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Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Syria Will Change – With Or Without Assad
Even if Syria's president manages to quell the current uprising, it doesn't mean he has won.
By Brian Whitaker This commentary was published in The Guardian on 09/05/2011
Syrian protesters carry banners in Arabic and Kurdish that call for a democratic nation as they demonstrate in the northeastern town of Qamishli. Photograph: Str/AP
At what is clearly a critical stage in the Syrian uprising, it is increasingly difficult to find out what is really happening on the ground. Media access has been heavily restricted from the beginning but other sources of information are becoming more erratic too. Many of the activists who were posting on the internet appear to have been arrested or scared into silence. Contact has also been lost with some who had satellite phones.
What we do know for sure is that at the weekend the regime extended its military crackdown in the southern city of Deraa – the original seat of the uprising – to the cities of Homs and Banias in the north. Details are scarce, but in Homs water and electricity were cut off on Sunday – along with almost all forms of communication.
Iran, which suppressed a popular rebellion of its own after the 2009 presidential election, is reportedly helping the Syrian regime, though the nature and extent of any help is still uncertain. There is also little doubt that thousands have been arrested since the protests broke out in mid-March, and hundreds killed.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing, though, in the light of the crackdown, is that demonstrations are still continuing. But they are – in various parts of the country, despite the new law which makes them illegal.
However, in comparison with other protests in Egypt and Yemen, the numbers in Syria are still small. Reports typically speak of a few thousand at the most, rather than tens or hundreds of thousands. There has also been no focal point like Tahrir Square in Egypt, since the Syrian authorities have been making determined efforts to ensure that nothing of the kind can happen in Damascus.
While it's clear that for significant numbers the fear barrier ruthlessly established by Bashar al-Assad's police state has now been broken, for many more it has not. Some, no doubt, still believe the official line that the protests are the work of "armed groups" supported by foreigners. Others want change but are reluctant to put their lives and liberty at risk for a struggle that so far shows little sign of succeeding.
In an interview last week, Camille Otrakji, a Syrian political blogger based in Canada, said:
"There is no doubt that many Syrians are dissatisfied with many aspects of the current regime. But most Syrians would much rather see some meaningful reforms undertaken in a peaceful fashion over the next five years under the current regime, instead of trying to sweep the regime away and dealing with the prospect of sectarian civil war.
If Bashar [President Assad] were to sign several laws: (1) permitting the formation of political parties; (2) lifting the tight censorship in the press; (3) and modernising and limiting the role of the mukhabarat (intelligence services), I believe that 80% of the Syrian people would be fully on board with that.
They would say to the opposition: 'Thank you very much for your courage. You did a valuable service by giving the regime a cold shower. But now we've had enough of the protests and we want to go back to work. We will give Bashar the benefit of the doubt, until the next presidential election.'"
If the protests are not succeeding, it doesn't necessarily mean that Assad is winning. Even if he manages to quell the current uprising, prospects for a return to the previous status quo are virtually nil and at some point radical change will have to come in Syria – with or without Assad.
As Patrick Seale, a longstanding expert on Syria points out, Assad inherited "a fossilised system of governance" from his father.
"Like other Arabs," Seale says, "Syrians want real political freedoms, the release of political prisoners, an independent judiciary, the punishment of corrupt bigwigs, a free press, a new law on political parties allowing for genuine pluralism ... and an end, once and for all, to arbitrary arrest, police brutality and torture."
The regime keeps hinting that such reforms are on the cards – but only after tranquillity has been restored. If that is the intention, though, mass arrests and the killing of demonstrators seem an odd way to go about convincing people of it.
Seale, who has been more inclined than many to give Assad the benefit of the doubt when it comes to reformist intentions, now acknowledges that his chances of stabilising the situation are slim. To do so, he would have to call a halt to the killing of protesters, take the lead towards reform and in effect carry out "a silent coup against the hardliners".
That all looks very doubtful, not least because the hardliners, as well as the "corrupt bigwigs" include members of his own family. Had he been seriously planning to take on the hardliners, he might also have distanced himself from the brutality of the crackdown on protesters. Instead, he has done the opposite by appearing in photographs dressed in military garb – a sudden change from his more usual appearance in suit and tie.