“Syria: the boldness of Bashar al-Assad” by Brian Whitaker

Brian Whitaker has the best commentary on the Assad speech that I have read so far – and not just because he quotes from Syria Comment – although it helps.

Syria: the boldness of Bashar al-Assad
Brian Whitaker, Guardian, Thursday 31 March 2011

Bashar al-Assad’s seemingly relaxed attitude to reform is either supreme confidence or extreme recklessness

Syria president al-Assad Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad insists they’ll be no hasty concessions to protesters, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Photograph: Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters

Bashar al-Assad doesn’t really look like an Arab president. Or a dictator, come to that. He doesn’t have the arrogant grandeur of a Ben Ali or the self-centred pomposity of a Mubarak. Seeing him reminds me of some gangly scoutmaster: the sort who gets very dogmatic about granny knots and clove hitches but still has trouble keeping tents up in a strong wind.

Considering the public mood in the Middle East this may even give Assad an advantage. The less any leader resembles Ben Ali or Mubarak at the moment, the better, and his pep talk on Wednesday to the Damascus scout troop – sorry, parliament – seemed to be much appreciated. “Dyb dyb dyb dob dob dob,” they chanted at every opportunity. Well, not exactly, but they might just as well have done. They clapped a lot, interrupted him with loyal declarations of support and even lauded him with poems.

Assad, for his part, looked comfortable and relaxed (he was, after all, among friends) and seldom referred to his notes. He smiled from time to time and chuckled at his own jokes. It’s easy to see why many Syrians prefer him to his dad though, to be honest, it’s very hard not to be more likeable than Hafez al-Assad.

It was when Assad came to the now-obligatory section of his speech where embattled presidents blame foreign conspiracies for the demonstrations that I started to feel confused. Surely he had got it the wrong way round. Others have been saying that the aim of the “foreign conspiracy”, if such it is, is to keep Assad in power, not to remove him. What about that article in Haaretz the other day describing Assad as “Israel’s favourite Arab dictator”? Or Hillary Clinton praising him as a “reformer”?

Contrary to the impression given in some of the news reports, Assad did talk about reform, and talked about it rather a lot. Syria is already reforming, he said, and will continue to do so. But just when it seemed that he might be on the point of announcing some specific new reforms, he stopped speaking and the parliament gave him a final round of applause.

To understand why, we have to look at an interview Assad gave to the Wall Street Journal at the end of January – which he also mentioned in his speech on Wednesday. Interviewed shortly after Ben Ali had been ousted from Tunisia and when the Egyptian uprising was just a few days old, he said:

“If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform. This is first. Second, if you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail.”

So Assad is trying a different tack. Reform, yes, but all in good time. There will be no hasty concessions to protesters as happened in Tunisia and Egypt; that would be a sign of weakness and would only encourage further demands. Instead, the relevant ministries will announce their plans in due course, after full and careful consideration, etc, etc.

That is certainly a bold strategy, but in the midst of growing turmoil it’s either a sign of supreme confidence or extreme recklessness.

So how will it play out in Syria? For hardcore regime supporters, it’s an attitude they can understand and admire. One of them, quoted in Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment blog, said:

“Finally, I respect Bashar. He has showed that he is a real man. He has spared the country bloodshed. Any sign of weakness, it would have been the start of the end …
“All the modern and reform-minded people are dreamers. They live abroad and think that Syria can become a London/Paris/NY if we just reform. It is either civil war or the status quo …

“Kentucky Fried Chicken? We can do without it. Those that don’t like it can leave to their fancy foreign capitals or Beirut. They are welcome [to visit Syria] in the summer to enjoy the food and arghile and go back to their democracy.”

But what of the others, almost certainly the majority, who are not hard core? What faith can they place in the assurances of steady reform? Since Assad came to power 11 years ago, a few reforms – very modest ones in comparison with what needs to be done – have been accomplished, perhaps not at a snail’s pace but certainly at a speed that could be overtaken by a tortoise. Even Assad conceded in his speech: “The state has made promises of reform and they have not been carried out.”

There is no guarantee, though, that reforms promised for the future will be any more radical than those of the past. In the words of another Syrian quoted by Landis:

“Somebody has decided that either all Syrians are dumb and [the regime] can continue to trick them for ever or that civil war is much better than giving the people more power.”

One of the most telling parts of Wednesday’s performance was not Assad’s speech itself but what it revealed about the sycophancy of Syria’s parliament. This is clearly not a place for hammering out laws and policies through the cut and thrust of debate. It is a temple for the Assad cult and changing that will take more than reform. It will take a revolution.

Syria moves to scrap emergency law, Al-Jazeera

State media says committee set up by president to study abolition of decades-old law will finish work by April 25.

“Friday is going to be a real … precipitating moment here: how people will protest. Will they continue to protest for just reforms or could we see something more drastic perhaps – people protesting to the end of his rule?” he said.

During his speech, which lasted almost one hour, Assad hit out at social networking websites and pan-Arabic satellite television news channels for stoking and reporting the protests.

He said he supported reforms but offered no new commitment to change Syria’s rigid, one-party political system.

“I know that the Syrian people have been awaiting this speech since last week, but I was waiting to get the full picture … to avoid giving an emotional address that would put the people at ease but have no real effect, at a time when our enemies are targeting Syria,” said Assad.

Patrick Seale, a Middle East expert and a biographer of Assad’s father, said the speech was a “missed opportunity”.

“Syria does need reform on many fronts. We have to try to understand his situation … [but] we don’t know the extent of domestic pressures on him,” Seale told Al Jazeera.

“He is, of course, surrounded by a lot of people – several thousand people perhaps – who have a stake in the stability of the regime.

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“He has to think of them too. The intresting thing about the speech, I think, is what it reveals about him. There’s obviously a stubborn streak in his character, which we know he inherited from his father.

“He doesn’t like to be pushed around. If you look at the last 10 years of his rule, he has been pushed a great deal; he has survived a whole series of crises, which have obviously shaped his present character.”

Protesters emboldened by uprisings in the Arab worldare pushing for reforms in a country where power is concentrated in the hands of Assad, his family and the security apparatus.

The president’s speech came a day after the cabinet resigned, but Assad appointed Naji al-Otari, the resigning premier, as a caretaker prime minister. Otari has been prime minister since 2003.

The 32-member cabinet will continue running the country”s affairs until the formation of a new government.

The new cabinet, which is expected to be announced by the end of the week, will face the task of implementing the reforms.

ASSAD’S JUGGLING ACT AMID THE TURMOIL
JONATHAN CHENG, 1 April 2011, The Australian

SYRIA, in contrast to many other regional dictatorial states, is unlikely to fall further into a crisis of revolution or civil conflict.

Even though demonstrations and protests against the Assad regime have dominated the headlines as of late, internal and external factors strongly favour Bashar al-Assad, the current President, staying at the helm.

The dynamic duo of popular respect and fear for the regime ensures the support of a large majority of the populace. The current regime’s pragmatic foreign policy orientation dictates acquiescence of neighbours and the wider international community towards whatever action Assad deems necessary.

If anything, one might even argue that the recent Middle East turmoil may be giving Assad the leeway he needs to pursue economic and infrastructural reform, at the expense of Syrian hardliners who have sought to prevent the country from moving in a liberalising direction.

Even though the minority Alawite sect (8 to 10 per cent) is considered the strongest pillar of his regime, both Assad and his predecessor and father, Hafiz al-Assad, succeeded in building a support base among the majority Sunnis.

By granting Sunni urbanites significant leeway in the economic sphere, and also avenues for advancement in the state structure, a tacit Alawite-Sunni contract was formed. In addition, as a secular Baathist regime, the Assad regime has avoided playing the “religion card” too much.

This, combined with its co-opting of other religious groups into the military and economic elite, has allowed Assad’s regime to be much more resistant to inter-religious tension than some other regional countries.

In Bahrain, for instance, the Sunni al-Khalifa family subjected the Shi’ite majority to discrimination, by actively favouring the minority Sunni segments of society. The repercussions there, as we see today, have been a large uprising against the state.

However, such support for the regime is intermingled with fear of the security apparatus. Unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, Syrians can pointedly remember a time and place where the Assads turned the army against the populace: Hama.

In 1982, Hafiz al-Assad ordered the Syrian army to bombard this city indiscriminately, resulting in a victory over the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood but also the deaths of 10,000-30,000 Syrian nationals. This fear will make any mass uprising unlikely.

With foreign policy, Assad’s Syria has continued to act in a pragmatic and informed fashion, ensuring both domestic and external support for its position. Unlike Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, it maintained its position as part of the “resistance” axis against Israeli and American aggression, justifying its so-called leadership in the pan-Arab struggle against international Zionism. Syrian nationals, as such, are generally satisfied with the regime’s foreign orientation.

On the flip side, Syria has also acted cautiously enough to garner sufficient respect and understanding even from its foes. The US and Israel, while often critical of Syria’s support for resistance (or “terrorist”) groups, see “ideological” Iran as a much greater threat.

Even if Assad’s base is to weaken, we will not see an intervention similar to that of Libya, where both conservative Arab and Western actors have taken their chance to try to get rid of Muammar Gaddafi.

There is also the question: “If not Assad, then who?” It is generally understood that within Syrian politics, Assad stands as a moderate, if not a liberal. Since his ascension to the “throne” in 2000, his actions have generally been limited by two concerns.

First, he had to consolidate his rule at the centre against potential opponents, most notably some of his father’s key advisers and hardline family members. Secondly, and in tandem with this, he had to react to two national security threats; the American entrenchment in his backyard, Iraq, and the Israeli war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In this context, Assad was pushed to a more extreme position than he would have liked, in order to appease the hardliners back home in Damascus. Since 2008, with a fading and weakening American presence and an empowered Hezbollah in Lebanon, we have seen what Assad’s true intentions are.

He does seem to be pushing for a gradual liberalisation of the economy, warmer ties with neighbours, and even negotiations with Israel. Domestically, these protests might therefore be the plank on which Assad can push reforms across.

With all these issues in mind, it is clear that there is neither the international impetus nor domestic will to push for a change in government.

Protest marches and demonstrations will not match the scale or mass achieved in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen. Some reforms seem to be forthcoming, and considering the alternatives, it would be best for the limited opposition to accept what they can get.

The proposed changes in Assad’s government, while in effect minor, considering the concentration of power in the presidency and security services, is still a step forward. Whether or not one believes Bashar al-Assad is a reformer, it is clear there are hardliners in the Syrian ruling establishment willing to use force.

If they win out, due to “unreasonable” demands or the increasing use of violence by protesters, one might see a bloodbath in Syria, with no international assistance to save them.

Jonathan Cheng is based at the Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies, Australian National University and the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy

Israel fears the alternative if Syria’s Assad falls
LA Times

As popular unrest threatens to topple another Arab neighbor, Israel finds itself again quietly rooting for the survival of an autocratic yet predictable regime, rather than face an untested new government in its place.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s race to tamp down public unrest is stirring anxiety in Israel that is even higher than its hand-wringing over Egypt’s recent regime change. Unlike Israel and Egypt, Israel and Syria have no peace agreement, and Syria, with a large arsenal of sophisticated weapons, is one of Israel’s strongest enemies.

Though Israel has frequently criticized Assad for cozying up to Iran, arming Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and sheltering leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, many in Israel think their country might be better off if Assad keeps the reins of power.

“You want to work with the devil you know,” said Moshe Maoz, a former government advisor and Syria expert at Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.

Several Israeli government and military officials declined to speak in depth about Assad, fearing any comments could backfire given the strong anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world. That’s what happened when some Israeli officials attempted to bolster Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before he resigned Feb. 11.

“Officially it’s better to avoid any reaction and watch the situation,” said Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry’s policy director. He predicted Assad’s regime would survive the unrest.

Privately, Israeli officials confirmed that although Assad is no friend, he’s probably better than the immediate alternatives, which could include civil war, an Iraq-style insurgency or an Islamist takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood…..

Syria must change or be changed
Haytham Manna – Guardian

The young protesters in Syria will not be put off by President Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to listen…….This tide of democratic change had become irreversible.

The resignation of the government led by Naji Atari will not suffice in quelling the popular demand for change. Neither would the ending of the state of emergency, which President Bashar al-Assad unexpectedly kept in place yesterday. Although these would be steps in the right direction, they don’t go far enough. The previous Tunisian and Egyptian governments offered similar changes and they too were spurned. The Syrian regime needs to understand that the youth are demanding a new politics that ushers in a genuine democracy.

The Syrian authorities have lost all political legitimacy. The government’s opposition to the Iraq war and its support for Palestinian resistance can no longer be used as an excuse to obstruct internal changebecause the non-governmental political community shares these exact positions..

The youth who marched in Deraa are the same young people who welcomed the Lebanese refugees during the Israeli bombardment in 2006, and who raised funds for the Palestinian people in Gaza. They followed the struggle of the Egyptian youth in Tahrir Square. They regard themselves as the legitimate representatives of the Arab revolution, rejecting all forms of sectarianism and violence because they have for too long been the victims of authoritarian violence. They are building a model capable of restoring hope……

Despite all that has occured in the region, the Syrian authorities are determined to go on regardless. The best answer to their actions is that put forward by the Youth Movement for Democratic Change: “If you do not change, you are going to be changed.”

Comments (52)


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51. NK said:

To answer your question one should first know who are those enemies, all the officials said Syria is being targeted, they never really said who was targeting Syria.

As for the Wahhabis, who exactly is a “Wahhabi”, will the Syrian regime massacre all those people in Daraa ? will the regime repeat what happened in the 80s where an army officer will board a bus, order all men down, then execute them all ?

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March 31st, 2011, 10:10 pm

 

52. NAJIB said:

Syria’s enemies could be easily discovered in its regional & foreign policies.

it seems much more difficult to start a ‘fitnah’ or communitarian strife that leads to massacres today than in the 80′s . people are much more informed, more immune to hate messages, they can’t be fooled that easily.

Syrian security forces should provide demonstrators with rest areas and free snacks, tea & coffee and refreshments.
for unless they match the huge turnout of the 29th, they will only discredit & ridicule themselves.

i think the only result these demonstrators can achieve is to tarnish syria’s image abroad thus somehow weakening it on the regional and international arenas.

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April 1st, 2011, 5:04 pm

 

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