Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011
A number of people have asked me for an assessment of what may happen in Syria during the coming days. Many Syrians have called for a “Day of Rage” on February 4 and 5. (See the Facebook site, “The Syrian Revolution.”)
Of course Assad must fear the wave of popular protests demanding regime-change and freedom that is sweeping the Middle East. Syria shares the same economic problems as most Middle Eastern countries: poverty, inflation, joblessness, as well as the political woes of authoritarianism. Thirty-two percent of the Syrian population lives on $2 a day or less. Fifty percent spend close to half their income on food. They live in terrible insecurity and anxiety. Commodity prices are racing up worldwide. Wheat prices increased by 30% last year. Syria is liberalizing economically and cutting price supports and subsidies. The bottom half of Syrians are loosing what state supports they had at the same time as they are being hammered by rising food costs and natural calamities, such as the severe drought. Reform is not producing enough jobs.
Despite the economic similarities with Egypt, Syrian society and circumstances are different. Syrians have been traumatized by the violence and chaos of Iraq. The presence of almost one million Iraqi refugees has chastened Syrians. they understand the dangers of regime collapse in a religiously divided society. No Syrian wants to risk civil war. Freedom in Iraq has spelled disaster for the country’s minorities, both Sunnis and Christian. Iraq provides a cautionary tale for Syria’s minorities in particular.
The Syrian regime is very tough. It will try to nip any demonstrations in the bud.
I have watched the call for a day of rage on Feb 4 and 5 on the social networks. External opposition elements are playing a big role, no doubt, but opposition leaders inside Syria are also picking up the gauntlet. Suhair Atassi, an outspoken advocate for reform who runs a democratic forum on Facebook, has been outspoken. She is under house arrest. It is hard to know how many Syrians will turn up. An earlier Facebook call for a demonstration in front of the Tunisian embassy during the height of the turmoil in Tunis ended with only nine people turning up. The present call for a day of rage is better organized and more wide spread. Certainly it will attract more people. I suspect there will be protests in front of Syrian embassies in the West.
The Assad regime is looking at a significant improvement to its geostrategic position in the region, if it weathers the immediate storm of protest, which I suspect it will. The Camp David Agreement and America’s brokered peace between Israel and Egypt was a hard blow to Syria and the Palestinians. It meant they had no leverage to get back their occupied territories. The hope of weakening Israel’s sense of military security and improving security for Syria makes authorities in Damascus cheer on the collapse of the Mubarak regime.
The Egyptian Muslim brotherhood has promised that any new government will stand by its international commitments which means the peace treaty with Israel. All the same, any new government will have a much harder time cooperating so closely with Israel to suppress the Palestinians and “resistance.” It should be remembered that Mubarak took the lead in condemning Hizbullah in 2006 and insisting that it of responsible for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. This may induce Israel to restart peace discussions with Syria, which Assad has been calling for in vain. The fall of the Mubarak regime may put the Golan Heights back in play, which is good for Syria and Assad.
Syria’s leaders believe that the terrible imbalance in power between Israel and the Arab countries is the main cause for the failure of the peace process. They expect that regime change in Egypt may help to right that balance and encourage Israel to come back to the peace table.
Does Assad’s support for resistance against Israeli occupation of Arab lands and dispossession of the Palestinians win him popular support? It is hard to know how much support Assad gets for his ideological opposition to Israel and America. Clearly it wins him support from a section of the population who cares about Syria’s occupied land and those who sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians. Assad ranks high in opinion polls that compare the popularity of Arab leaders.
All the same, the Syrian regime is oppressive and has failed to raise living standards for at least half of the population. The top 10% are getting richer because of economic liberalization, reforms, and increased competition, but the bottom half are seeing their standard of living eroded by globalization and reform. The income gap in Syria is widening as it is in countries across the world.
[End of Landis commentary]
Mazen Darwish from the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, speaking to the Financial Times said drawing parallels between Egypt and Syria was not useful:
“The situation in Syria is different and more difficult, it’s more complicated.” Mr Darwish also said that the Facebook call to demonstrate had been made mainly from Syrians living abroad, which limited its effectiveness.
The following Erdogan speech is important. It indicates how Turkey expects changes in Egypt to affect the Palestinians and Arab-Israeli conflict, among other things. It is also significant in its depiction of the leadership role Turkey aspires to in the region.
From a speech by Erdogan on Turkish NTV television February 1: (Many thanks to Nicholas Noe, whose Mideastwire.com translated this.)
Not only in Turkey but everywhere in the world, the Justice and Development Party has shown no fear or hesitation in siding with the oppressed and the victim. It has always taken its position against the status quo and against pressure and oppression… Turkey is playing roles that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history. My dear brothers, we are pursuing a foreign policy with character. Turkey is saying no to the oppressors. It is challenging what was blindly accepted until now. It is calling the murderers murderers. It is destroying taboos. Turkey is saying wait a minute to those who condemn others to poverty and to blockades. Turkey is shouting the truth and the just at every opportunity. Turkey is positing a strong will to help peace, stability, tranquility, democracy, universal law, rights and freedoms to prevail in its region. We represent a mentality that seeks for its brothers whatever it wants for itself.
We have done all we could until today to make sure that the brotherly peoples and the neighboring countries do not experience instability or are dragged to civil wars. We will continue to do that in the future.
We have always said this: Countries that cannot solve their internal problems, that cannot put an end to their internal conflicts, that cannot achieve a consensus within themselves, cannot achieve a bright future or defend their interests outside. That is why we called for a national consensus in Palestine. That is why we tried to help bring about a political consensus in Lebanon. That is why we made efforts for the establishment of a democratic consensus in Iraq. We always supported the regional countries’ internal peace, national consensus, unity and integrity, and democratic development. We always stressed the importance of all that. This group has recorded its name in history as the voice of the oppressed in Turkey, in the region, and in the entire world.
We must understand this well: There is no administration in history that remained in power by using oppression, intimidation, and fear. In all periods of history, sooner or later, human dignity has broken all chains, pulled down all walls, and the voice of the oppressed has been heard, even if slowly at first. Therefore, no government can remain indifferent to rights and freedoms. No government can remain indifferent to the people’s democratic demands.
In Turkey, too, the nation’s yearning for democracy was voiced strongly. In 1950, the nation shouted: enough, power to the people!…
No government can remain in power in spite of the people. The state exists for the people. It gains meaning with the existence, will, and support of the people. Our basic philosophy is this: The people must live so that the state can live.
As I just said, we want for our friends and brothers what we want for ourselves. If we want democracy, prosperity, justice, and freedom for ourselves, we want the same things for the brotherly peoples. Just as we want peace, security, stability, development, unity and integrity for ourselves, we want the same things for the brotherly countries.
From here, I would like to make a very sincere suggestion to Egyptian President Mr. Husni Mubarak and caution him: We are human beings. We are mortal. We are not immortal. We will all die and be questioned for what we have done in our lives. As Muslims, we will all end up in two-cubic meter holes. We are all mortals. What is immortal is the legacy we leave behind; what is important is to be remembered with respect; it is to be remembered with benediction. We exist for the people. We fulfill our duties for our people. When the imam comes to us as we die, he will not address us as the president, as the head of state, as the prime minister, or as the minister. I am now talking to the trillionaires: the imam will not address you as trillionaires. He will address us all as simple men or women. What will come with you will only be the shroud. Nothing else. Therefore we must know the value of that shroud; we must listen to the voice of our conscience and to! the voice of our people; we must be ready either for our people’s prayers or for their malediction. Therefore, I say that you must listen, and we must listen, to the people’s outcry, to their extremely humanitarian demands. Meet the people’s desire for change with no hesitation.
I am saying this clearly: You must be the first to take a step for Egypt’s peace, security, and stability, without allowing exploiters, dirty circles, and circles that have dark scenarios over Egypt to take initiative. Take steps that will satisfy the people.
In our world today, freedoms can no longer be postponed or ignored.
Elections that last months cannot be called democratic. We conclude our elections in 24 hours.
We hope that these incidents come to an end as soon as possible, without leading to great suffering, and that the people’s legitimate and sensible demands are met.
Egypt is a country of civilization. It is a country full of historical and cultural riches.
Therefore I call on our Egyptian brothers: During this entire process of resistance, stay away from arms, but stand up for your history. Stand up for your culture. Do not let them be wounded. Wage only the dignified struggle for freedoms. That is your most democratic right. Democracy and freedoms are not privileges but human rights.
I must also say the following most sincerely: If one life is lost in Egypt, be it that of a soldier, of a policeman, or a civilian, it is as if that life was lost from the Turkish nation. We do not want a single person to be injured in Egypt. It is our greatest wish to see that both the people and the government act with a similar sense of responsibility and with a dignity that befits the peoples of the region, to shoulder a change that will satisfy all sectors in Egypt, and that will carry the freedoms and democracy to the highest standards.
Turkey will continue to remain on the side of the brotherly peoples of Egypt and Tunisia, and to share their sorrow, joy, and hopes.
It is our greatest wish to see that in Egypt and Tunisia, reforms are carried out, peace and calm are restored quickly, and that unity and integrity remain unscathed.
We hope that in Tunisia, the new government will carry out democratic reforms in line with the demands of the Tunisian people, that it will enable the broadest possible political participation and representation, and that it will implement an effective economic development plan. Turkey will be on the side of Tunisia and the Tunisian people during this critical period….” Nicholas Noe, Co-Founder, Mideastwire.com
For an excellent analysis of Egypt’s economic woes, see this article in Slate By Annie Lowrey.
After Tunisia: Robin Yassin-Kassab on Syria
The Guardian, Thursday 27 January 2011
With its young population, and a bureaucracy run by the same authoritarian party for four decades, Syria is by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society, conditions that brought revolution to Tunisia. Nevertheless, in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.
A state-controlled Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, blamed the Tunisian revolution on the Ben Ali regime’s “political approach of relying on ‘friends’ to protect them”. Tunisia’s status as western client was only a minor motivator for the uprising there, but still al-Watan’s analysis will be shared by many Syrians. Unlike the majority of Arab states, Syria’s foreign policy is broadly in line with public opinion – and in Syria foreign policy, which has the potential to immediately translate into a domestic security issue, matters a great deal. The regime has kept the country in a delicate position of no war with, but also no surrender to, Israel (which occupies the Golan Heights), and has pursued close co-operation with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements as well as emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. This is appreciated by “the street”, and the president himself is no hate figure in the mould of Ben Ali or Mubarak. Where his father engineered a Stalinist personality cult, mild-mannered Bashar al-Assad enjoys a reasonable level of genuine popularity. Much is made of his low-security visits to theatres and ice cream parlours
Syrians call for protests on Facebook and Twitter
By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY
The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 1, 2011;
BEIRUT — Syrians are organizing campaigns on Facebook and Twitter that call for a “day of rage” in Damascus this week, taking inspiration from Egypt and Tunisia in using social networking sites to rally their followers for sweeping political reforms.
Like Egypt and Tunisia, Syria suffers from corruption, poverty and unemployment. All three nations have seen subsidy cuts on staples like bread and oil. Syria’s authoritarian president has resisted calls for political freedoms and jailed critics of his regime.
The main Syrian protest page on Facebook is urging people to protest in Damascus on Feb. 4 and 5 for “a day of rage.” It says the goal is to “end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption.”
The number of people who have joined Facebook and Twitter pages calling for protests on Friday and Saturday is still relatively small, and some are believed to live outside the country.
President Bashar Assad said in an interview published Monday that his nation is immune from the kind of unrest roiling Tunisia and Egypt.
He was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as acknowledging that the events signaled a “new era” in the Middle East. But he said Syria, which has gradually shed its socialist past in favor of the free market in recent years, was insulated from the upheaval because he understood his people’s needs and has united them in common cause against Israel.
Social networking sites were integral to rallying protesters in Tunisia and Egypt. Facebook is banned in Syria, which makes organizing more difficult – even though many Syrians manage to access the social networking site anyway. More than 2,500 people have joined the page calling for protests on Feb. 4-5, with another 850 joining a page in favor of President Assad.
…But Assad has not matched liberal economics with political reforms and critics of the regime are routinely locked up, drawing an outcry from international human rights groups.
He is seen by many Arabs, however, as one of the few leaders in the region willing to stand up to arch enemy Israel. And his support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups opposed to the Jewish state as well as his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq has won him more support among his people than other Arab rulers.