Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Empty Gestures As The Killing Goes On In Syria

The US and the Syrian regime both seem to be hedging their bets, as a contrived conference ignores the deaths on the streets

By Fadwa al-Hatem

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton, centre, said Syria's president had lost legitimacy. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
More words, more gestures, more conferences and more promises, but the killing in Syria goes on. As the Assad regime begins to appear more isolated and weakened, the international community is stepping up the pressure.
On Tuesday Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said that the president, Bashar al-Assad had "lost legitimacy" and last Friday, both the American and French ambassadors carried out an unprecedented official visit to Hama to see the situation first-hand. Like a courted damsel, the Syrian people are now being wooed by two suitors, but their interests are with neither.
The ambassadors' visits to Hama raised many questions. We did not see the ambassadors of either country visit Pearl Square in Bahrain, nor did we see them make such high-profile visits at Tahrir Square in Egypt or to the protests in Yemen. So why was it so important for them to visit Hama? Well, the popular narrative that is being encouraged by the Syrian regime and its apologists is that the US is secretly backing attempts to destabilise the Assad family's grip on the country.
As a result, there have been protests in front of the American and French embassies for the past two days, while the residence of the US ambassador, Robert Ford, is reported to also have been attacked. The other popular narrative, emerging from a region steeped in conspiracy theories, is that the US wishes to undermine the Syrian uprising, boosting the Assad regime.
Both explanations are equally ridiculous, and the most likely explanation I can think of is that the US administration is starting to think about the post-Assad era, and hence wishes to "get in on the act" early by appearing to support the Syrian uprising but without doing anything concrete to support it.
The US does not wish to infuriate the Assad regime any more than it has to, in case the regime doesn't go away. It is important to note that the road from Damascus to Hama, like all roads to the rest of the country, is filled with government checkpoints, and if the Assad regime had wanted to prevent either ambassador from going, it could easily have done that.
So why did the Assad regime allow them to reach those cities if it felt this to be such a violation of Syrian sovereignty? Could the regime also be hedging its bets and not infuriating the US any more than it has to? Perhaps it was to show somebody in Washington that there were no plans to carry out a second massacre in Hama, as was rumoured last week.
Whatever the intention, it appears that there is much more taking place behind closed doors than is being let on. The typical Syrian humour, plucky in the face of absurdity, was quick to make fun of the visit to Hama and also to play upon the conspiracy theories of the Syrian regime. In one video posted on YouTube, the US ambassador was supposedly giving an "advanced air defence system" to "some gangs back in our neighbourhood". It is claimed the device also does the laundry in the afternoon.
Another suspicious event was the so-called conference for national dialogue chaired by the vice-president, Farouk al-Sharaa, at the plush Sahara Hotel in Damascus. Boycotted by prominent opposition figures such as Michel Kilo, the conference seemed to be a conversation by the regime with itself. The discredited actor Abbas al Nouri was also present, along with numerous other sycophants, and while there were many contrived statements feigning indignation and sadness at the blood of the martyrs, and even more contrived statements about the importance of connecting with "the youth", barely a mention was made of the real problem.
The elephant in the room, or should we say the lion, was that the regime is still killing people on the streets, that 11,000 people have been detained and that there are more than 10,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon. This was not a conference of national dialogue but a publicity stunt.
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 12/07/2011

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