This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 29/04/2011
He watched them all on his television screen. He saw how the Egyptian President Mubarak was overthrown, and three weeks earlier, how the Tunisian President Ben Ali was ousted, and now he can see Gaddafi struggling to maintain just a quarter of Libya, and how Yemeni President Saleh is trying to improve the conditions under which he will step down from power.
Indeed, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad watched all those before him meet their destiny, and he had time to heed warnings and learn lessons from what happened. He is not like the Tunisian President, who was taken by surprise by the mass uprising, and was forced to flee the country in his private jet after he failed to suppress the revolution. The Egyptian President also run out of time as events developed quickly, and when he failed to control the situation, he sought assistance from the army, which ultimately ousted him from power. Bashar al-Assad can now see that Gaddafi, who adopted a variety of military means of suppression, has brought international intervention upon himself, and his regime is on the verge of collapse as a result of this. As for the Yemeni President, he adopted a strategy of political maneuvers to quell calls for him to step down, yet the public are still calling on him to step down, whilst others are demanding he face trial for last Friday's massacre.
Syria is the fifth, not the first, country in this "revolutionary queue", and so President al-Assad should have collected enough practical thoughts and advice to know how to handle any disturbance. However, in reality, the Syrian President addressed the first protest by killing five people in the periphery city of Daraa, a city formerly believed to be a pro-regime stronghold that has been transformed into a symbol of the uprising.
What is extremely odd is that the Syrian President did not justify the use of force by offering any concessions to the demonstrators; he did not dissolve the parliament, whose term will come to an end in weeks, and then hold early elections under international supervision. He did not announce changes in his security apparatus which is actually a source of the problem, and has been for many decades in Syria, being internationally deemed a "bad example.' He refused to release political prisoners, the majority of whom are civilians, who are not nearly as troublesome as the rest of his opponents in the streets. In fact, he did practically nothing, except verbally announcing an end to the state of emergency, in order to justify sending his military troops to confront the demonstrators.
It is clear that the Syrian regime is imitating Gaddafi; it is distorting the image of its opponents and suppressing them via military force. It has accused the demonstrators of being Salafists, terrorists, insurgents and armed militia, allowing the government troops and security apparatus full reign to crush them. We do not know how the army will quell tens of thousands of demonstrators in dozens of cities, especially as whenever a demonstrator is killed, a funeral precession is arranged and hatred intensifies. If a military or security solution was actually effective, Gaddafi would have won his battle, particularly as he employed fighter jets, heavy artillery and mercenaries, but ultimately failed to stop the demonstrators. Further killings will only cause the Syrian public to support the opposition, push the opposition towards armament, and peaceful demonstrators will turn into armed revolutionaries.
I do not mean to belittle the concerns of the Syrian leadership; which firstly believes that a regional and international plot is being hatched against it – and certainly there are many who wish to see the collapse of the Syrian regime – and secondly, believes that offering concessions will undermine its prestige and further fuel the uprising against it. Even if these doubts were true, a military solution in particular will not help the Syrian regime. It is true that political concessions may cause the regime to lose some of its power, but it will survive, or at the very least it will have an excuse to resort to a military solution. No regime in the world today exercises so much control over the lives and destinies of its people as the Syrian regime. The iron fist is supposed to be a relic of a bygone era, and that is why the Libyans revolted, and now the Syrians are doing the same.