Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, April 27th, 2011
The epic Arab battle reaches Syria
By Rami G. Khouri
Syria is now the critical country to watch in the Arab world, after the homegrown regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, and the imminent changes in Yemen and Libya.
The Syrian regime headed by President Bashar Assad is now seriously challenged by a combination of strong forces within and outside the country. His current policy of using force to quell demonstrators and making minimal reform promises has lost him credibility with many of his own citizens, largely due to his inability to respond to his citizens’ reasonable demands for democratic governance. His downfall is not imminent, but is now a real possibility.
The next few weeks will be decisive for Assad, because in the other Arab revolts the third-to-sixth weeks of street protests were the critical moment that determined whether the regime would collapse or persist. Syria is now in its fourth week. Having lost ground to street demonstrators recently, the Assad-Baathist-dominated secular Arab nationalist state’s response in the weeks ahead will likely determine whether it will collapse in ruins or regroup and live on for more years.
Assad should recognize many troubling signs that add up to a threatening trend. The number and size of demonstrations have grown steadily since late March, making this a nationwide revolt. Protesters’ demands have hardened, as initial calls for political reform and anti-corruption measures now make way for open calls for the overthrow of the regime and the trial of the ruling elite. Some portraits and statues of the current and former president are being destroyed, and government buildings attacked. More protesters openly call for the security services to be curbed – an unprecedented and important sign of the widespread popular loss of fear of security agencies that always bodes ill for such centralized systems of power.
Many of the Syrian protest leaders and human rights groups are coordinating to form a unified movement that makes coherent demands of the regime, reflecting widespread indigenous citizen concerns that cannot be credibly dismissed as the work of Islamic radicals or foreign agents. Shooting the protesters has failed to stop them, and has only brought out larger crowds on subsequent days – especially when mourners in funerals for yesterday’s dead are themselves shot dead. A few public figures have resigned in protest at the use of arms against demonstrators, and the several reform concessions by Assad seem to have been widely dismissed.
Assad’s big problem is that Syrians continue to express greater populist defiance of the regime, rather than compliance with either its political promises or its hard police measures. The core elements of the regime that he and his father have managed for over 40 years are now all being challenged openly and simultaneously, including the extended Assad family, the Baath Party apparatus, the government bureaucracy, and the numerous security agencies. These form a multi-layered but integrated power system whose center of gravity and policy coordination is the president. We are unlikely to see a Tunisian or Egyptian model of the security agencies abandoning the president to drift and be thrown out of power, while they remain in place. In Syria, either the entire system asserts itself and remains in control – with or without real reforms – or it is changed in its entirety.
Here is where the Assad government and power structure play on some of their assets. The two most significant ones are that: 1) most Syrians do not want to risk internal chaos or sectarian strife (a la Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia) and might opt to remain with the Assad-dominated system that has brought them stability without democracy; and, 2) any changes in regime incumbency or policies in Syria will have enormous impact across the entire region and beyond, given Syria’s structural links or ongoing political ties with every major conflict and actor in the region, especially Lebanon and Hizbullah, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Palestine and Hamas, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Regime overthrow in Syria will trigger significant, cumulative and long-lasting repercussions in the realms of Arab-Israeli, Arab-Iranian, inter-Arab and Arab-Western relations, with winners and losers all around.
For some, this makes the Assad regime the Middle Eastern equivalent of the banks that were too big to allow to collapse during the American economic crisis three years ago, because the spillover effect would be too horrible to contemplate. The specter of sectarian-based chaos within a post-Assad Syria that could spread to other parts of the Middle East is frightening to many people. Yet many, perhaps most, Syrians indicate with their growing public protests that they see their current reality as more frightening – especially the lack of democracy, widespread corruption, human rights abuses, one-party rule, economic and environmental stress, excessive security dominance and burgeoning youth unemployment.
The epic battle between regime security and citizen rights that has characterized the modern Arab world for three long and weary generations enters its most important phase in Syria in the coming few weeks, with current Arab regional trends suggesting that citizens who collectively and peacefully demand their human and civil rights cannot be denied.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
Global condemnation, but no action, against bloody Syria crackdown
By Liz Sly, April 26, Wash Post
BEIRUT — Syrian troops sustained their bloody crackdown against anti-government protesters in the southern town of Daraa for a second day Tuesday, drawing harsh condemnations but no specific plans for action against Damascus from U.S. and European leaders.
Reports from Daraa were sketchy because telephone lines were cut, the town was surrounded and the nearby border with Jordan was closed, but residents contacted by human rights groups indicated that government opponents were holding out in a mosque in the center of the town against an onslaught by government soldiers using tanks and armored personnel carriers…..
Josh Rogin | April 26 FP  – The Obama administration is preparing a wide range of new actions to condemn the Syrian government’s brutal violence against protesters. However, U.S. officials still remain skeptical that they have the leverage to …
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came under criticism for her March 27 statement, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe [Assad]’s a reformer.”
But based on the information at the time, most inside the administration didn’t feel she had said anything wrong. Multiple administration officials told The Cable that the administration had simply concluded, incorrectly, that the Syrian crisis would never grow this serious. That judgment informed their go-slow approach in responding to the protests.
But one month later, as the protest movement has gained strength and spread to cities throughout Syria, nobody inside the Obama administration is saying that now.
“A lot of people were wrong. The general assessment [inside the administration] was that this wouldn’t happen, that Assad was too good at nipping these movements in the bud and also that he was not afraid to be brutal,” one administration official said. “All of these things combined made this more of a surprise and made it much harder to deal with.”
Tom Donilon’s Arab Spring challenge
By David Ignatius, Tuesday, April 26, 8:00 PM
Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security adviser, has a reputation as a “process guy,” meaning that he runs an orderly decision-making system at the National Security Council, and as a “political guy” with a feel for Capitol Hill and the media.
Now, facing the rolling crisis of the Arab Spring, Donilon has had to transform into the ultimate “policy guy” — coordinating administration strategy for a revolution that will alter the foreign-policy map for decades.
U.S. strategy is still a work in progress. That’s the consensus among some leading Donilon-watchers inside and outside the government. The national security adviser has tried to shape Obama’s intuitive support for the Arab revolutionaries into a coherent line. But as the crisis has unfolded, there has been tension between American interests and values, and a communications-oriented NSC staff has sometimes seemed to oscillate between the two.
“The focus is more on how it plays than on what to do,” says one longtime friend of Donilon. He credits Donilon as “a very smart political person” who has brought order to the planning process. But he cautions: “Tom is not a strategist. He’s a pol. That’s the heart of what he is and does.”
Another member of the inner circle similarly credits Donilon as “very inclusive of all the principals in the decision-making process.” But he worries that this White House is too focused on “message management.”
The uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and now Syria all embody the tension between U.S. interests and values, and Obama has leaned different ways. With Egypt and Libya, the White House voted its values and supported rebellion and change; with Bahrain and Yemen, the administration, while sympathetic to reform, has embraced its interests in the stability of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s neighbor, and in a Yemen that is an ally against al-Qaeda.
The mix is pragmatic, which seems to suit both Obama and Donilon. Yet it sometimes frustrates ideologues on both sides who want a more systematic line. My instinct is that the White House is right to be pragmatic, and for that reason should avoid making so many public pronouncements: This is an evolving crisis, and each country presents a different set of issues; a one-size-fits-all policy approach would be a mistake.
The biggest test may come in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has launched a ruthless crackdown. Here, U.S. values and interests would seem to coincide in the fall of Assad, who is Iran’s key Arab ally and maintains a repressive, anti-American regime. But there are dangers: Assad’s fall could bring a sectarian bloodbath. So far, Donilon seems to be holding a middle ground to allow maximum U.S. flexibility.
In an interview in his West Wing office last week, Donilon outlined his basic strategic framework. It begins with Obama’s intuitive feel for these issues. Back in January when the Arab revolts began, Obama admonished his NSC advisers, preoccupied with other issues: “You need to get on this!”
Donilon cites four guidelines that have shaped the administration’s response ever since: First, the Arab revolt is a “historic” event, comparable to the fall of the Ottoman Empire or the post-1945 decolonization of the Middle East; second, “no country is immune” from change; third, the revolution has “deep roots” in poor governance, demographics and new communications technology; and fourth, “these are indigenous events” that can’t be dictated by America, Iran or any other outside power.
Donilon also stresses that this process of change is just beginning. “We’re in the early chapters,” he says, warning that the United States should be careful not to take actions now that it might regret down the road, as situations change and new players emerge.
A useful reality check for Donilon was his trip this month to Saudi Arabia, which had been traumatized by Obama’s abandonment of deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and America’s initial support for Bahrain’s Shiite protesters. Donilon met with Saudi King Abdullah for more than two hours and gave him a personal letter from Obama. The reassuring message, he says, was about “the bond we have in a relationship of 70 years that’s rooted in shared strategic interest.”
Donilon is preoccupied now by Syria. He doesn’t want to talk details of policy but says the administration will follow its basic principles of opposing violent repression and supporting reform. He says Assad made a disastrous mistake being “constipated” about change. As for a Libya-style intervention, Donilon seems dubious that a military option in Syria is available or advisable.
Luna Shibel, the Syrian anchor who resigned from Aljazeera talks about the bias and lack of professionalism of Aljazeera in its Syria coverage. Ayman Abdalnour points out that Luna Shibel is an Alawite.
Uprising exposes Syria’s economic weaknesses
By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut and Lina Saigol in London
April 26 2011 22:30 | Financial Times
The protest movement rocking Syria for over a month, and the security forces’ brutal and increasingly militarised response to it, are already exposing vulnerabilities in the Syrian economy.
Decades of central planning under the Ba’ath party’s rule have left Syria with few competitive industries and soaring unemployment. Official estimates put the unemployment rate at about 8 per cent, but analysts say the real figure is much higher.
“(The government’s) plan was foreign investment and tourism, both of which don’t proliferate if you have a civil war,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University. “Eventually things will fall apart.”
Bashar al-Assad, the president, launched Syria’s economic liberalisation in 2006 with the aim of shifting the country’s centralised economy towards a greater degree of market freedom. Some economic reforms, including the creation of a stock exchange and opening the banking sector to private banks, have been introduced.
But a rising budget deficit, water shortages, declining oil production and rising unemployment have all hampered economic growth. In eastern Syria, for example, five years of low rainfall helped plunge 800,000 people into extreme poverty, according to a 2010 United Nations report.
Mr Assad has blamed the country’s economic malaise on world food inflation, as well as the influx of Iraqi refugees in recent years, all of which have added to the strain of the economy.
But critics of the regime say economic liberalisation has benefited a group of elite businessmen, such as Rami Makhlouf, Mr Assad’s maternal first cousin who controls a significant amount of the economy, including SyriaTel, the country’s mobile network operator.
Nor has the country’s state-controlled economy been conducive to foreign investment, which has been deterred by bureaucratic red tape, inefficiency and political interference. The government has retained control of strategic industries, such as oil production and refining, telecommunications, air transport, and power generation, as well as the price of key agricultural goods.
Syria is ranked 144 out of 183 in the latest World Bank’s latest Ease of Business report, while the CIA World Factbook calculates that it requires 26 procedures to build a warehouse in the country.
In recent years, however, as Syria’s diplomatic relations with the west and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia improved, there were some grounds for hope that Mr Assad might achieve the 5 per cent growth target required to generate desperately needed new jobs each year by boosting foreign direct investment and bringing in 12m tourists annually. Tourism increased by 40 per cent last year, contributing an estimated 15 per cent of GDP and generating more than $7bn of revenues.
Now the hotels of Damascus and Aleppo stand almost empty, as images of protests and violent attacks by security forces are shown on television screens around the world. An auction for Syria’s third mobile phone licence, scheduled to take place this month, and seen as a key indicator of foreign companies’ interest in the Syrian market, was postponed indefinitely after three companies pulled out.
Cross-border trade is also said to have been hard-hit by transport delays caused by security-related road closures. “Deliveries have been delayed,” said Avo Tutunjian, a Lebanese businessman who exports electrical goods to Syria. Mr Tutunjian said he was slowing down new investments with Syrian partners, explaining, “We’re in a ‘wait and see’ phase”.
There are also widespread concerns that the populist economic measures introduced by Mr Assad earlier this year, such as salary increases for public workers, will raise the budget deficit to unmanageable levels, and the Syrian pound is said to have slipped slightly against the dollar on the black market since protests began, although stopping a greater increase is thought to have come at a high cost to the central bank.
With publicly available data scarce, it is hard to assess the exact scale of the economic impact of the uprising, but Syria’s ability to absorb it is not infinite, say analysts. “It depends on how long it lasts,” said Samir Saifan, an independent economic consultant. “If it is just a few weeks, it’s manageable. If it lasts for more time, we don’t know.”
The Real Struggle for the Regime Comes After the Crack Down
CNN – “Global Public Square”
Editor’s Note: The following is an edited portion of an interview by Amar C. Bakshi with Joshua Landis, author of the blog Syria Comment and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Assad moves from promising reform to unleashing violence
In his speech to parliament on April 16, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad drew a line in the sand. He said ‘I’ve given you all these concessions’ and he enumerated them – a new government, lifting emergency rules and the end of the security courts – ‘so there should now be no more demonstrations.’ But the movement didn’t stop. In fact, it transcended the demand for reform and became a call for regime change.
So Assad redefined the protestors. He and the Baath Party began to call the protests a ‘rebellion’ and the protestors ‘terrorists’.
In the subsequent days, Bashar al-Assad sought to ‘shock and awe’ the protestors through violence. He took a page right out of any standard military handbook, which is that if you go fast and strong you have better luck at stopping protests before bloodshed gets out of hand.
But Assad cannot win over the long-term
But even if Bashar al-Assad wins in the short-term and the opposition can’t mount the sort of operation necessary to overturn him and take on the military, the opposition is not going to give up. It’s going to continue to demonstrate. And we’re probably going to see the arming of the opposition groups.
All of this is going to undermine the economic footing of the regime. Syria’s economy is already extraordinarily weak. We’re seeing massive unemployment. 32% of Syrians live on $2.00 a day or less. The young people are the ones who are turning out in big numbers for these demonstrations.
The country is midway on its move away from socialism toward an open market system. Syria has instituted a stock market, a bond market, a private banking system and insurance companies – the whole gamut of free-market reforms.
These were supposed to stimulate the economy and place Syria on a new footing that would create jobs and begin to mop up some of its large unemployment problem created by the youth bulge and by an economy that’s been anemic for decades.
Attracting foreign investment and growing tourism and transit trade were key to that economic growth plan. But none of those things are going to materialize now. That means that the regime is going to be able to provide less and less of the things that it needs to provide to stay in power. There is going to be a grinding disintegration of the state’s ability to provide services for its people.
The middle class will abandon Assad as the economy weakens
Currently, the broad middle class in Syria is still sticking with the regime. But the broad middle class, particularly the urban middle class in places like Damascus, has stayed home. They have not come out and joined the movement. There has been no Tahrir Square moment in this uprising. That’s because the middle class fears a civil war and because some of them have vested interests in the state.
Over time, that middle class will begin to abandon the government once it begins failing economically. If there’s no foreign investment and there’s no tourism and nobody’s bills are being paid, the whole economy will begin to freeze up.
That’s what all my businessmen friends are saying: they’re not getting any checks in the door because everybody is holding their cash and because they don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t run a country like that.
American sanctions will hurt Assad
The U.S. is going to be driven by ideology on this – to support the Arab Spring and freedom and democracy. That means placing sanctions, withdrawing embassy staff and trying to isolate Syria and undermine the regime diplomatically.
But this doesn’t mean democracy in Syria. It means a collapse of the state and probably a civil war.
America is not going to be willing to send in any military. So this puts America in a rather bad position of kicking out the supports of the present state without being willing to build up any alternative.
A sectarian civil war could start
Over time the opposition groups will begin to go to arms. There are arms in Syria. There are also arms in Iraq and Lebanon, along with smuggling rings that have been operating in Syria for decades.
We saw how porous the Iraqi border with Syria was during America’s invasion of Iraq. Al Qaeda and others were streaming across that border. Arms will go the other direction, undoubtedly, as well. All this will fuel a civil war that will be largely sect against sect – majority Sunnis against ruling minority Alawites.
Drawing on the diffused opposition
The great strength of the opposition today is it has no leadership, which means that the regime cannot arrest its leaders and stop it. The real leadership of the opposition are lots of young activists who are in their 20s and early 30s who are working the computers and also organizing on the ground, getting out these demonstrations. But there is no unified leadership that has common goals.
So far they’ve been able to stick with the notion of democracy and freedom as the major demands, which everybody can subscribe to whether they’re from the Muslim Brotherhood or they’re secular, Europeanized university graduates.
But if the state cracks down, as it’s doing now, it’s going to make it very hard to carry out demonstrations and the opposition is going to have to figure out what their next move is. Some will choose to go for a military option because that’s what they’re being met with.
The government is now trying to arrest leadership and it will go after networks and so forth but it will be hard because a lot of new networks have been established. This young generation has become organized.
The Syrian intelligence knows very little about this young generation. It never had to contend with the young generation, which was completely depoliticized a month ago.
Syrian intelligence dealt with the older generations – the old Communists and others – who they kept on throwing in the clink and then letting out every few years. They played rope-a-dope with those guys. They knew where they lived and they were listening to their phones and they you knew they could roll them up easily.
This is a whole new world. The opposition just blew up. Facebook, Twitter and the video effect have been monstrous. It’s mobilized this generation. In three months that this Arab Spring has been going on, the Syrian younger generation has turned from being a rather apathetic crowd that were materialistic, uninterested in politics and atomized, to being deeply mobilized and galvanized around this movement.
Great consequences for the region
Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East. It has borders with most of America’s major allies in the region: Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and it might as well have one with Saudi Arabia because the Jordanian border is small in between those two. And it will be Saudis that undoubtedly fund much of the opposition as they did in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia will be sucked into this and it’ll be very torn because the monarchy does not want revolution in Syria by any means. It wants stability. But there will be many Saudis who see this as an opportunity to get rid of the Shiite regime that’s pro-Iranian and anti-Sunni. They see the current regime as deeply heterodox and non-Muslim. So all the Wahabi instincts will be to bring down this regime. The monarchical instincts will be to support it.
There aren’t good outcomes for Assad because even if Assad manages to terrify the opposition to stop in the short-term, over the long-term it’s going to kill the economy, which was key to Assad’s plans because his mantra was that he was going to be like China and follow China’s model. He was going to keep one-party rule and he was going to liberalize the economy. But he was too little, too late. He didn’t create jobs. He didn’t get growth up beyond five-percent. That’s what he needed to do.
The performance of the stock market is a complicated story. Many of the stocks do not trade given the maximum allowable 3% daily move. One has to be careful when looking at the “index”. Individual stock performances tell a better one. Since the end of January, the overall index is down 28%. If you look at the stock of Qatar National Bank for example (QNBS) which traded today, it is down close to 38% since the end of January.
The Syria Lobby Why Washington keeps giving a pass to the Assad regime.
Wall Street Journal Opinion
How does a small, energy-poor and serially misbehaving Middle Eastern regime always seem to get a Beltway pass? Conspiracy nuts and other tenured faculty would have us believe that country is Israel, though the Jewish state shares America’s enemies and our democratic values. But the question really applies to Syria, where the Assad regime is now showing its true nature.
Washington’s Syria Lobby is a bipartisan mindset. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” said Nancy Pelosi on a 2007 visit to Syria as House Speaker. Former Secretary of State James Baker is a longtime advocate of engagement …
When Dictators Fall, Who Rises?
Townhall.com ^ | April 26, 2011 | Pat Buchanan
Posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2011
One month before the invasion of Iraq, Riah Abu el-Assal, a Palestinian and the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem at the time, warned Tony Blair, “You will be responsible for emptying Iraq, the homeland of Abraham, of Christians.”
The bishop proved a prophet. “After almost 2,000 years,” writes the Financial Times, “Iraqi Christians now openly contemplate extinction. Some of their prelates even counsel flight.”
The secular despot Saddam Hussein protected the Christians. But the U.S. liberation brought on their greatest calamity since the time of Christ. Scores of thousands of those Iraqi Christians fleeing terrorism and persecution after 2003 made their way to Syria, where they received sanctuary from President Bashar Assad.
Now, as the FT and Washington Post report, the Christians of Syria, whose forebears have lived there since the time of Christ, are facing a pogrom should the Damascus regime fall.
Christians are 10 percent of Syria’s population, successful and closely allied to the minority Alawite regime of the Assad family. Said one Beirut observer, “Their fear is that if the regime falls to the Sunni majority, they will be put up against the same wall as the Alawites.”
For decades, notes the Post, the Assad regime “has protected Christian interests by enforcing its strictly secular program and by curbing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Syria Tries to Defend Its Record to United Nations
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR n NYTimes
UNITED NATIONS — Syria, facing mounting global pressure over its decisions to move tanks into cities against its own citizens and to shoot unarmed demonstrators, tried to defend its record against blunt denunciations from the United States and others on Tuesday at the United Nations, where the Security Council is struggling to forge a collective response.
Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian envoy, repeated the government’s claim that the unrest at home was the work of as yet unidentified foreign agitators trying to undermine Syria’s stability and that armed infiltrators were responsible for the shooting of protesters.
“This unrest and riots in some of their aspects have hidden agendas,” Mr. Jaafari told reporters. “Some armed groups take advantage of the demonstrations; they get within the demonstrators and start shooting on the military men and the security forces. This is why there are many casualties.”
Mr. Jaafari also defended President Bashar Assad’s record, saying that more political reforms were coming on the heels of Mr. Assad’s decision to lift the emergency law.
“President Assad is a reformer himself, and he should be given the chance to fulfill his mission in reforming the political life in the country,” he said.
Government opponents openly mock both assertions. Syrians, not foreign agitators, are demanding basic freedoms that have been denied them for the 40 years in which the Assad family has run the country, they say. Although Mr. Assad, 45, promised reform when he inherited the presidency from his father 11 years ago, he has put none in place — instead, they say, the government has strangled any nascent reform movement by jailing its leaders for years.
But efforts by the Security Council to issue the mildest of statements criticizing Syria was postponed until at least Wednesday afternoon. Several member states — Russia, China and Lebanon — seemed firmly opposed, diplomats said, although the ambassadors of China and Lebanon would only note that further discussion was scheduled.
Al-Diyar has a story about al-Qaida’s plans for Syria based on Jamestown reports and those of Musaab al-Suri and other al-Qaida leaders. [in Arabic]
The English-language version of the official news website of the Syrian government is currently reporting that on Tuesday 26 April, fifteen members of the government’s security forces were buried. It names the 15 names, and each’s date of birth, place of birth, and marriage status at the time of death; and it says each was “killed by armed criminal groups” and each body was “escorted in solemn procession”…..
William Hague has chimed in on the situation in Syria, unsurprisingly condemning the horror and bloodshed being perpetrated by al-Assad’s regime. But considerably more significant is the statement that has today been released by the Arab League. Although the text doesn’t mention al-Assad by name, it clearly has the Syrian autocrat in mind when it calls on “Arab regimes and governments to commit to and speed up reforms, [and to] immediately stop using force against demonstrators and spare their citizens bloodshed.” And it goes further, too, in defending the political — and moral — legitimacy of the protests, saying that the unrest blazing across the Middle East heralds “a new Arab era … led by youths seeking a better present and a brighter future.”
The Syrian governemnt has invited a UN mission to Syria to evaluate the real situation independently. Human right commission is ‘impatient’ to see what is going on. Le Monde 26 april
New poll finds that Egyptians are full of hope about their future, and free and fair elections this fall.
US Urges Americans to Leave Syria Amid Violence, Draws Down Diplomatic Presence