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Analysis: Syria’s fast approaching moment of truth

Analysis: Syria’s fast approaching moment of truth

With the fires of the 2011 Arab revolutions now burning in the previously unaffected and historic nation of Syria, where a repressive regime has existed for five decades, the now-familiar signs of regular open revolt are being met by live gunfire from government troops. The question is – will Syria go the way of Egypt or Libya? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Syrian troops fired on protesters on Friday, killing demonstrators and pushing that nation along the same pathway that has been reshaping the Arab world since the beginning of 2011. Tens of thousands of demonstrators in the southern city of Daraa, as well as in other cities and towns around Syria, went out into the streets in defiance of an autocratic state that has shown a repeated willingness to use live fire to silence the opponents and dissenters.

Friday’s demonstrations represent the most serious challenge to autocratic rule by father and son Hafez and Bashar al-Assad that began in 1971. In 1982, Hafez Assad troops had killed at least 10,000 protesters in the city of Hama in northern Syria. The Assads belong to the minority Alawite Shi’ite sect in a nation that is primarily Sunni. Some Muslims even claim that the Alawites are religious heretics.

Human rights groups told reporters on Friday that since the protests began a week earlier in the southern city of Daraa, government forces had killed 38 people, but many more are now said to have died in demonstrations across the nation. Precise details were hard to obtain because the Syrian government has sealed off the area to reporters and isn’t permitting foreign media into the country.

Nevertheless, it is clear the upheaval in the Arab world has now gained a footing in Syria as well. An uprising that earlier had been localised to the small, southern city of Daraa is now growing into protests of tens of thousands of people in cities across the country.

According to unconfirmed reports, Syrian protesters in Daraa were mourning the bloodied bodies of demonstrators killed earlier and large crowds chanted anti-government slogans. Government forces then fired on them, killing 15 more people.

Until just a week ago, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, an ally of Iran and a supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas, had seemed exempt from the 2011 wave of populist revolutions in the Mahgreb and Middle East. The Assad family’s leadership had, up until now, kept support for their regime through an adroit mix of repression and slowly increasing economic freedom, thereby drawing upon the loyalty of an increasingly wealthy Sunni merchant class in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo.

While Syrians first thought that, when Bashar al-Assad replaced his father, this could herald a gradual liberalisation and relaxation of repression, Syrians now worry the country could go the way of Iraq, says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “They’re hesitating, but it seems like there is a big hole in the dike here, and the fear factor is collapsing. The latest videos streaming out are horrifying. They’re very gruesome.”

President Bashar al-Assad now seems to be facing the same unpalatable choice with unpredictable consequences faced by rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain – move up the ladder of government-imposed violence or offer concessions. On Thursday, the Syrian regime had seemed to be offering concessions as it announced it would consider relaxing a state of emergency imposed way back in 1963 when the Arab-nationalist Baath Party first took control. In addition the government said it would now offer better pay and benefits for state workers. But large crowds voiced rejection of these offers and in Daraa, the newest round of violence was sparked off when young men spraying anti-government graffiti were arrested. Until Friday’s violence the death toll was between 34 (government’s claim) and 100 (activists’ claims).

Photo: Supporters of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad travel in a convoy as they wave their national flags March 25, 2011. A picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is seen in the foreground. Protests spread across Syria on Friday, challenging the rule of the Assad family after their forces killed dozens of demonstrators in the south. REUTERS/Cynthia Karam.

On Friday, thousands of demonstrators assembled in Daraa’s central Assad Square after prayers, calling out “Freedom, Freedom!” as they carried  Syrian flags and olive branches. Others attacked one of those Stalinesque bronze statues of Hafez al-Assad, trying to topple it or set fire to it, depending on whom you read. Inevitably, then, troops fired on the crowd. According to some reports, protesters have now wrestled weapons away from troops and regained control over the city’s al-Omari mosque in the centre of Daraa’s old city from the government. In Latakia troops opened fire on more than 1,000 people marching in Syria’s main port.

Meanwhile, some groups claimed the numbers of anti-government protester had reached some 50,000 people denouncing presidential advisor Buthaina Shaaban who had already made her promise that the government would consider reforms after the week of Daraa protests.

In Aleppo, worshippers streamed out of Friday prayers shouting, “With our lives, our souls, we sacrifice for you Bashar” and “Only God, Syria and Bashar!” while in the city of Homs, people were demonstrating in support of the Daraa protesters, as also happened in the port city of Latakia and other smaller centres.

In response to this growing unrest and an apparent effort to reduce tensions, police were dismantling checkpoints and barricades in Daraa, as Shaaban made her pledge to reconsider some of the region’s most repressive laws under five decades of Assad family rule. However, protesters rejected these overtures and called for the demonstrations. Loudspeakers from Daraa minarets called on the faithful to attend funerals of those already slain during the earlier crackdown and a Facebook page named “Syrian Revolution” urged people to gather for a “Friday of Dignity” “in all mosques, in all provinces, in the biggest squares”, echoing the events that had transpired in Egypt only eight weeks earlier.

On Thursday, Shaaban, in addition to holding out the possibility of less repression for the country’s increasingly discontented citizenry, offered higher pay and benefits for state workers — paralleling the sweeteners proffered by other governments. She also said the country’s ruling Baath party would even consider thinking about an end to the state of emergency it had put in place back in 1963. Shaaban even claimed the president had insisted that security forces not use live rounds in suppressing dissent. Or as she told reporters, “I was a witness to the instructions of His Excellency that live ammunition should not be fired, even if the police, security forces or officers of the state were being killed.”

Earlier, Assad had also ordered the dismissal of the deeply unpopular Daraa governor, Feisal Kalthoum, one of the initial key demands from the Daraa protesters. And the government also issued a decree modifying laws dealing with property ownership in border areas, addressing complaints by Daraa residents that they were forbidden from buying and selling land without the involvement of the local secret police. But these decisions may not be enough, at this point, to make any real difference.

Syria’s state of emergency and related laws allow arrests without warrants and imprisonment without trial. Human rights NGOs say torture and detainee abuse remain common in police stations, detention centres and prisons. Those who oppose the regime can end up imprisoned for years without the semblance of due process, according to these groups.

Or, as Landis commented, “When you first hear it you think they’re making major concessions, but when you look at it you realise there’s not a lot there besides the salary boost. You understand the regime is in a very difficult spot and they’re flustered.”

On Friday, at least one amateur video posted on the Internet showed crowds chanting, “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Daraa!”

All of these protests have shaken the country which has generally only had carefully planned demonstrations – usually against outsiders like the US or Israel. The leaders of the Damascus protests apparently were better-off middle-class Syrians, many of whom who have been calling for reforms for years or who have relatives locked away as political prisoners.

By contrast, analysts say, it was working-class Sunnis who have led the way in more conservative towns like Daraa. There, small-scale farmers and herders who have been pushed off their land by drought conditions have been moving into the province’s main city and surrounding villages, unsuccessfully searching for work and growing angry at the lack of opportunity. This seems just the right recipe to sustain protests, bringing them forward from smaller towns, then to the big cities and finally into the capital, just as with Tunisia some three months earlier.

Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East studies programme at George Mason University, outside Washington, DC, says these protests do not yet threaten the regime, “If this continues at the level we see right now or if the regime finds a way to deal with the protests at this level, the Syrian regime will be able to weather the storm”. However, he added that further bloodshed could well expand the protests. And an exiled figure like Ayman Abdul-Nour, a Dubai-based former member of Assad’s ruling Baath Party, has been telling reporters, “There’s a barrier of fear that has been broken and the demands are changing with every new death. We’re starting to hear calls for the regime’s ouster.”

The International Crisis Group said, “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.” US defence secretary Robert Gates offered his judgement on Thursday while he was on a trip to the Middle East that, rather than shooting and arresting protesters, Syria should follow Egypt’s example: “What the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people.” And an obviously nervous Turkish government just to the north of Syria said its neighbour should quickly enact reforms to meet legitimate demands. The UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon called Bashar al-Assad on Friday to tell him “governments had an obligation to respect and protect their citizens’ fundamental rights”.

Until these anti-government protests also ignited in Syria, that country had been one of those distant places that seemed to come from a different, earlier age. For many, Syria was a name that resonated mostly from the contents of history books, historical novels and ancient Judaeo-Christian religious texts.

Syria’s great military and political hero, Salah ah-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyubi (or as he is better known in the west – Saladin) had reunited much of the core Islamic world in the 12th century, defeated the Crusader armies and simultaneously treated his opponent, the Norman English king, Richard the Lionheart, with exquisite courtesy, even sending him ice and fresh fruit when Richard was seized with malaria. Saladin was actually a Kurd, not an Arab, but maybe a millennium has been time enough to allow him a national hero’s tomb at one of Damascus’ most revered mosques.

Saladin’s fame was such that he became a back-story hero in Sir Walter Scott’s 19th century novel, “Ivanhoe”. Saladin continues to fascinate. Filmmaker Ridley Scott gave him a sympathetic portrayal in his 2005 film, “Kingdom of Heaven”, and Saladin’s victories against the Crusaders have remained an historical inspiration for contemporary Arab opposition to Israel and the west.

For other people, of course, a road in Syria was the setting for that Damascene conversion that gave a new religion a great burst of energy and framed the famous cliché. Historically, too, Syria was prized for its precious Damascus steel and fine textiles and Syria’s ports were the home stretch or point of origin on the Silk Road caravan routes that connected mediaeval Europe with the rich Asian regions. More recently, Syria’s Golan Heights have been the site for some of the fiercest fighting in two Arab-Israeli wars.

Meanwhile, in the present, while the variations of the Arab spring continue to evolve differently, country-by-country, the energies that began with that final desperate act of a despairing vegetable dealer in a small town in Tunisia have clearly not yet run their course, and with unpredictable consequences still to come. Syrian rulers are rightfully losing their sleep these days. DM

For more, read:

  • Syrian Troops Open Fire on Protesters in Several Cities in The New York Times;
  • Syria city tense as crowds attend protest funerals in Reuters;
  • Syria crisis: Can reforms appease protesters? in the BBC;
  • Syria unrest: Government pledges political reforms in the BBC;
  • Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Faces Most Serious Unrest of his Tenure in The Washington Post;
  • Timeline: Israel and Syria: Conflict and Negotiation in The New York Times;
  • Syria in The New York Times;
  • Thousands in Syria chant “freedom” despite reform offer in Reuters;
  • As unrest spreads, Syrian government promises to respond in CNN;
  • Thousands March to Protest Syria Killings in The New York Times;
  • Troops open fire as protests explode across Syria in AP;
  • Syrian Troops Open Fire on Protesters in Several Cities in The New York Times.

Fact Box 1: Recent US – Syrian relations issues

During George W Bush’s administration, Syria was cast in the role of a dangerous, unpredictable pariah state. It was linked to the 2005 killing of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. In 2007, Israeli jets destroyed buildings in Syria that intelligence officials said might have been the first stage in a nuclear weapons programme. The US and its Arab allies mounted a campaign to isolate Damascus, which they accused of encouraging violence throughout the Middle East via its support of Hezbollah and Hamas.

President Barack Obama entered office with a pledge to engage with Syria, arguing Bush administration efforts to isolate Syria had been unable to achieve any drawing away from Iran or encouragement of Middle East peace efforts. To date, this engagement has been limited.

Fact Box 2: Syrian – Israel conflict – a chronology

  • June 1967 –  Israel captures Golan Heights from Syria.
  • October 1973 –  Syria attempts to recapture Golan Heights; Israel defends the area and signs an armistice with Syria in 1974. Treaty creates a narrow UN-patrolled, demilitarised zone on the territory’s eastern border.
  • December 1981  – Israel annexes the Golan Heights, extending its laws to the territory. This annexation is not internationally recognised.
  • October 1991  – Middle East peace negotiations begin in Madrid. Talks between Syria and Israel continue for five years, with little resolution on borders and water rights.
  • February 1996  –  Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres breaks off talks with Syria after Palestinian suicide bomb attacks in Israel.
  • December 1999  –  US-mediated talks between Israel and Syria begin, but without agreement.
  • February 2007   – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. They agree Turkey will help mediate negotiations.
  • September 6, 2007   – Israel conducts an air strike in Syria on what US and Israeli analysts later says is a partially finished nuclear reactor built with the help of North Korea.
  • April 2008   – Olmert sends a message to President Bashar al-Assad indicating Israel would be willing to withdraw from Golan Heights as part of comprehensive peace treaty.

Main photo: Syrians shout slogans in support of protesters in the city of Deraa, during a protest in Mouadamieh, near Damascus, March 25, 2011. Security forces killed three people in the Mouadamieh district of Damascus, the Syrian capital, after a crowd confronted a procession of cars driven by supporters of President Bashsar al-Assad, residents said. REUTERS.


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