Friday, August 19, 2011

Window To Save Syria Is Closing

Al Assad regime must acknowledge the problem and address injustice instead of accusing the media of bias
By Marwan Al Kabalan
Regardless of how the protest movement is presented by different media organisations, Syria is facing its most serious internal crisis in three decades. So far, the government remains in a state of shock and denial, precipitating contradictory statements. While it describes the demands of the protest movement as legitimate and promises to address them, it continues to portray demonstrations as part of a foreign plot aimed at weakening Syria's pan-Arabist stands and its support for resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine.
It was apparent, however, particularly after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, that grievances and protracted socio-economic crises will ultimately lead to a wave of social unrest in various parts of the region.
In Syria, the government was not quick to recognise this, relying instead on a deceptive picture that the adoption of a popular foreign policy will enable it to weather the storm. The rising cost of living, failing state services, unemployment, rampant corruption and a legacy of abuse by security services have all hence been dismissed as minor issues that do not constitute a credible challenge to the legitimacy of the regime.
Indeed, the Syrian protest movement consists of two parts, as all protests do. The first is genuine grievances of the majority of the population. The second is the interests of the regime's enemies. The regime's many hardcore enemies have naturally seized the opportunity to finish some unfinished businesses; yet, ascribing much of the strife to the exiled opposition, home-grown Salafist elements, and hostile foreign parties was an unfortunate mistake. The current blend of a heavy-handed security approach, disinformation, and minor concessions has hence been the regime's incoherent and tragic response.
The Syrian government has repeatedly stated in recent months that it intends to undertake genuine steps towards reforms that would eventually meet the demands of the protest movement as well as the still-silent majority of Syrians. Nothing of that sort has so far materialised; and the window for changing the current dynamics is closing quickly as the world's powers prepare the grounds for intervention on a humanitarian basis.
National reconciliation
The Syrian government must act quickly and swiftly to avert such probability. It must first admit publicly and openly that there is a problem; something that has not been so far done. It must also acknowledge that this problem is bigger than a few mistakes that have been committed here and there by individuals.
Although holding those individuals accountable for their deeds would show that the regime is serious about reform, this will not be enough to lift the country from its current crisis. Hence, a national reconciliation process followed by national dialogue is required. Halting violence against protesters, withdrawing the army from the cities, releasing all political prisoners and the authorisation of peaceful demonstrations are prerequisites to defuse the crisis. Other political and economic reforms must indeed follow. They include holding early parliamentary and presidential elections. This requires a new constitution that opens the way for a multi-party political system and ends four decades of single party rule.
The state bureaucracy and the judiciary must be restructured and purged of corruption in order to regain the public's trust in them. The power of the security services must be curtailed and their jurisdiction must be limited to national security. Private media must be allowed with a new law that guarantees the rights and outlines the duties of journalists.
The introduction of these changes will be the alternative to spiralling confrontation and would guarantee a peaceful transition to a more open and democratic political life. Alternatively, repression will increase public anger, making constructive action all the more difficult.
From a realistic point of view, however, nothing indicates that these changes will be introduced anytime soon. On the contrary, Syria seems to be heading towards a more acute crisis. The regime still believes that the problem is with the coverage of the Arab and international media and is spending a lot of time and efforts to undermine its credibility.
The coverage of the world's media is often described as vitriolic and irresponsible, referring specifically to the broadcasting of amateur video clips or stories by "eyewitnesses" of protests calling for reform. Indeed, reporting by Arab satellite channels has some flaws.
There have been exaggerations, prejudices and insufficient investigation. Some have fallen victim to unverified stories by unidentified sources. Yet, the problem is not with the media coverage no matter how inaccurate it might be, but with the injustice that has affected most Syrians. Until the government recognises that, it might then be too late to save Syria or prevent a Libyan-style foreign intervention.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 19/08/2011
-Dr Marwan Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Science and Media in Syria

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