Tough choices for Al Assad - Osama Al Sharif - May 1, 2011

Source :

Last Monday's deployment of the Syrian army in the rebellious southern city of Daraa takes the month-long popular uprising that has gripped the country to a different level. President Bashar Al Assad appears to have made a choice, or maybe it was made for him: his regime will use maximum force, instead of implementing major political reforms, to deal with tens of thousands of protesters who have marched all over the country on Friday calling for his downfall.
Even though force was used from the first day to subdue protesters, resulting in more than 500 deaths so far, there were signs that Al Assad, in office since 2000, was willing to pursue a reformist agenda, but on his own terms. He may have miscalculated. The so-called Arab Spring tide that has already deposed leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, and threatens to unseat two others in Yemen and Libya, has inspired Syrians beyond imagination. The fear barrier that has kept one of the most authoritarian Arab regimes in power for over 40 years had collapsed.
Al Assad, who is young, bright and charismatic had pushed in the past to liberalise the Syrian economy and open up the country, with mixed results. Under his rule Syria moved away from a state-run economy, allowing private enterprise in communications, education and banking, among other sectors. But political reforms stumbled when the so-called Damascus Spring, a brief two-year period of political openness, came to an abrupt end in the autumn of 2001. The old-guard in the ruling Baath Party, in power since 1963, managed to rein in the president. Political activists were jailed and the opposition was crushed.
Like in most Arab countries where popular uprisings had spread, a combination of factors put pressure on the Damascus regime. Poverty, unemployment and a young population aspiring for freedom exposed the government's shortcomings. Steps were taken few weeks ago to reinstate subsidies and improve income levels, but they were not enough to cushion the country against popular uprisings.
The use of force against protesters in Daraa, Sanamein, Banias, Hama, Latakia and the suburbs of Damascus in the early weeks of the uprising was an instinctive reaction by the regime. Syria is governed by a party whose security apparatus is both complex and ruthless. Besides, the regime remembers too well how a previous popular uprising in Hama, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, was ruthlessly crushed by former president Hafez Al Assad in 1982. At least 10,000 people were killed in the military operation back then.
But today the situation is different. Atrocities against civilians are being documented on YouTube and Facebook every day. The world is watching and the global geopolitical realities are different from what they were in the 1980s. The Syrian event is also very different from that of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.
Turkish offer
Damascus is the leader of the so-called opposition Arab camp; technically at war with Israel and a major ally of its bitter enemies; Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. It is also not on friendly terms with the United States. That is one main reason why Congress and pro-Israel media in the US have been pressuring President Barack Obama to adopt tough measures against Damascus.
On the other hand, the Baath regime in Syria has shunned direct military confrontation with Israel. The last time the two went to war was in 1973. Since then there have been attempts to launch peace talks aimed at deciding the future of Syria's Golan Heights. Al Assad has embraced a Turkish offer to mediate through indirect negotiations. Not much has been achieved. Syria, which occupied Lebanon for years until it was ousted in 2006, has waged proxy wars against Israel, through the Palestinians at first, and later by backing Hezbollah. Its alliance with Iran has been a major geopolitical factor in the regional politics, especially after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Israel's war on Gaza in 2009.
It is difficult to read what the US, and Israel, really want to see happening in Damascus. On the one hand, Syria is Israel's foe and an ally of Tehran, but on the other Al Assad has stayed out of direct confrontation with Israel. A regime change in Damascus, if that is on the cards in the future, is a big challenge to all. Regime change in Syria will open all kinds of Pandora's boxes.
Meanwhile, the Baath Party is fighting for its survival and is using all its weapons; blaming Salafists and infiltrators of stirring trouble — while warning of sectarian fighting — and unleashing the army to subdue protesters. Political reforms are on hold because the old guard is afraid of a replication of the Tunisia and Egypt models. Al Assad himself is beleaguered and appears to have succumbed to conservative forces.
Syria's troubles constitute a challenge to the Arab League, which has taken a stand on Libya, and to the international community. The regime will fight all the way to suppress opposition, but the outcome of this uprising will not be decided soon. 
Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

No comments:

Post a Comment