Posted by Joshua on Saturday, March 26th, 2011
INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP – NEW MEDIA RELEASE Conflict Risk Alert: Syria Damascus/Brussels, 25 March 2011:
Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership. There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change. The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end. Already, the unfolding confrontation in the southern city of Deraa gives no sign of quieting, despite some regime concessions, forceful security measures and mounting casualties. For now, this remains a geographically isolated tragedy. But it also constitutes an ominous precedent with widespread popular resonance that could soon be repeated elsewhere. The regime faces three inter-related challenges. First is a diffuse but deep sense of fatigue within society at large, combined with a new unwillingness to tolerate what Syrians had long grown accustomed to — namely the arrogance of power in its many forms, including brutal suppression of any dissent, the official media’s crude propaganda and vague promises of future reform. As a result of events elsewhere in the region, a new awareness and audacity have materialised over the past several weeks in myriad forms of rebelliousness, large and small, throughout the country.
Secondly, at the heart of virtually any locality in the nation is a long list of specific grievances. These typically involve a combination: rising cost of living, failing state services, unemployment, corruption and a legacy of abuse by security services. In a number of places, religious fundamentalism, sectarianism or Kurdish nationalism also form an integral part of the mix. In others, the depletion of water resources and devastation of the agriculture sector add to the tensions. The third challenge relates to the regime’s many genuine enemies, all of whom undoubtedly will seek to seize this rare opportunity to precipitate its demise…..
Ahead of the Curve in Syria by David W. Lesch
If former Egyptian leader Husni Mubarak had announced six months before he was forced out of power that he would not run for re-election or, even more dramatically, set presidential term limits, he would have been hailed as a visionary reformer. Instead, he waited until popular protests by thousands of Egyptians had reached a critical mass before making concessions. It was a classic case of too little, too late…and of the hubris of power.
There have been, by comparison, smallish but growing protests—and associated violence—in recent days in Syria, a country many thought was immune to the wave of mass protests that have hit a number of Arab countries. Most feel that if there is a domino effect of revolutionary change in the region, the Syrian leadership would probably be one of the last to fall.
There is good reason for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to believe that his regime is safe and secure. Because of Syria’s turbulent political development following independence after WWII, most Syrians willingly accepted the Faustian bargain offered—or demanded—at first by Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Asad, of less freedom and liberty in return for more political stability. Syrians generally have a disdain for engaging in activities that could produce instability and chaos. They only have to look across their borders on either side toward Lebanon and Iraq, two countries, like Syria, that are ethnically and religiously sectarian, to see how political disorder can violently rip apart the fabric of society.
In addition, the fate of the Syrian military and security services are closely tied with the fate of the regime, so unlike in Egypt, these institutions will not be as prone to separation from the political leadership; on the contrary, they will more likely than not aggressively fight to survive. The historical memory of Syrian military actions to brutally quash a violent Islamist uprising in the early 1980s certainly weighs heavily on the mind of any Syrian contemplating active opposition today.
And maybe most importantly, the president himself is generally well-liked in the country—or at least not generally reviled. He lives and acts humbly, i.e. you will not find any Wikileaks reports detailing the extravagant lifestyle of Bashar al-Asad. He is a good family man with a beautiful, cosmopolitan, and civically active wife. Despite the fissiparous pressures both in and outside of his country, he has kept it together, and there has even been some economic growth, fiscal and administrative reform, and educational development. He has also not given into what in much of the region are thought to be perfidious American or Israeli designs—and this wins points on the Arab street.
In the end this may not be enough. One thing we have learned over the past few months is that one incident, such as the self-immolation of a young man in Tunisia, can snowball into bringing down a regime. There is no indication that the protests in several Syrian cities over the past few days are coordinated. There is even less evidence of a legitimate opposition group capable of leading. Syrian regimes have been good at making sure this is the case. Having said this, imprudence, complacency, and/or hubris can quickly—and unintentionally—add fuel to the fire. In fact, the most intense protests, in the city of Deraa, seem to have emerged after some rather questionable decision-making on the part of local authorities, a trend that apparently has continued as violence has escalated. Protests in other cities seem to be based on different sets of grievances, but if they are transformed by a singular event or even a mistake into a more broad-based opposition that is able to tap into growing frustration with the government, then no matter how much Bashar is liked, he may have a heap of trouble on his hands. This is one of the problems of a mukhabarat state, i.e. the institutional mechanisms by which internal stability is achieved and external intrigue is thwarted cannot adequately, rationally, and calmly adjust to the current circumstances. The mukhabarat and associated security forces have been given so much leeway in the past that they may be difficult to rein in, much less control, regardless of the good intentions of Bashar al-Asad.
But there is still time, however much it is shrinking, for Bashar to move forward in a positive way that does not result in the dangerous collapse of another Middle Eastern country. Rather than trying to muddle his way through, he should consider measures of true political reform rather than bits and pieces of co-optation masquerading as reform. Actually implement reform, do not sanction studies to do something that may or may not lead to actual reform. Bashar needs to seriously think about setting presidential term limits, establishing real political parties, holding elections subject to independent judicial review and international observers, and a follow through with the long-promised end to almost 50 years of emergency rule. Bashar can establish a lasting legacy that is in tune with the changing political landscape in and the future of the Middle East. There are now other ways to be a hero in Syria without securing the return of the Golan Heights. Unfortunately, Syrian leaders—indeed, the Syrian system—tend to convulsively recoil from reform of this magnitude. These days in the Middle East, however, getting ahead of the curve rather than behind it is much more conducive to one’s political health.
David W. Lesch is Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. His most recent books include The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History (Oxford University Press, 2008) and The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria (Yale University Press, 2005).
“… Escalating protests could weaken the Asad regime’s stability, though raging protests may not bring it down altogether. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where the militaries have some degree of independence from the regime, the minority networks around the Asad regime overlap between the military and the security bodies. A number of Syrian military officers hail from the Houran region, which could threaten Sunni representation in the military. But the fear by Alawites and other minorities that a fall of the Asad regime would lead to a massacre by vengeful Sunnis could protect the Asad regime from military defections that were necessary to ending regime rule in Tunisia and Egypt.
The unrest has deep implications for U.S. policy. The Obama administration has based its Syria policy on facilitating peace talks between Syria and Israel. A major cog in that premise was that a large part of Asad’s legitimacy rested on his piecemeal effort to “reform” Syria. This week’s protests have called that legitimacy into serious question. The question now remains as to how — or whether — a minority leader with a narrowing domestic base and severely compromised domestic legitimacy rooted in a proven inability to launch real reforms will be able to abandon Syria’s state of war with Israel.
Over the last two years, the Obama administration has kept U.S. sanctions on Syria in place, but has not introduced new “negative incentives” or pressures to cajole Asad into changing his policies. The hope behind this position has been that peace talks between Syria and Israel were imminent. So far, those efforts, however sincere, have not borne fruit. While attempts to focus on the Syria track should not be abandoned, the time has come for Washington to develop a hybrid policy in two senses: first, by denouncing human rights abuses in Syria as well as promoting the peace process, and second, by introducing negative incentives into the mix of engaging Syria. More than anything, this week’s protests show that Asad only truly changes tack when he is under pressure and facing dilemmas.
…. Washington’s best means to pressure Damascus are U.S. sanctions , specifically Treasury department designations of regime members found responsible for human rights abuses during the regime’s crackdown. It should also work with Western allies and Turkey to pressure Asad diplomatically to institute domestic reforms with clear benchmarks and timetables as a peaceful path out of the crisis. By holding the Asad regime accountable for its commitments, Washington has the best hope for influencing Asad’s domestic policies for the better, avoiding further bloodshed, and fostering a real peace between Syria and Israel….”