Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011
Tens of thousands of Syrians gather for a pro-government rally at the central bank square in Damascus March 29, 2011.
In Syria, many uneasy about where struggle for power might lead
By Leila Fadel, Tuesday, March 29, 2011
CAIRO — When anti-government protesters buried their dead last week in southern Syria, their chants made clear that the divisions now coursing through Syria run even deeper than politics.
“No Iran,’’ they shouted. “No Hezbollah. We want Muslims who fear God.’’
To anyone listening, the message was unmistakable: that the quest to topple the Assad family also reflects years of pent-up grievances among majority Sunni Muslims who resent the power held by the minority Alawite sect.
That sectarian tension lies behind some of the passions now exploding in Syria as President Bashar al-Assad seeks to appease an angry population. But it also explains the apprehension being voiced by many Syrians uneasy about where a struggle for power might lead.
On Tuesday, as Assad offered new concessions to his opponents, thousands of Syrians gathered in downtown Damascus to show support for a leader whose family has kept a tight lid for more than 40 years on a country with a potentially explosive mix of religious sects and ethnicities.
Assad hails from a dynasty of Alawites, the minority sect that makes up no more than 16 percent of Syria’s population of mostly Sunni Muslims with a sprinkling of Christians and Druze. The challenge now being mounted by opponents is the most serious yet to the Assads’ grip on power, but it is also prompting warnings that any regime change in Syria could ignite internal violence.
“The Syrians have looked into the abyss, and they realize that Bashar al-Assad is not going to step down, that the Alawite regime is not going to go away, and in order for it to go away, they would have to go through a civil war,’’ said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
Activists say the government is trying to ignite unease by portraying their democratic movement as a sectarian one. The government has described the protests as a foreign “conspiracy” and a “project to sow sectarian strife.”
But there is evidence that the possibility of such clashes has unnerved some Syrians.
The Sunni Arab elite of Syria largely supports Assad, seeing him as an agent of stability and economic reforms. That is now threatened as foreign companies begin to pull out their staffs and tourists flee.
Religious minorities worry that if the Sunni majority came to power, Syria could become a repressive Islamic state. They would rather continue to live under the current system, sacrificing their freedoms in a secular and repressive state, than risk what might follow if Assad is ousted.
“As a minority we know that under a regime that is also a minority at least there is a secular system we’re comfortable to live under,” said a Christian resident of Damascus.
“Now it is pretty safe and people do not have problems with each other,” he said. “That’s because we know in the back of our minds if sectarian violence did break out it would be bad and it would be long term.”…..
“There is the fear of sectarianism, and then there is the fear of the regime,” said Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian intellectual and member of the opposition who was imprisoned for 16 years.
“This type of thing pushes many people to identify with the regime, to ask for protection from the regime, and the regime is completely aware of this,” he said. “This is their strategy.”
Ghimar Deeb, a lawyer in the capital, dismissed the idea of underlying sectarian tensions and said Assad needs time to implement reforms. “I believe this case that we’re living through right now will make Assad and Syria stronger and more Syrian,” he said.
“Bashar al Assad stages his own coup”
David Ignatius, Washington Post
“Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is attempting a new survival tactic in this Arab Spring — organizing what looks like a coup against his own government. Over the next 48 hours, it should become clear whether he has the political muscle and dexterity to pull off this unusual maneuver.
Assad dismissed his cabinet ministers Tuesday, and his backers encouraged massive public demonstrations of support in Damascus, Aleppo and other Syrian cities. Photographs showed huge crowds; a Syrian source claimed that 2 million Assad supporters had assembled in Damascus and 1 million in Aleppo, but it’s impossible to confirm these numbers. In their effort to turn the tables on protesters, the regime used Facebook as one of its tools to summon demonstrators. The social networking site was officially approved in Syria less than two month ago….
The decisive moment could come as early as Wednesday, when Assad may give the major speech the public has been expecting. He is said to have waited because he didn’t want to be caught in the same cycle as Egypt’s desposed president, Hosni Mubarak, who made a series of speeches announcing modest concessions, each of which only fueled the demand for more. Assad appears to be holding his cards for one big play, a move that his wily father, President Hafez al-Assad, would have endorsed.
Information I gathered from sources on Tuesday about the political jockeying inside Syria fits with what I heard from inside the Assad camp when I was in Damascus a month ago.
A measure of Assad’s seriousness is whether he moves to curtail the political and economic power of his own family….I wrote last month after visiting Damascus that Assad planned to press Makhluf to reduce his Syriatel holdings, as a symbol of his broader reform effort. That’s still said to be on Assad’s agenda.
The Assad clan also has military power that could obstruct Bashar’s reformist moves. His brother Maher, for example, commands a tough unit of Syrian special forces, and his brother-in-law Assaf Shaukat has been a senior intelligence official. It’s anyone’s guess, at this point, whether the Assads will remain united behind Bashar or fall into a bloody internal fued, but so far Bashar has proved the master of the situation….Some pro-reform members of the Assad government have referred to the dead protesters as “martyrs,” a sign of their eagerness to connect Assad with the wave of change that is sweeping the Arab world.”
March 29, 2011
The Syrian President I Know
By DAVID W. LESCH, San Antonio, Tex.
WHERE has President Bashar al-Assad of Syria been this past week?
Thousands of Syrians across the country have staged demonstrations against the government, and dozens of protesters have been reported killed by security forces. The cabinet was dismissed on Tuesday, although that’s a meaningless gesture unless it’s followed by real reform. Through it all Mr. Assad has remained so quiet that rumors were rampant that he had been overthrown. But while Syrians are desperate for leadership, it’s not yet clear what sort of leader Mr. Assad is going to be.
Will he be like his father, Hafez al-Assad, who during three decades in power gave the security forces virtually a free hand to maintain order and sanctioned the brutal repression of a violent Islamist uprising in the early 1980s? Or will he see this as an opportunity to take Syria in a new direction, fulfilling the promise ascribed to him when he assumed the presidency upon his father’s death in 2000?
Mr. Assad’s background suggests he could go either way. He is a licensed ophthalmologist who studied in London and a computer nerd who likes the technological toys of the West; his wife, Asma, born in Britain to Syrian parents, was a banker at J. P. Morgan. On the other hand, he is a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the cold war. Contrary to American interests, he firmly believes Lebanon should be within Syria’s sphere of influence, and he is a member of a minority Islamic sect, the Alawites, that has had a chokehold on power in Syria for decades.
In 2004 and 2005, while writing a book on him, I had long interviews with Mr. Assad; after the book was published, I continued to meet with him as an unofficial liaison between Syria and the United States when relations between the two countries deteriorated. In that time I saw Mr. Assad evolve into a confident and battle-tested president.
I also saw him being consumed by an inert Syrian system. Slowly, he replaced those of questionable loyalty with allies in the military, security services and in the government. But he does not have absolute power. He has had to bargain, negotiate and manipulate pockets of resistance inside the government and the business community to bring about reforms, like allowing private banks and establishing a stock exchange, that would shift Syria’s socialist-based system to a more market-oriented economy.
But Mr. Assad also changed along the way. When I met with him during the Syrian presidential referendum in May 2007, he voiced an almost cathartic relief that the people really liked him. Indeed, the outpouring of support for Mr. Assad would have been impressive if he had not been the only one running, and if half of it wasn’t staged. As is typical for authoritarian leaders, he had begun to equate his well-being with that of his country, and the sycophants around him reinforced the notion. It was obvious that he was president for life. Still, I believed he had good intentions, if awkwardly expressed at times.
Even with the escalating violence there, it’s important to remember that Syria is not Libya and President Assad is not Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The crackdown on protesters doesn’t necessarily indicate that he is tightening his grip on power; it may be that the secret police, long given too much leeway, have been taking matters into their own hands.
What’s more, anti-Assad elements should be careful what they wish for. Syria is ethnically and religiously diverse and, with the precipitous removal of central authority, it could very well implode like Iraq. That is why the Obama administration wants him to stay in power even as it admonishes him to choose the path of reform.
Today, President Assad is expected to announce that the country’s almost 50-year emergency law, used to stifle opposition to the regime, is going to be lifted. But he needs to make other tough choices, including setting presidential term limits and dismantling the police state. He can change the course of Syria by giving up that with which he has become so comfortable.
The unrest in Syria may have afforded President Assad one last chance at being something more than simply Hafez al-Assad’s son.
David W. Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University, is the author of “The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria.”
Forget Libya. Washington should pay closer attention to the violent protests imperiling the Assad regime in Damascus. If there’s one country where unrest could truly set the Middle East alight, it’s Syria.
BY PATRICK SEALE | MARCH 28, 2011
While one war rages in Libya, another rages in Washington as to the necessity of U.S. action there. Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said as much this weekend, noting that Libya was not a “vital national interest.” But if Washington is looking for an Arab state in the throes of unrest, one that is key to its regional and national interests, planners might want to pay more attention to Syria, which is currently undergoing upheaval not seen since the early 1980s.
Syria lies at the center of a dense network of Middle East relationships, and the crisis in that country — which has now resulted in the deaths of well over 100 civilians, and possibly close to double that number — is likely to have a major impact on the regional structure of power. The need to contain pressure from the United States and Israel, for decades the all-consuming concern of Syria’s leadership, has suddenly been displaced by an explosion of popular protest highlighting urgent and long-neglected domestic issues.
If the regime fails to tame this domestic unrest, Syria’s external influence will inevitably be enfeebled, with dramatic repercussions across the Middle East. As the crisis deepens, Syria’s allies tremble. Meanwhile, its enemies rejoice, as a weakened Syria would remove an obstacle to their ambitions. But nature abhors a vacuum, and what will come will be unpredictable, at best.
The protests started in mid-March in Daraa, in southern Syria, a city that has suffered from drought and neglect by the government in Damascus. The heavy hand of the ruling Baath party was particularly resented. Because it lies on the border with Jordan, and therefore in a security zone, all land sales required the security services’ approval, a slow and often costly business. This is one of the particular grievances that have powered the protest movement, though certainly the ripples of the successful Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings played a hand. The government, to put it bluntly, responded poorly. Troops in Daraa fired live rounds against youthful demonstrators and virtually all communications — Internet and telephone — were shuttered to prevent the seepage of unrest.
To make matters worse, Damascus blamed Israeli provocateurs, rebel forces, and shady foreign agents for the bloodshed — anyone but its own forces. Civilian deaths at the hands of security forces there, and more recently in the coastal city of Latakia, have outraged opinion across the country, setting alight long pent-up anger at the denial of basic freedoms, the monopolistic rule of the Baath party, and the abuses of a privileged elite. To these ills should be added severe youth unemployment, devastation of the countryside by a grave shortage of rainfall over the past four years, and the impoverishment of the middle and lower classes by low wages and high inflation.
In response to the public unrest, the regime has released some political prisoners and pledged to end the state of emergency in force since 1963. A government spokeswoman has hinted that coming reforms will include greater freedom for the press and the right to form political parties. President Bashar al-Assad is due to address the country in the next 48 hours. His speech is eagerly awaited, but it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to defuse the crisis and win time for the regime. If not, demonstrations could gather pace, triggering still more violent repression by the security services — an escalation with unpredictable consequences.
The protesters have in fact challenged the fundamentals of Syria’s security state, a harsh system of controls over every aspect of society, put in place by the late Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, who ruled for 30 years from 1970 to his death in 2000. By all accounts, the debate about how to deal with the growing protests has led to increasingly violent confrontations inside the regime between would-be reformers and hard-liners. The outcome of this internal contest remains uncertain.
What is certain, however, is that what happens in Syria is of great concern to the whole region. Together with its two principal allies, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Lebanese Shiite resistance movement Hezbollah, Syria is viewed with great hostility by Israel and with wary suspicion by the United States. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis — of which Syria is the linchpin — has long been seen by many leaders in the region as the lone bulwark against Israeli and American hegemony. With backing from Washington, Israel has sought to smash Hezbollah (notably through its 2006 invasion of Lebanon) and detach Syria from Iran, a country Israel views as its most dangerous regional rival. Neither objective has so far been realized. But now that Syria has been weakened by internal problems, the viability of the entire axis is in danger — which could encourage dangerous risk-taking behavior by its allies as they seek to counter perceived gains by the United States and Israel.
If the Syrian regime were to be severely weakened by popular dissent, if only for a short while, Iran’s influence in Arab affairs would almost certainly be reduced — in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. In Lebanon, it would appear that Hezbollah has already been thrown on the defensive. Although it remains the most powerful single movement, both politically and on account of its armed militia, its local enemies sense a turning of the tide in their favor. This might explain a violent speech delivered earlier this month by the Sunni Muslim leader and former prime minister Saad Hariri, in which he blatantly played the sectarian card.
Cheered by his jubilant supporters, he charged that Hezbollah’s weapons were not so much a threat to Israel as to Lebanon’s own freedom, independence, and sovereignty — at the hand of a foreign power, namely Iran. The Syrian uprisings may have already deepened the sectarian divide in Lebanon, raising once more the specter of civil war and making more difficult the task of forming a new government, a job President Michel Suleiman has entrusted to the Tripoli notable, Najib Mikati. If Syria were overrun with internal strife, Hezbollah would be deprived of a valuable ally — no doubt to Israel’s great satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Turkey is deeply concerned by the Syrian disturbances: Damascus has been the cornerstone of Ankara’s ambitious Arab policy. Turkey-Syria relations have flourished in recent years as Turkey-Israel relations have grown cold. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have actively sought to mediate local conflicts and bring much-needed stability to the region by forging close economic links. One of their bold projects is the creation of an economic bloc comprising Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan — already something of a reality by the removal of visa requirements as well as by an injection of Turkish investment and technological know-how. A power struggle in Syria could set back this project; and regime change in Damascus would likely put a serious dent in further Turkish initiatives.
Turkey’s loss, however, may turn out to be Egypt’s gain. Freed from the stagnant rule of former President Hosni Mubarak, Cairo is now expected to play a more active role in Arab affairs. Instead of continuing Mubarak’s policy, conducted in complicity with Israel, of punishing Gaza and isolating its Hamas government, Egypt is reported to be pushing for a reconciliation of the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. If successful, this could help defuse the current dangerous escalation of violence between Israel on the one side and Hamas and still more extreme Gaza-based Palestinian groups on the other. But Syria’s internal troubles might just as easily have a negative effect.
Undoubtedly, the failed peace process has bred extreme frustration among Palestinian militants, some of whom may think that a sharp shock is needed to wrench international attention away from the Arab democratic wave and back to the Palestine problem. They are anxious to alert the United States and Europe to the danger of allowing the peace process to sink into a prolonged coma. Israeli hard-liners, too, may calculate that a short war could serve their purpose: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government may sense weakness and quietly dream of finishing off Hamas once and for all. Syria has been a strong supporter of Hamas and has given a base in Damascus to the head of its political bureau, Khaled Mashal. Turmoil in Damascus could deal Hamas a severe blow.
On all these fronts — Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel — Syria is a key player. But its internal problems now threaten to reshuffle the cards, adding to the general sense of insecurity and latent violence in the region. And of all the threats facing the Middle East, perhaps the greatest — greater even than of another Arab-Israeli clash — is that of rampant sectarianism, poisoning relationships between and within states, and breeding hate, intolerance, and mistrust.
Several of the modern states of the Middle East — and Syria is no exception — were built on a mosaic of ancient religions, sects, and ethnic groups held uneasily and sometimes uncomfortably together by central government. But governments have themselves been far from neutral, favoring one community over another in cynical power plays. Many Sunni Muslims in Syria and throughout the region feel that Assad’s Syria has unduly favored the Alawites, a sect of Shiite Islam, who constitute some 12 percent of the population but control a vastly greater percentage of the country’s wealth. Open conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria would profoundly disturb the whole region, creating a nightmare scenario for Washington and other Western capitals.
Meanwhile, Washington seems at a loss as to how to respond to the growing unrest in Syria. In tempered language, the administration has condemned the use of violence against civilians and encouraged political reform. But the undertones are evident: Stability in Syria may still preferable to yet another experiment in Arab governance. Assad will need to act quickly and decisively — and one hopes not harshly — to quell the rising current of dissent. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to offer the regime some modest support this weekend, noting that she believed Bashar to be a “reformer.” But reform has never been a primary goal of the Assad clan, which has long favored stability over change.
This edifice may now be crumbling, and the United States would be wise to spend a little less time thinking about Libya and a little more time thinking about a state that truly has implications on U.S. national interests. If things go south in Syria, blood-thirsty sectarian demons risk being unleashed, and the entire region could be consumed in an orgy of violence.
The Syrian president’s televised address to the nation could be a moment of opportunity or a fatal step in his fall from graceBashar al-Assad’s address to the nation is easily the biggest moment of his young political life. Syria has faced multiple crises during the president’s 11-year rule, including a massive refugee influx after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2004 Kurdish uprising, a rift with Lebanon after the Hariri assassination in 2005 and Israel’s bombing of a supposed nuclear reactor in 2007. But none seriously threatened the 45-year-old Assad’s grip on power, nor the survival of the regime. This is different.The protests that have shaken Syrian towns and cities in recent days are unprecedented in both scale and character. In many ways, they resemble the Egyptian and other Arab revolts – a roar of rage against lack of economic opportunity, a youthful population’s limited life chances, the lack of personal and social freedoms and the dead weight of official corruption. But there are differences, too. Syria’s regime, more than most, has relied on absolute obedience, enforced by a terrifying security apparatus. Dissent was not tolerated. The change now is that dissent has become open, pervasive and unquenchable. Dissent is a firestorm, burning up all Syria’s old certainties in its path.“What we have in Syria is not yet a revolution. It is unrest in pursuit of legitimate reform,” a Syrian official said. “Assad is a popular president. If there was a vote tomorrow, I think he would win 60% or maybe more. We have the problem of economic corruption but not political corruption. Assad has a lot of credit in the bank. He needs to cash it in or else we are heading for the unknown … Whatever happens, Syria has changed. The wall of fear for expressing your views has collapsed.”It’s certainly true Assad is no Hosni Mubarak, the octogenarian Egyptian president who came to symbolise a nation’s ossification. He has often spoken of reform and, briefly, during the so-called Damascus spring of 2000-01 following the death of his ultra-authoritarian father, Hafez, Syrian society seemed ready to break free from its historical and geographical shackles. The fact it did not was attributable in part to the baleful influence of the old guard inherited from his father.All the same, Assad’s failure to bring about change was ultimately his own, raising doubts about his political courage and judgment. His apparent inability to modernise Syria’s economy, his continued reliance on emergency laws enacted by the Ba’ath party after the 1963 coup and the ongoing lack of political pluralism and media freedom poses the question: why should anyone believe him now when, back to the wall, he once again promises reforms? Has he left it too late?Assad’s decision to sack his cabinet, even as pro-regime protesters filled the streets of many cities, may help answer these doubts – and help him achieve a clean break with Assad Sr’s era. But in his televised speech he will need to go further. His task is to convince the majority of Syrians who, if officials are to be believed, want reform rather than regime change, that the country can make a new beginning, that a new order is finally replacing the old.“The security forces made great mistakes in Deraa [the southern city where the unrest began and more than 60 protesters were killed]. Instead of trying to find a solution, they were shooting in the square. For that reason, the president has ordered a halt to all violence by the security forces,” said Sami Khiyami, Syria’s ambassador in London. “The president intends to rectify these mistakes.”His speech would include repeal of the emergency law, a stepped-up campaign against corruption and orders to the security forces “not to harm people freely expressing their views”, he said. Other reports suggest curbs on opposition political parties and media will be relaxed and political prisoners freed.Khiyami insisted there was substance to regime claims that small groups of agitators, mostly foreign-backed, were responsible for provoking the most serious clashes. These groups included Islamist extremists from the indigenous Sunni majority, Syrian Kurds, and Iraqi, Lebanese and Algerian immigrants whose “agenda” was stirring up sectarian tension, he said. Their activities lay behind the recent violence in Latakia where 10 police were killed and 300 people arrested. Khiyami added that Syria remained the most secular, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant country in the Middle East – and that outside powers were intent on undermining it.Assad’s failure so far to pursue a reform agenda, and the crisis confronting him now, could be laid in part at the door of the US, Israel and European countries that were hostile to Syria and had weakened it through economic sanctions and trade embargoes, Khiyami said. Syria was a proud, dignified country that was “difficult to tame”. Despite what they claimed, the great powers would actually prefer the Middle East to remain a “buffer zone” between the west and Asia, an excluded, unrepresented, under-performing, second-class region with no real say in international affairs, he said.Whatever the reasons, and they are many, Assad faces a great reckoning when he steps up to speak. It could be a moment of unparalleled opportunity. Or it could prove to be a fatal next phase in his inexorable fall from grace. guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2011
Time running out for Assad’s reformist image
By Roula Khalaf in London
Published: March 28 2011
Since inheriting the Syrian presidency 11 years ago, Bashar al-Assad has cultivated the persona of a young reformer whose ambitions have been frustrated by internal and external pressure.
With a glamorous ex-banker wife at his side – Asma al-Assad was featured in a glowing portrait in Vogue in February – he has persuaded some Syrians and outsiders of a seemingly contradictory position: that he is in full charge of the country and yet not responsible for its police state.
Today, as the wave of Arab uprisings reaches Syria, with protests last week that left at least 60 people dead, political activists say Mr Assad faces perhaps his last chance to release the reform-minded personality his supporters claim has been repressed.
“The line of the government for the past 10 years is that the president is not to blame because people are obstructing him and that his image is separated from the regime,” says Obaida Nahas, an exiled dissident. “Now that image is being confused and he needs to show that there is a difference between him and the regime.”….
In the unrest that first erupted in the southern tribal town of Deraa but spread last week to big cities across the country, the main slogan has been a call for freedom. Though there have been incidents in which Mr Assad’s portraits were torn down, the main targets of the people’s rage have been Assad family members, rather than the president himself.
“The idea is still that he has the opportunity to be proactive,” says a political analyst close to the government. “Syria is on a knife edge and needs to do something drastic to move away from the crisis.”
Whether the 45-year-old Mr Assad – an eye doctor who had little political experience before being elevated to the presidency upon the death of his father Hafez – ever had reformist leanings is far from clear…..
Political activists say Syrians are enraged by state corruption and the arbitrary behaviour of the intelligence and security services. Weeks before Deraa residents took to the streets to protest against the arrest of schoolchildren accused of writing anti-regime slogans on the walls, a dispute between a policeman and a driver in a Damascus Hariqa market had underlined the depth of frustrations…..
“The country is a powder keg, there is an accumulation of grievances,” says Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer. “The president has been studying decisions for the past 10 years. Now he has to take action.”
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