

Those Arab states that have erupted this year – and others that may follow – want freedom and democracy, but also to end the way their countries have been run for the financial benefit of rulers and their friends……

Nabil, a medical doctor in Michigan, sent the following critique of my recent analysis:

I am an Arab-American who has been, like you, following the opposition movements sprouting up throughout the Arab World. I have read your blogs over the years and have been impressed by your intimate knowledge and intelligent analysis of Syria and the broader Middle East.

I would like to comment, however, that a modified analysis of the current situation needs to be applied. That is, instead of looking at things from the traditional perspective of the millet system, I urge that you look at changes from the perspective of human and civil rights.

Recent events in the Arab World are re-calibrating the relationship of peoples with their governments. For the first time, Arabs are looking to their governments are SERVING the people rather than RULING the people. Government is being expected to provide schools, healthcare, roads, security, etc. Government is no longer being permitted to imprison, torture, abuse, steal. The Arabs are demanding- as I see it- the rule of law. They finally are coming to see that they have the right to live like citizens of every other region in the world- with law above all, and with transparency and due process in all aspects of life.

…..A courageous leader would have needed to take on those who control the levers of power. It is NOT an Alawite thing, it is a matter of interests of the “murtaziqa” or the beneficiaries of the regime.

When the Assad regime starts to eliminate abuses of the government, cancels emergency laws, releases all political prisoners, develops a parliamentary system with presidential term limits, then I am sure that Syria will become a far more stable and happy place.

All Arab leaders need to realize that their strength comes from their alignment with their people- not with Iran, the US, Turkey. The people provide legitimacy and stability for government. When Syria’s regime represents all Syrians equally, the sectarianism that is currently prominent will fade, and Syria will become a far more successful and prosperous country.

So, I respectfully disagree with your take on Assad’s speech. Syrians, like all people, NEED a fair, just, and transparent governmental system that will provide a level playing field for all. This is a critical phase of nation-building. The rich and mighty will certainly lose some of their privileges, but in the long run, everyone will be that much better off.

A Commentator’s view:

If the opposition turns sectarian or use violence they will be rejected by most Syrians. The regime has no choice but to change and rebuild alliances,they have lost a lot of support due to corruption and oppression. You will see gradual but steady reform measures that target the poor, the Kurds and the moderate low-middle class religious groups.albaath will have to share power and people should not be arrested for writing an article. By the end of April,a third choice for cellular services may be available to Syrians ,I hope rami stays out of it and keep a low profile,he is a liability now. I was disappointed by the lack of discussion about alawites and other minorities that oppose the regime.

Another Commentator proposes class over sect is at root of protest movement:

Wahabis, Islamists, MB…..That’s all what I read in the comments here.. Seriously people have you checked the state of economy in Syria?

How about the extreme poverty that millions of Syrians suffer from as a result of the Baath ruling…what about repression and maltreatment by police/security? Is that not enough to mobilize many after seeing Egypt and Tunisia?

I’m really surprised to read these comments as in the past couple of weeks, I didn’t talk to any of my Sunni upper-middle class friends in Syria who did not clearly show support for a major change in Syria, especially after the president’s speech. Though they are all worried about the unknown but what is holding them from taking an active role in the demos is simply the fear… If the barrier breaks down completely, we would see huge movements in the streets of Damascus….

Also, nobody seems to note that many Damascene families, who used to be middle class one day, have moved to live in the mentioned suburbs. I know many people who sold their houses in prime locations in Damascus so they can afford to buy two or three houses in Artouz or Harasta and the like so that their boys would be able to get married….

You guys are ignoring the economical side of the whole movement and focusing on Wahabis. Deraa did not rise up because of a Wahabis’ agenda… Teens were arrested and the issue was poorly dealt with by those in charge of security in Deraa!

I have lived in Syria most of life and have been forced to take part in many pro-Assad demonstrations. Everyone in Damascus knows that, except for you guys! I know plenty of people who took part in the pro-Assad demo last week, but none of them participated willingly! So you can’t really use that demo as an evidence of Assad’s popularity! I’m sure many do support and like Assad, less after the speech though, but many more do not but are silent for now!

It’s about class and poverty and not sectarian! The regime and its supporters are the ones focusing on the sectarian aspect in order to curb people’s ambition of a change that Syria dearly needs!

Olaf Andersen writes:

Dear Joshua, We proceeded with our recent trip to Syria (March 25 – April 3) and had a wonderful time. There was no sign of any protest wherever we went (Bosra, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Crak de Chevaliers, Sergilla, Aleppo and Palmyra) and people were extremely friendly. The State Department’s advisory for all Americans to consider leaving Syria seemed paranoid – perhaps a Washington-Damascus power play.

Best regards, Olaf Andersen

Syrian Parliament to Repeal Emergency Law in May, AFP Says
By Gregory Viscusi

April 6 (Bloomberg) — Syria’s parliament will repeal the country’s five-decade-old emergency law during a special session in early May, Agence France-Presse reported, citing an unidentified official close to President Bashar al-Assad. The special session will sit from May 2 to 6, AFP said.

Hugh Macleod -explores the Shabiha of Latakia. The Al Jazeera feature is here
The ghosts of Syria

….Syrians claim that roaming gangs of thugs have turned peaceful pro-democracy protests into violent chaos.

They are known to the locals of Lattakia as the ghosts – al-Shabeha – but when these phantoms dress up it is in black and their terror is tangible.

In a port city dominated by Sunni Muslims, who comprise three quarters of the Syrian population, and surrounded by mountain villages that are home to Alawites, a minority that has ruled over the country for 40 years, these roaming gangs of black-clothed thugs have turned peaceful protests calling for freedom into deadly chaos.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, warned in a speech this week that such gangs are part of a foreign plot to drive a wedge between Syria’s different religious and ethnic communities. But in interviews with residents, journalists and eyewitnesses in Lattakia almost all say the same thing: Shabeha are almost exclusively Alawites from the region, described by one reliable source as the private militia of the Assad family itself……

Who is shooting at Syrians? A poll circulating on twitter among Syrians:

Saudi ittisalat will probably be licensed to operate a third cell company in Syria. It may bring lower call charges. Syria has among the highest price structure for its cell phones.

Syria Goes to War
April 4, 2011 Bilal Y. Saab in The National Interest

IT WAS only a matter of time before the revolutionary wave hit Syria. After all, the factors that have brought about dissent and rebellion in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain and to lesser extent in Jordan and Saudi Arabia are equally if not more salient in Syria: failed economics, undemocratic politics, and societal discontent…..

T IS dishonest to deny that US (and Israeli) strategic interests would be better served if Bashar the president, not his regime, stayed in power. Better the devil you know. The United States and Israel simply cannot afford to wait and see which new leadership may soon emerge in Damascus. Washington knows Bashar well and it knows how rational and predictable he is in foreign affairs. If he wants to survive politically and save his legacy, Washington should have this deal ready for him—US political support for his effort to stay in power and rescue his presidency in return for the following: he split with the regime, implement all the necessary reforms he proposed, allow for free and fair national elections, and gradually join the pro-Western camp like his father did prior to the 1991 Gulf War.

Some analysts have argued that it is naive to expect Bashar to be able or willing to reform, noting that his March 30 speech is yet another indicator of his resistance to change. That may be true, but if things escalate and demonstrators regain the momentum and encircle him, Bashar, the pragmatic leader he is, might have no choice but to comply. If he accepts Washington’s deal, the United States would get the best out of an imperfect situation: leverage with a future government in Damascus, something the Assads have succeeded in denying Washington for a long time.

Many Syrians may feel betrayed and offended by even the thought of the United States providing Bashar with political support. But many others (hopefully the majority), anxious about the potential partition of their country, sectarian conflict, and political instability, could tolerate such an arrangement. After all, large numbers of Syrian youth love him and many still believe that he has reformist intentions. If Bashar succeeds in dismantling his regime and stays in power, Washington would be both supporting the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people and protecting its own security interests.

Democracy Is Messy
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, March 30, 2011
CAIRO: The New York Times

Egypt is a mess….. (read)

Washington Quietly Halts Arms Delivery To Lebanon
By Adam Entous

WASHINGTON—The U.S. has quietly frozen weapon shipments to Lebanon’s armed forces following the collapse of the country’s pro-Western government in January, underlining growing concerns about Hezbollah’s role there. The suspension, part of a broader review of U.S. security assistance to Lebanon, offers a cautionary tale about the uncertain course of secular revolts sweeping the Middle East, and Washington’s limited ability to influence them. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution of 2005 started with a wave of popular protests that stirred pro-democracy hopes in the West, much like the revolts now sweeping the region. But, to the chagrin of the U.S. and its allies, Hezbollah has emerged stronger rather than chastened.

The arms freeze was recently approved by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but the decision hasn’t been publicly announced because of concerns the disclosure could interfere with delicate internal negotiations in Lebanon over a new government’s makeup and policies. Defense officials said the U.S. is continuing to provide training and nonlethal assistance to the Lebanese military, describing the ties that are active as “robust.” Since 2006, the U.S. has provided more than $720 million in support to the Lebanese military, including equipment and advanced training.

Comment: region’s rulers practise delusion
By Roula Khalaf, Published: April 4 2011

Comments (352)

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351. Jad said:

Here’s a video of what the students are saying about the demonstration in Damascus University , the truth is always in the middle, there is no confirm about any fatal injury or using guns in this incident.

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April 11th, 2011, 3:52 pm


352. syau said:

Firstly I want to offer my condolences to Joshua Landis as his wifes cousin was murdered by the anti Bashar Thugs alonside other Syrian soldiers. I have relatives in Syria and worry about their safety every day.


I am not condoning the violence, but those who automatically assume that any bloodshed is he cause of the Syrian government are wrong and need to look outside the box. There is a conspiracy by multiple countries to divide Syria and Khaddam is sitting right in the executive position. He is instigating the violence in the protests and the thugs killing innocent people.

SANA news has just reported that some men have been caught going up behind scaved women and pulling there hijab off – there was another person behind him filming it and there intention was to make it look like the Syrian security officers were behind it. I think it sad that those evil conspiratiors behind such acts are trying to start a war based on religion at an attempt to divide the nation that way as no other part of there pathetic plan seems to be heading in there favour. Syrians are resiliant. The Bashar government is resiliant and will put a stop to the killings and the conspirators behind them and calm will return to the beautiful coutry of Syria.

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April 11th, 2011, 6:32 pm


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