Saturday, May 14, 2011

No reason for optimism in Syria

Some days ago I posted a piece about Syria under the above titel. Today, to my shock, I discovered that it had disappeared. It is the first time something like this has happened on this blogspot blog. It must have been during the technical difficulties the whole blogspot system seems to have experienced on Friday, wehen also my entrance to it was blocked. I've tried to reconstruct what I wrote, while at the same time updating it somewhat:
This Friday was relatively less bloody than many Fridays before it in Syria. 'Only' six people got killed during demonstrations all over the country, after it was reported that Bashar Army himself gave the order not to shoot. 
It was a Friday that followed after a week in which tanks shelled a residential district in Homs on Wednesday (six dead), as well another one in Hara not far from Deraa (13 dead). Also the army kept Baniyas at the cost, Homs more to the north under military occupation as well as large parts of the south after it rolled more southward. House to house searches and mass arrest were going on in many places, including in suburbs of Damascus the past days. The United Nations put the overall death toll at at least 850. The Human Rights organisation Insan said the number of arrests might be above 8000, of wich some thousands had been verified, while others wer still in  process of being verified. 

What tranpired more clearly than ever before during this last week, was that the regime is not able to deal with the demands for more freedom other than by  brutal repression and by pointing fingers at armed bands which undermine the social fabric of Syrian society or plots hatched outside. .
In an earlier stage the regime seemd to be prepared to liberalize. It lifted the more than 40 years old state of emergency and made some promises of reform. But the lifting of the state of emergency was alsomost immediately replaced by a new draconian decree that deemed all demonstrations illegal unless they had been granted permission. And at the present stage nothing is mentioned anymore about revising the constitution or the introduction – even gradually – of more freedoms.
Many have raised the question why the events have taken this turn. After all president Bashar al-Assad is not known to be a ruthless person. People who know him would rather call him the opposite. He is  a westernized, western trained ophthalmologist who studied in London before he was called by his father, Hafez al-Assad, to take the place of his elder brother Basil who had been groomed to take over the helm, but who had been been killed in a traffic accident. His wife Basma, who grew up in London, is even more westernized than him. People who know Bashar say that he is the kind of person that loves to liked. He might have been willing to modernize and liberalize Syria. But the key to understanding what is happening, is most probably that Assad is not really the one who has the last word in everything. Unlike his father Hafez al-Assad, who was alays the one who - mostly after long deliberations - took all decisions, Bashar seems to be much more dependent on his enveronment. Although he, when he took over, did away with many of his fathers trusted generals and aides in order to create a power base for himself, he still seems to be less the primus inter pares than someone who relies on others. In the first place these are his brother Maher who is the commander of the Presidential Guard and the elite Fourth Division of the army, and Assaf Shawqat, their brother-in-law, who heads military intelligence.

 Key players: Freom left to right Maher al-Assad, Assef Shawqat and Bashar al-Assad during the funeral of Hafez al-Assad sr in June 2000.

But it is not on them alone that Bashar depends. It seems that also a larger number of family members and people associated with them take part in the decision making process. Rami Makhlouf, Bashar's and Maher's maternal cousin and the richest and most influential business man in Syria (he owns the mobile telephone company Syriatel and has stakes in bbanking, oil and gas and a lot more) revealed that in an interview with the New York Times' Anthony Shadid In it he more or less confirmed that it is not so much Bashar who decides everything but very much this ruling family and their associates as a whole. However, he also said something else: that was that the Assads and the people who are close to them are determined to 'fight this to the end'.

And that is exactly what most Syria watchers have come to fear. Apparently the ruling family has come to the conclusion that reform bears too many risks for them and that the only possible answer is the use of force. Maybe they fear to loose their priviliges and wealth, maybe the possibility that one day they might be brought to justice. Maybe it is even fear that the whole Alawite community might suffer when the regime would disappear, so that they see no alterative than to maintain an iron grip. After all their position is a strange one. Their community consists of a minority of 15%, but  has been in command for some four decades now, as an heritage of the French colonial period, during which the Frenchy, faithfull to the principle of divide and rule, gave most leading positions in the army to Alawite officers. And most leading positions in the army and the Baath party they occupy to this day. 
Rami Makhlouf
But  fighting to the end is a frightful prospect. The regime may well pretend - through the mouth of Assads media specialist Bouthaina Shaaban - that it got the upper hand and is winning the battle, but the facts seem to point in a different direction. The demonstrations don't abate. And a short while ago it might still have been possible for this small ruling elite to become the guardians of a peaceful, gradual transformation of the system towards more participation of other groups. Assad himself might even have remained president for another period, before transferring power to a newly elected successor.But now, after so many dead, after so much intimidation and repression, that seems to be no longer feasible  The slogans which at first only demanded freedom and the lifting of the draconian state of ermergency, have been replaced by demands for removal of Assad, the regime, the Baath and everything they entail.
And that raises two questions. One is: can the regime possibly win this battle? To which the answer most probably should be: no, most probably it can't in the end. And the other is: what after Assad? Because gradual tansformation from dictatorship to more freedom, democracy and free elections would doubtlessly have been a much better option than regime change. The country is a patchwork of miniroties. Apart from es the Alawites and the Sunni majority there are aslo the Christians, the Druze and the Kurds, which are not necessarily so much used to live peacefully together and respect each others rights, in spite of the slogans about national unity which were raised during the demonstrations of the past few weeks.
Also there is a total absence of political culture. The opposition is totally unorganized. Syria is no Egypt, where political parties maybe weren't allowed to oparate freely but at least led a dormant exeistance and where a kind of freedom of expression existed, at least to a certain extend. In Syria there is nothing of the kind. It was the Baath and only the Baath and a state press that was as unfree as a bridled press can be.
And it is not the only thing. Parts of Syrian society are not really keen on removing the Assads at all. Particularly the Sunni bourgeoisy and business communities of Damascus and Aleppo prefer the relative stability that the Assad family used to guarantee them over a completely unknown future without them. It was not without reason that Damascus and Aleppo sofar stayed largely out of the protests. Also there is the question mark over the role armed gangs played in the protests. The regime kept talking about them and  claimed that some 100 security personel had been killed so far. It all was taken with a pinch of salt. But the footage of furerals of these security men and the interviews with their families that the Syrian state tv showed were realistic enough. And I'm afraid that all these things together do not really give much reason for optimism, right now in Syria.      

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