Syria at the crossroads

Here’s a piece i wrote in 2008, which seems apt given the unrest current underway in Syria:

“While resisting Bush long provided an excuse not to get on with reform, it’s now time for Bashar al-Assad to deliver. Rather than congratulate himself on returning from international isolation, Syria‘s leader should beware the domestic problems he now faces.

As Syria’s diplomatic isolation draws to a close, with this week’s visit of David Milliband and the suggestion that Barack Obama is keen to engage, President Bashar al-Assad would do well not to bask in the glory of international rehabilitation for too long before turning to domestic issues. Whilst resistance to the existing US administration’s pressure has provided a good excuse to entrench authoritarianism and stall promised reform in his inherited republic, with Bush out of the way time is running out for Bashar to deliver.

On coming to power in 2000, Bashar and his British-raised wife, Asma, were seen as modern and reform-minded figures who could usher in much needed economic, social and political change to a state stifled by 30 years of his father’s dictatorship. Whilst he was not an open democrat, Syrian hopes were still raised of an easing on restrictions, return to the rule of law and economic development. Eight years on and, despite an increased presence of internet cafes, Costa-style coffee shops and satellite dishes, 2 million are still below the poverty line, press censorship remains, and power is retained by an unelected few protected by a large and sinister security force.

There are two main explanations given for the disappointing pace of reform. The first is that offered by Assad himself that external factors have necessitated a more guarded approach to change. The aftermath of 9/11, Sharon’s policies in the West Bank, the Iraq war, Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the more recent US-led sanctions and diplomatic isolation have been used to justify the retention of unpopular measures such as emergency rule – in place since 1963. The second – widely whispered and possibly endorsed by Assad himself – is that he inherited a government full of har-line autocrats, known as the “old guard”, whom he must slowly and carefully replace with reform-minded supporters, the “new guard”, before bringing substantial progress.

However, in reality, though Assad has now expunged most of his father’s old guard, their replacements are not reformist technocrats as many had hoped but a new generation of autocrats. Whilst a few economists and intellectuals have been awarded largely symbolic positions, true power has been carved up by the president’s family and members of his Alawi clan. Most notable are his brother-in-law Asef Shawcat, brother Maher Assad and cousin Rami Makhlouf, the latter controlling large sections of the economy. With this new guard controlling powerful, overlapping fiefdoms within the secretive Syrian state, the amount of control exercised by Bashar himself has been questioned. The result is that, in eight years, Hafez al-Assad’s top-down dictatorship has been transformed into a mafia-style cabal of competing figures who, it isrumoured, would have few qualms about deposing the president if he threatened their interests.

Moreover, external factors and the policies of the Bush administration, whilst not toppling the authoritarian regime, have still damaged the myths upon which it is legitimised. One such myth is that dictatorship is needed to guard against Islamic extremism, questioned by recentbombings in Damascus. Another is that a strong military and police can defend Syria from aggressive neighbors such as Israel, yet it was unable to prevent two Israeli raids or cross-border attacks from the US in Iraq. Even the claim that the regime promotes ethnic and communitarian harmony was doubted following the violent Kurdish riots in Qamishli in 2004, and their equally violent suppression.

Furthermore, opposition to the regime, once tepid, is increasing. Though the Paris-based former vice-president, Abdel Halim Khaddam, who continues to make noises about returning, is largely discredited, other foreign-based opposition groups such as the Movement for Justice and Development and the exiled Muslim Brotherhood leadership are raising their profile. Domestically, although opposition from democratic reformers is being supressed – with activists like Michael Kilo and Riad Seif imprisoned, a more militant Islamic opposition seems to be spreading, fuelled by Saudi funds and training in Iraq and Lebanon.

Incredibly, despite overseeing a clear decline in Damascus’ strength and ability to defend itself, greater domestic unrest, terrorist attacks, increased opposition and genuine questions as to how much control he actually has over his regime, Bashar remains generally popular within Syria. Despite the clear lack of reform, most still give their president the benefit of the doubt and see him as a frustrated moderniser, whilst quietly criticising other regime figures. However, he has retained the acquiescence of the Arab street largely due to his anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric, making those countries’ policies scapegoats for Syria’s woes.

Though returning to the international fold will ease the external pressure, especially if it leads to a final deal with Israel, Bashar will therefore also be robbed of an excuse for failure to reform. On the one hand, external success and the return of Golan could provide him with a domestic mandate to push reform past his new guard mafia. On the other hand, it could expose how vacuous his reformist rhetoric truly is. He might come to wish he’d stayed out in the cold.


Syrian Protestors killed in Deraa

According to Reuters two people have been killed protesting in Deraa on Friday. Some estimates on twitter put the number higher. This, alongside other confirmed protests in Homs and Banyas, as well as more scuffles in Damascus suggest that the protest movement has already picked up more momentum than most expected after the relatively small demos in Damascus on 15th and 16th. While many may think that two or more deaths in a police state like Syria is nothing new, it is more unusual than you might think, and don’t be surprised to see support for these uprisings to swell as a consequence.  How the regime reacts, with more violence or standing back, will be crucial too. Here are a few other first observations:

1. The places where there were protests today, Deraa, Homs and Banyas are not know for their conservatism or Islamist tendencies. Though people sang ‘Syria, God and Freedom,’ this is an inversion of a Ba’athist slogan, not a call for Islamism. The regime may well play on fears of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, but the initial location of these demonstrations suggest otherwise for now.

2. The main protagonists in the demo videos circulated were young men. Much has been made of the fear factor in Syria deterring people from demonstrating, yet here is a generation too young to remember Hama that appear emboldened by recent regional events. They may not play by the same rules expected of their parents, wrong-footing the regime on how best to react.

3. The decision to unblock facebook (and, importantly, YouTube) has had an impact already, but not in the way the regime wanted. One suspects the regime thought that by unblocking facebook they would be able to monitor its users better. The reality suggests they have let the genie out of the bottle and are already one step behind events.

4. The protestors were still not shouting anti-Bashar chants, but daring to call Rami Mahklouf a thief in Deraa crossed a red line. On the one hand it shows how much resentment there is towards the enrichment and corruption of Assad’s family and inner circle. On the other hand, it shows that people still dare not attack Bashar himself. This may change if repression is heavy-handed.

5. Finally, what will Bashar’s reaction be? The deaths in Deraa cross a line that he, one would think, must react to. Unlike Gaddafi, Bashar has never positioned himself as a warrior (despite the many images of him in uniform) but instead as an approachable reformer. The heavy-handedness of the security forces today may force the mask to slip a bit. There is the danger that his long-standing attempt to position himself as a reformer of the regime battling internal conservative figures (the old guard) could be exposed as a myth. Will he address the nation and offer concessions, blame it all on Islamists, Israel and vandals or ignore it and hope it goes away? This may be a far greater test of his leadership  than many initially thought.

Syrian demonstrations: what do they mean?

Successive days of popular demonstrations in Syria on 15th and 16th March have surprised many in the media and the blogosphere. Despite experiencing many similar conditions to Arab states that have witnessed unrest in recent months, such as high unemployment, corruption and dictatorial government, Syria has remained calm and stood out as somehow immune to unrest until now. President Assad himself commented in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last month that there would be no Egypt-style demonstrations in his country due to his more populist, anti-Israel foreign policy. Many analysts, including myself, highlighted that the reasons behind Syria’s comparative calm were more complex than this, including Assad’s own personal popularity, the guaranteed loyalty of his army and Syria’s potentially combustible ethnic mix, but agreed that all things considered Syria was a less likely Arab ‘domino’ to fall in the immediate future than other candidates.

So do this week’s demonstrations change this? There remains a degree of uncertainty and confusion about who the demonstrators were and what they wanted. The events were triggered primarily by a Facebook campaign, ‘Syria Revolution 2011’, organised several weeks in advance for public demonstrations nation-wide on 15th March. The international media were conspicuously quiet about the events, allegedly hushed by threats from the regime, though also probably more distracted by the more dramatic scenes in Libya, Bahrain and Japan. In the absence of decent sources, a lot of tweeters and facebookers have been quoted with seemingly inflated figures of as many as 1,000 protestors in central Damascus and even more in Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zour, Hama and elsewhere. Until we get confirmation from independent sources on those events, it is hard to draw firm conclusions.

YouTube videos appeared on the 15th showing around 100-200 people in Souq Hamidiya marching. The people are shouting ‘Syria, God, Freedom and nothing more’ – a clever inversion of a pro-regime slogan, ‘Syria, God, Bashar and nothing more.’ Other slogans, from what I can hear, were ‘peaceful, peaceful,’ and ‘freedom, freedom’. Apparently this gathering was soon infiltrated by pro-regime figures that started singing pro-regime chants and beat up a few of the protestors. The BBC reports that 6 protestors were detained. On the next day, Human Rights Watch, a usually reliable source, claimed that around 150 people marched from the Ministry of the Interior into Merjeh Square primarily to protest the detention of their relatives. HRW claim that 18 people were detained, though Abdel Karim Rihawi, president of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights put this number at 34.

What do they want?

A few observations come to mind on these protests. Firstly, the number of protestors matters. These were both small protests. They had between 100-300 maximum taking part and the leading figures, such as Suheir al-Attassi and Mazen Darwich, noble though their goals are, are part of the ‘usual’ opposition voices, and hardly represent a new force in Syrian politics. Despite weeks of organising on facebook they were not able to attract any mass support, just a committed few and, in the case of the relatives of detainees on 16th March, those with a personal stake in the protest. Moreover, unlike a similar looking but quite different protest in Damascus in February against police brutality, these were not spontaneous but previously organised and, crucially, monitored and expected by the security services. That said, and this is a point missed by the international media to a point, even a small number protesting in Syria is a big deal. Under the emergency law that has been in place since 1963, any gatherings of more than 3 people are theoretically illegal. The protestors on both days, by bravely facing down the threat of detention or a beating, were trying to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to the regime. The logic, no doubt, is to open political space and create a de facto situation whereby the regime will have to quash repeated peaceful demonstrations (meaning bad PR and international condemnation) or lift restrictions.

A second observation is that the aim of these protestors remains ambiguous. Though many Syrians in exile and opposition figures used twitter and facebook to emphasise the anti-regime nature of the protests, in reality they were not so blatant. While those who took part in solidarity demonstrations outside Syria’s embassies in Cairo and other capitals chanted anti-regime slogans, within Syria they were more nuanced. On the 16th they called for the release of their relatives, and on the 15th they dared to substitute Bashar’s name from a regime slogan for freedom, but nothing more. Whilst these are in themselves significant forms of defiance, it is a step too far to describe these as calls for the overthrow of the regime as in Tunisia and Egypt, whatever Syrian-exiles and anti-Syria western commentators may hope. The protestors clearly recognise that they need to crawl before they can walk and presented some achievable reforms for the regime, such as lifting the state of emergency and freeing political prisoners, rather than whole scale revolution. Indeed, it could be argued that the hostility of the Facebook campaigns, calling for ‘days of rage’ and ‘revolution’ actually scare off many ordinary Syrians, who might reasonably be expected to support gradual reforms, but fear the impact of sudden and widespread upheaval.

What does this mean?

So what is the significance of these protests, brave but limited though they were? What happens next is important. In terms of the protestors themselves, they have shown their hand (and faces) and many of the leaders could find themselves facing jail terms or sporadic detention that, like other Syrian democratic figures before them, could limit their ability to organise. A key question will therefore be how much these demonstrations have inspired others to take up the baton and continue the struggle. Syria actually has a few important dates coming up that a well-supported protest movement should be able to exploit. This Friday after prayers would be an obvious place to start. After that, on 1st April, key fuel subsidies are due to be cut which will make life harder for ordinary Syrians and are an unpopular move by the government. After that, in mid-April, local elections, dominated by the Ba’ath, are due. If the movement cannot generate enough support on these occasions (or, at least people willing to publicly support them), it is likely that the opposition at this stage will lack momentum to have any real impact.

The other key question, indeed the key question, is how the regime reacts. Though the numbers are small, this is embarrassing to Bashar and his government, especially since he boasted in the WSJ that no such thing would happen. Moreover, this was not some remote province rising up as in 2004, this was in downtown Damascus where tourists shop for souvenirs in Hamidiya and Merjeh. Not surprisingly the immediate reaction was to pretend it wasn’t happening, followed shortly by blaming it on Israeli agents. While the numbers stay small, this may just about work as a strategy, alongside arresting and intimidating the leaders. However, there is a fine balance to strike. As seen in Egypt and Tunisia, and now Bahrain, sending in security forces heavy and hard can galvanise support, something the regime does not want. The alternative would be to do what king Abdullah II did in Jordan, which was to act quickly and offer a concession before the protests swell. Bashar could do this quite easily and nip the protests in the bud before they escalate. However, this does not seem to be the slow-moving and bureaucratic regime’s style and they won’t want to give the impression that protests get results. Instead they will want to stick to their own timetable of ‘reform’.

To conclude then, despite wishful thinking outside of Syria these two protests do not represent a threat to the Ba’ath regime right now. What they do represent is an attempt to push open the boundaries political space in Syria that could later be filled by more serious opposition with mass support in the future. Whether that is weeks, months or years away depends a lot on how the regime responds in the medium term, with heavy-handed oppression, reform or, most likely, some attempt at combining the two.