Uncertainty in Syria after Assad’s Speech

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Following protests in various parts of Syria, President Bashar al-Assad promised in two recent speeches to move forward with long-awaited reform packages at a faster pace and urgency. To demonstrate his intention to back words with action, he fired his government and then ordered the lifting of the Emergency Law, in force since 1963. In his latest speech, Assad also pointed the finger at foreign conspirators, who were allegedly behind the uprisings in the country, a message that was echoed on the pages of the Syria’s official news media.

The Syrian Arab News Agency underscores the government’s accusations: “The General Union of Arab Students has strongly condemned the conspiracy against Syria, targeting its unity, security and stability. In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Union voiced appreciation of the Syrian people’s steadfastness, their rallying around the wise leadership and the honorable role in foiling the dangerous conspiracy and continuing development and reform process. The Union saw that the conspiracy is hatched and funded by foreign powers, pointing out that it seeks to undermine Syria’s unity and steadfastness.”

Another media outlet of the official government line, Cham Press, reinforces this conspiratorial view of the uprisings: “The Arab Pharmacist Union on Tuesday stressed that colonial powers are behind what is taking place of chaos and division in a number of the Arab countries to implement what they call the ‘New Middle East,’ and to spread creative chaos….In the same context, the Palestinian resistance factions, parties, popular organizations and vocational unions stressed, on behalf of the Palestinian people, support for Syria in facing the conspiracy which seeks to undermine its national unity and its national and pan-Arab role in defending the cause of the Palestinian people….Former Lebanese President Emil Lahoud stressed solidarity with Syria in the face of the conspiracy hatched against it, hailing the reforms led by President al-Assad.”

For many, however, the lifting of the emergency law is a case of too little, too late, especially when considered in the context of Assad’s pronouncements on foreign intervention.  Ibrahim al Marashi of the UAE daily, The National, is puzzled by al Assad’s insistence on “‘a great conspiracy, the webs of which spread from close and far away nations, and some of whose strings reach inside the country’….What he still fails to acknowledge is that Syria is a hyper-security state. Those behind the demonstrators’ deaths were probably members of the dizzying array of security apparatuses that maintain his own state. Corruption and a culture of patronage that rewards those close to the regime: these are the truths for too many of the Syrian people. Addressing those truths would have strengthened Mr. al Assad’s authority in Syria far more effectively than the jaded strategy of deflecting local problems onto foreign enemies.”

A series of editorials from the region express a similar sense of frustration with the slow pace of reforms promised by the Syrian regime, although they are cautious not to criticize it openly or to call for its overthrow.  The Saudi Arab News editorial, for example, worries that “the lifting of the Emergency Laws alone will not end the unrest sweeping the nation….The government move is clearly seen as too little, too late.  More important, many fear, and perhaps not entirely without basis, that by lifting the draconian Emergency Law and bringing in another one in its place, the regime is taking away with one hand what it’s offering with the other….Clearly, though, it is time to move on….People want real change and genuine comprehensive reforms. Change, or be ready to be changed….Because of its size and strategic eminence, Syria is as crucial to the Levant….Any instability in Syria could affect and unravel the whole region. So big powers must desist from playing with fire in this crucial Arab country. And the regime in Damascus should avoid offering them ready excuses or opportunities to do so.”

The Gulf News editorial opines that what Syrians want most is “accountability in governance…. The Syrian government will be making a serious mistake if it dismisses all future protesters as saboteurs and trouble-makers. The huge crowds gathering almost daily include many tens of thousands of citizens who have valid questions which need a serious response. The government appointed by President Bashar Al Assad is in danger of offering far too little, much too late….Syria needs to move towards instituting a more transparent judiciary, so that there can be effective rule of law, which means that the government and all its various agencies have to follow the law….If Al Assad takes Syria in this direction, the still-lingering support that he carries will be a substantial political asset for him. But if he allows the hardliners to dominate his government’s policies, the outlook for stability in Syria will get increasingly dim.”

The Lebanese Daily Star also expresses its disappointment: “It’s reforms Syria needs, not speeches.… An eagerly anticipated address to the nation by Syrian President Bashar Assad Wednesday has disappointed many people, who were hoping to hear about concrete steps in the direction of reform….Another item that recalled past years was Assad’s mention of foreign “conspiracies” that were targeting Syria….As Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said Wednesday, there is no evidence of a massive conspiracy under way in the region to explain the popular unrest. Assad should take note of the fact that a close ally does not seem taken in by the accusations of ‘foreign meddling’….The time frame that Assad’s regime is dealing with is a delicate one. Every passing day that reform moves are left as promises, and not deeds, the domestic situation could become more dangerous. Confronting the popular impetus with bullets will only pave the way for a more violent explosion in the future.”

Commentators are also not convinced by the track taken by Assad. On Al Jazeera, Hugh Macleod and a reporter in Syria report that the news of the lifting of the emergency law has done little to assuage the skeptics, since the regime still has plenty of tools to counter the opposition. “Syrian authorities may have decided to lift the dreaded emergency laws in force in the country since the ruling Baath Party took power in 1963, but experts and analysts say the move will do little to improve human rights. According to them, many of the draconian charges on which opponents of the regime are routinely imprisoned exist either within the Penal Code itself or as special laws or articles in the constitution, and, courtesy of them, Syria would continue to be run as a virtual police state….The lifting of emergency laws would not mean an end to the arrest of political opponents, said Ziadeh, pointing out that it was under criminal laws, not emergency laws, that members of the Damascus Declaration, the first unified opposition movement in Syria, were jailed in 2005.”

Hasan Abu Nimah, writing in Al Arabiya, doesn’t think that the lifting of the emergency law is sufficient: “But neither in Syria nor in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, nor in Tunisia and Egypt before, does this seem to be the only problem….Arab protesters have indeed been calling for lifting emergency laws wherever that applied, but this was just one demand out of many. Arab leaders who claimed an undisputable monopoly on the seat of power on the ground that they know better and serve better the interests of their countries and peoples have also ended up robbing their countries, oppressing their people, blocking any progress and destroying the state institutions. Those same failed leaders want now to lead the reform their people are demanding, after decades of patient waiting and endurance.”

Reflecting on the accusations of foreign interference, Jameel Theyabi, in an Al Hayat op-ed expresses the belief that regimes under threat resort to such arguments because they have already failed. “It seems that the Arab regimes whose states are witnessing protests, demonstrations and sit-ins demanding freedom, dignity, equality, justice, democracy, the opening of the doors of political reform and the improvement of living conditions, have failed to reach any reformatory solutions. Therefore, they sought ‘ready-made accusations,’ which they used for far too long, until they went to exile or to prison. Sooner than later, the remaining regimes might leave that same way…. A day will come when all the inept intentions, foolish policies and brutal practices will be exposed, because insulting the people, throwing the youth behind bars and killing them with a tyrannical security mentality is a mere clashing of what is real with what is unreal in a stage of imbalance. This reveals a ‘cardboard’ power that is afraid to see the continuation of the popular revolutions and awakenings to regain rights, dignity and freedoms.”

And there are signs that the political situation in the country is becoming more dynamic and unpredictable. Besides the ongoing largely unarmed and peaceful protests against the regime’s policies, other groups are preparing for battle. The opposition news medium, Free Syria, reports, “The newly elected general supervisor of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh al-Shaqfa, has announced that the truce that had existed between the group and the Syrian regime was now officially at an end. The truce, he said, had been contingent upon the situation in the Gaza Strip….In January 2009, the organization announced its decision to suspend all activities directed against the Syrian regime following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead on the Gaza Strip. The Gaza strip is controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Damascus is home to the Palestinian group’s political leader, Khaled Mashal, and has traditionally been one of Hamas’s strongest allies in the region. “


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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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