Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tyrant Now A Pariah

As Syrian repression intensifies, Arab leaders are speaking out

By Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith

A Syrian Army armored vehicle is seen positioned on the outskirts of Homs. Syria

Threatening presence: an armoured vehicle of the Syrian military on the outskirts of Homs, one of the cities north of the capital Damascus where protests have taken place

Deir Ezzor, a city in an oil-producing region in the east of Syria, was preparing for a stormy Ramadan. For weeks, the protest movement led by students had been staging mass demonstrations in a locality known for its defiance. The youths were determined to step up their campaign during the holy month, taking advantage of the potential of greater numbers flocking to mosques for evening prayers to swell the crowds.

At the weekend, however, the regime of Bashar al-Assad launched a pre-emptive strike. The army entered with tanks from all sides, arrested protest organisers and shot randomly in the streets, report activists. “There is no household that has escaped this attack,” says Adnan Othman, a Deir Ezzor protest organiser who is now in the capital, Damascus. Some were killed in the rubble of their homes, he says; others were shot on the streets or defending the entrances to their neighbourhoods.
The assault followed the storming of Hama, a conservative Sunni city in the west, on the eve of Ramadan. As in Deir Ezzor, protests in Hama – site of a 1982 massacre by Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father and predecessor, then fighting the Muslim Brotherhood – had swelled beyond what security forces would tolerate.

But in deciding to ratchet up the violence to crush a five-month uprising, the 45-year-old Syrian ruler, an eye doctor who inherited the presidency in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafez, overlooked one crucial element: how it would play with his neighbours.
A largely Sunni Muslim Arab world watched with horror as an army dominated by officers from the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam, intensified its attacks on Sunni protesters. While Arab governments had stayed on the sidelines as one of the most bloody episodes of the regional uprisings unfolded, they suddenly cried out: enough. From Egypt to the Gulf, voices rose in unison to demand an end to Mr Assad’s violence. The harshest words were delivered by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who denounced the “killing machine” that has by now left an estimated 1,600 dead and thousands in custody. “The numbers of those killed or injured or detained are simply horrific. The king could not ignore this any more,” says Hussein Shobokshi, a Saudi columnist.

Arab states will be treading carefully, however, taking into account the factors that kept them silent for months with an eye on the fragile status quo of a strategically important neighbour. Syria remains in a state of war with Israel, which occupied Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war. It has significant influence over Lebanon, a divided country that fears chaos in Syria could spill over to its territory. It also has a tight friendship with Iran, a leading regional power with nuclear ambitions that considers Syria its gateway to the Arab world.
Long before the Arabs spoke out, the US had decided that Mr Assad had lost legitimacy. Turkey, which had developed a close relationship with the Syrian leader in recent years, is losing patience with him, too, and now says it is waiting for immediate concrete measures that stop the killings and allow a peaceful democratic transition.

“We are now entering a process of the gradual delegitimisation of the regime,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, a think-tank. “I have no doubt the regime will continue killing and that will force the international community into a reaction.”
No one is considering a Libya-style military intervention. But analysts say Damascus could be suspended from the Arab League and that Gulf states could join the US and European Union in imposing economic sanctions. This would come at a time when the economy has already suffered a massive blow. The tourism industry, one of the main sources of foreign currency, has been shattered, trade severely disrupted and foreign investment halted.
Syria map and charts

“Syria is not as rich as Libya. Assad cannot hold on for ever. The regime will be economically suffocated before it falls politically,” predicts Mr Shobokshi. The emerging political opposition remains spontaneous and localised, its ability to form a national front hampered by the repression.

It is because of the complexity of Syria that many governments still hold out hope Mr Assad could preside over a political transition, assuming this would spare the country further bloodshed and chaos. In response to increasing external pressure, he is pledging “comprehensive reforms”. But his family-based Ba’athist regime – run mafia style, with his brother, Maher, controlling elite military forces – has shown little sign that it is willing or able to change.
Indeed, analysts fear the crisis will become a long-term struggle that drives protesters to take up arms in ever greater numbers, plunging the country into full-blown civil war long before a political transition begins. “Bashar al-Assad cannot lead a transition. He is not the ophthalmologist who graduated in London that a lot of people like to see – he is the son of his father and he has proved that,” says Wissam Tarif, head of Insan, a Beirut-based human rights group that tracks abuses in Syria.
From the first days of Syria’s uprising in March, when tribes took to the streets in the impoverished southern city of Deraa to demand the release of 15 children arrested for scribbling anti-government graffiti, Mr Assad has displayed what to many seems a mixture of arrogance, inconsistency and miscalculation.

As Tunisian and Egyptian leaders were swept aside by popular revolutions, the president declared that Syria was immune, its defiant, anti-western foreign policy making the regime close to its people. But as the weeks and months went by, the protesters went from calling for freedom and an end to corruption to demanding the downfall of the regime.
The brutality of the response in Deraa – sending in tanks, cutting the city off, arresting, torturing and systematically killing people – shook those who had bought the official line and others who believed that someday Mr Assad’s promises of reform would become reality.

As both protests and crackdown spread – from the coastal city of Baniyas to Homs and Hama in the centre, Jisr al-Shughour in the north-west and into the Damascus suburbs – increasing numbers were led to question the government’s narrative that security forces were protecting civilians from terrorists in an otherwise tranquil country.

One refugee recalls how she had not believed reports from Deraa on the pan-Arab Al Jazeera satellite channel until troops came to her town, near Homs, and she realised “Syrian TV and Syrian radio are lying to people”.
In another policy that has begun to backfire, the regime has stoked sectarian tensions, depicting protesters as extremist Sunni armed groups threatening minorities, particularly Alawites. But in combination with the use of shabbiha, mostly Alawite smuggling gangs, in the suppression of protests, this has in fact inflamed sentiment against the minority community despite protesters’ attempts to highlight national unity rather than sectarian divisions.

In June, the regime began a shortlived attempt to display legitimacy as well as force. Mr Assad announced a “dialogue” on political reforms but by this point the gap between vague official promises and the mood on the street had become a chasm.
Many now say they can no longer afford to stop protesting, believing they would be hunted down immediately. “Going back is like digging our graves,” says one activist from a Damascus suburb.

The protest movement has shown an astonishing ability to sustain itself. But the regime too has held up, with no senior defections in military or political ranks in five months of unrest. Until now, it has bet it can survive so long as Damascus and the business centre of Aleppo do not join the demonstrations. “Assad has several points of strength – he still has a lot of support, his regime is still cohesive and there is no obvious alternative to it,” argues one of the regime’s allies in neighbouring Lebanon. Western diplomats in Damascus say the unity in the army has indeed been surprising, particularly as it is mostly made up of Sunni conscripts, though they are not used in direct confrontation with protesters.
However, analysts say there are signs of increasing divisions, with many reported cases of soldiers refusing to fire on protesters. Analysts say the army shifts operations from one place to another instead of mounting simultaneous operations because of a lack of sufficient loyal units.

A Syrian analyst says some of the most prominent religious figures in Damascus and Aleppo have turned against the regime in recent weeks. “These are the political voices of the business community,” he says. He argues that, as economic pressures worsen, business will distance itself further from the regime, while the government’s ability to finance the repression will weaken.
Also displaying growing frustration with the handling of the crisis, a group of Ba’athists led by Mohammed Salman, former interior minister, on Monday launched an initiative for a democratic transition. Although the group suggests establishing a national unity government led by Mr Assad, analysts say the little-noticed initiative reflects internal disenchantment with the regime’s persistence in the use of force.

Opposition activists acknowledge that they need to work harder to present a united front. They also admit that, for change to be peaceful, they need parts of the regime to join the opposition. They are hoping the Arab states’ condemnation will widen internal rifts and, most critically, persuade prominent Alawites to take a stand against the Assads.
“What’s important is that leading voices from the Alawite community say that the regime is taking the community hostage,” says Radwan Ziadeh, a US-based opposition activist.

Peter Harling, Damascus-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, argues that the Arab position will have to be accompanied by clearer statements from the region and the rest of the world that the regime cannot survive. Promises of an economic package during a political transition, he says, would also encourage business to stand with the protest movement.
“Within the regime, many still believe Bashar has cover in the international community,” he says. “But the day everyone gives up on the regime, they will start thinking about their own future and know that the future is not with Bashar.”

-This commentary was published in The Financial Times on 10/08/2011
-Additional reporting by a correspondent in Damascus and Abeer Allam in Riyad

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