Friday, June 24, 2011

Defiant Al Assad Sticks To His Guns Amid Continuing Protests

He knows that so long as his ruling circle remains united, it will be difficult for the opposition to topple him
By Patrick Seale
All those dreaming of — and working for— ‘regime change’ in Syria will be outraged by President Bashar Al Assad’s speech on June 20. They want him out, together with the hate figures around him who have been conducting the brutal repression of the protest movement. But he is not stepping down. He intends to stay on — and to fight on.
Al Assad gave no ground to his political enemies. The speech was not, in fact, addressed to them. It was addressed to Syria’s ‘silent majority’ which — or so the president continues to believe — aspires to security, stability and national unity, and is terrified, above all, of a sectarian war on the Iraqi model.
The president explained that, in order to understand the nature of the crisis, he had held several meetings in recent weeks with citizens from all parts of the country. He wanted to hear directly from them. The conclusion he had reached was that there were several different components to the protest movement.
First, there were those who had legitimate demands, who wanted justice, democracy and jobs, and the resolution of problems which had accumulated over decades. Their demands could not be ignored. He intended to address them and had already started to do so. But then there were the others — the criminal outlaws, the blasphemous intellectuals who spoke in the name of religion, the vandals, conspirators and paid agents of foreign powers. Under cover of the protest movement, they had taken up arms against the state!
These conspirators, he said, had called for foreign intervention, they had smeared Syria’s image and destroyed public and private property. They had no respect for state institutions or the rule of law. No reform was possible with such vandals.
He dismissed the argument that Syria was not facing a conspiracy. There was a conspiracy, he declared — designed abroad and perpetrated inside the country. How else to explain the satellite phones, the advanced weapons, the guns mounted on trucks in the hands of his enemies? Syria had always been a target of conspiracy. He had long been under pressure to abandon his principles. (No doubt, by this he meant his Arab nationalist convictions, his alliance with Iran and Heizboallah, his opposition to Israel and the United States.) Syria needed to strengthen its immunity against such conspiracies, he insisted.
In this defiant speech, Al Assad made no mention of the abuses of his security services — the callous use of live fire against civilians, the killing of well over a thousand protesters, the deployment of tanks to besiege rebellious cities, the mass arrests, the beatings and the torture, the flight of terrified refugees across Syria’s borders — a catalogue of outrage which has shattered Syria’s reputation and earned it international condemnation. The refugees in Turkey should return home, he said. They would not be punished. The army would protect them. But those who have had a taste of army brutality may not be persuaded by the president’s assurances. He did, however, have a word of condolence for bereaved mothers.
The heart of Al Assad’s address was a statement of his ambition to shape a new vision for Syria’s future. Reform, he declared, was his firm conviction. His one big idea — the centrepiece of his speech — was a plan for a National Dialogue. A special authority had been set up to work out the necessary arrangements for this great debate, which he hoped would provide for the widest possible popular participation.
The task was to create a forum where far-reaching political and economic reforms could be discussed, so that legislation could then be drafted and passed into law. There could be no giant leap into the unknown because decisions taken now would affect Syria for decades to come.
New electoral law
The speech will disappoint all those who had hoped for immediate and dramatic reforms. The president served up a diet of words rather than of actions. He did mention, however, that elections would take place in August, and that among the bills to be discussed would be a new electoral law, a law allowing for the formation of political parties, a media law, a law to give greater powers to municipal authorities, and the need to amend or even entirely rewrite the constitution. He seemed to be indicating that the notorious Article 8 of the Constitution, which gives the Baath party a ‘leading role in state and society’, might be scrapped.
This may well prove hard to achieve. Having enjoyed a monopoly on the political scene since 1963, Syria’s Baath party has long since become rigid and Stalinist, and is probably incapable of sharing power with other parties. More battles lie ahead.
To all but his diehard political enemies, Al Assad seemed thoughtful and even conciliatory. He did not look like a leader battling for survival. No doubt, the credits outweigh the debits in his personal profit-and-loss account. He knows that he need fear no foreign military intervention: after Libya, no western power would even contemplate it. Some soldiers have defected to the rebels, but there has been no major split in the army or the security services, or in the regime itself. Whatever disputes and dissensions there may have been in the ruling circle have been carefully hidden from view. He knows that so long as they remain united, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the opposition to topple him.
At the UN and elsewhere, Syria enjoys the protection of Russia — perhaps concerned for its naval base at Tartus. The Russian view is that the Syrian crisis poses no threat to international peace and security. China, India, South Africa and Brazil all side with Syria. At home, the country will not face starvation — this year’s wheat harvest is estimated at 3.6m tonnes. Oil and gas exports have so far not been affected.
On the debit side, however, tourism has collapsed; inward investment has dried up; the increase Al-Assad has decree in the salaries of government bureaucrats is estimated to cost $1billion(Dh3.67billion) a year — driving the government deficit to dangerous heights. If the crisis continues much longer, Syria will need a large cash injection from somewhere, and is probably looking to Qatar. Then there is the unpredictable factor. What if the protests continue and become more violent? Will the merchant middle class, the backbone of the regime, remain loyal? Could the economy take the strain? What might next Friday bring?
I was reached this week on the phone by a well-placed Syrian, close to the regime. ‘Western condemnation of Syria is pure hypocrisy,’ he fumed. ‘Every regime in the world will try to destroy its enemies. Have you heard of a place called Abu Ghraib? Or the hundreds of thousands killed by America in Iraq? Or Israel’s massacre in Gaza? Or the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails? If the U.S. and Israel can get away with large-scale killing and torture, why can’t we? They claim to act in self-defence, so do we!’
It would seem that lawlessness and contempt for human life are contagious.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 24/06/2011
-Patrick Seale is a British commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs

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