Reaction to the Syrian Crackdown

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Following last week’s decision by Syrian President Bashir Al Assad to lift the emergency law, in place for over four decades, many hoped that Assad had chosen the path of reconciliation over confrontation. The subsequent violent clampdown on opposition rallies has therefore taken some by surprise, although not everyone has been equally willing to condemn the actions of the Syrian regime.

For example, Jihad el-Khazen in a column in Al Hayat expresses “support [for] demands for political reform in Syria, and demand[s] that violence against protesters be averted…. [But] President Bashar al-Assad is a thousand times better than an alternative comprising extremist fundamentalist groups. I also reject in absolute terms, as an Arab citizen, that the situation in Syria deteriorates, so that we in Lebanon may have a respite…. As with Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, my stances regarding Syria are on the side of the country and its people, not with or against the regime. Today, there are youths in Syria who are angry, and there is a civil opposition. However, they have no leaders to bring them together or known parties, like the Al-Wafd party in Egypt, for example. As for the other opposition, which I reject utterly, it consists of clandestine fundamentalist groups that want to take Syria back to the dark ages, and they are well-funded (from where, I wonder?) and have dubious foreign ties….”

In a statement published by the Syrian daily Cham Press, “A number of Syrian thinkers, intellectuals and businessmen saw that events taking place in Syria make it imperative for everyone to deal with the situation from a national perspective, taking into consideration Syria’s pan-Arab role and its constant support for resistance, which makes it a target of foreign conspiracies….Writer Walid Ekhlassi said that, in the past, Syria faced several conspiracies, yet it could foil them, as it is steadfast and committed to its stances, adding that sabotage in the country does not represent Syrian people’s behavior; rather it is external, aiming at undermining Syria’s support to resistance in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq in addition to disrupting strategic relations in the region….Merchant Leon Zaki said that what is going on in Syria today is an outcome of a foreign plot which uses subversive forces that work on threatening stability in Syria and creating chaos behind the motto of reform. He added that the plot is connected to foreign agendas, as it is supported by biased media.”

Al Jazeera also reports that “some Syrians suspect that protesters have more than just reform as the agenda behind the current unrest and predict sectarian strife if the regime collapses. ‘If the regime falls, Syria will become an Islamic state,’ one young Alawite, the minority sect that president Bashar al-Assad belongs to, said. ‘All women will have to be covered.’ That the protests first erupted in the southern city of Daraa have added to their suspicion.” However, the article also goes on to express the opinion of others in the region who scoff at the conspiracy theories put forward by the Syrian regime. “‘In my view, they’re just ordinary people seeking freedom, it’s not organised,’ Marwan Kabalan, a professor of political science at Damascus University, said….Itzchak Weismann, the head of the Jewish-Arab centre at Haifa University in Israel, also refuses to buy the authorities’ Salafi theory. ‘To blame the protests on the Salafis is ridiculous, like blaming foreign forces for what really is a popular uprising,’ he said. According to Weismann, the Salafis don’t wield the influence required to whip up unrest in the country. ‘The Salafi movement is not strong. The Mukkhabarat, the secret services, have been successful in repressing it. There are not many traces of Salafis in public life,’ he said.”

However, the editorial of the Saudi Arab News cautioned, “Dialogue with the opposition is the only viable option for Syrian leadership…. [W]hoever took the decision should realize that force is not going to solve the crisis. It will only make matters worse. The lessons of Libya need to be heeded in Damascus. There the protesters initially demanded reforms but were pushed by the regime’s murderous response into demanding the removal of Qaddafi and all his cohorts. Likewise, Syrian protesters initially did not call for the departure of Assad. They wanted change. But the terrifying crackdown is acting as a recruiting sergeant for them and hardening their demands. Even some government supporters have been shocked into opposition by the response….Offering reform with one hand, with an end to emergency rule, but taking it away with the other, by banning protests — as has happened — does nothing for the authorities’ credibility.”

Likewise, the Gulf News editorial warned that the Assad regime must act sooner rather than later: “The armed forces of Syria need to return to their barracks now to prevent any more bloodshed on the nation’s streets. In a sad and bloody turn of events, the army began using tanks and armoured vehicles to put down popular anti-government protests….Whatever the cause, there can be no excuse for army officials to loose military power against a largely unarmed civilian population. While there are claims that some of the protesters have gained access to arms and that the military was asked to intervene, the use of armour to suppress demonstrations cannot be condoned….Syrians alone now must solve Syria’s problems. The administration of President Bashar al-Assad needs to come to terms with the forces lining up against it. It must look at the recent protests as an opportunity to reform Syria’s government, politics and economy in a meaningful way to effect change for all. It should look at recent events elsewhere and realise that violence only begets violence.”

Nizar Abdel-Kader writing in the Lebanese The Daily Star believes “Bashar Assad will find no long-term solution to Syrian unrest….Five weeks ago, Syria appeared to be a powerful regional player with a domestic political status that left very little possibility for surprise. Snowballing demonstrations that would bring brutal reaction from the strong security organs were unlikely….The Assad regime does not have effective means to find a long-term solution. If there is one thing that we can predict, it is that the regime will do everything necessary to remain immune to popular demands for freedom and reforms. Assad saw what happened to Mubarak and Ben Ali when they began offering concessions. He has opted to project an image of strength and tight control. This policy may enable him to hold on to power for longer. On the other hand, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the regime may prove more brittle than we can predict right now.”

Reflecting on the experience of the other Arab countries over the last four months, Ali Ibrahim cautions in his Asharq Alawsat column that the use of force carries risks: “Force has its limits; no ruling system can control its people with just tanks, especially if the protest movement has been able to mobilize the streets en masse. The use of force changes the equation of governance, because the tank driver in the streets knows that the fate of the palace is in his hands….It is difficult to predict what might happen now, because information is scarce. A media blackout has been imposed to prevent us gaining a true picture of what is happening on the ground, the nature of the use of force, and who is actually making the decisions. The question that arises is, to what extent will this use of force be able to remain coherent, if the protests and bloodshed continue? Has this been possible in the past? The answer can be found in the history books.”

It is perhaps a sign of these complex times that few are willing to hazard a guess as to the ultimate outcome of the uprisings in Syria. Authors writing in two Turkish dailies expressed differing likely scenarios, both relying on the same cast of characters. Yavus Baydar of Today’s Zaman thinks the inner circle is closing ranks and that what we are seeing is the outcome of a deliberately thought-out process. “Until very recently, the calculations were based on the analysis that al-Assad was fighting against his “deep state” of die-hard Baathists and would have a chance to win them over. The current picture is clear: with his brother as the head of the republican guard, his cousin as the head of intelligence units in Damascus and with other intelligence/military officials he himself appointed, Bashar has decided the reform process he was about to set free would be a deadly blow to the brutal regime. Therein lies his cause and his final limits.”

Fehim Tastekin of Hurriyet Daily News, on the other hand, sees cracks within the regime, which at the end of the day might not serve the interests of the Syrian opposition: “In order to prevent a civil war, the Syrian opponents target the Assad family in control of the regime, not the ‘Alewite-majority regime itself.’ Three names are being pushed to the forefront: Maher al-Assad, [Bashar’s] brother and commander of the Presidential Guards; Asef Shawqat, the chief of the intelligence agency; and Assad’s cousin, “businessman” Makhlouf. Maher is in charge of the military, Asef of the intelligence and Makhlouf of finance. To keep the reign, the Assad family will cause bloodshed but the military eventually will be broken apart and the game of Assad will be ruined. This is the cold comfort of the Syrian opponents.”

A segment of the Syrian opposition has recently moved into high gear and created the Free Syria website, to provide a rallying cry for the demonstrators. The website’s chief editor perhaps speaks for a good part of the opposition: “Syria has been living for the past decades under constant confiscation of public and private liberties and natural rights. This situation [has] profoundly ripped Syria’s national unity, weakened and impoverished its structure and led to the spread of corruption in a country where law, justice and rights are simply nonexistent notions….This situation is even more dangerous since one individual and one family are constantly manipulating the country’s destiny, spreading corruption, stealing public money, sowing fear and terror among citizens and supporting oppressive policies.”


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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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