As an Egyptian friend remarked to me recently, Syria is “the really scary one” in the Middle East. Its Baathist regime is built on violence, fear and ruthlessness. The ruling elite is unified, stands to lose everything if it is overthrown and is willing to spill a lot of its opponents’ blood to keep itself in power. This does not necessarily mean it will succeed in clinging on. Whether it does so or not is important for the rest of the region and the wider world.
Since Bashar al-Asad succeeded his scheming, hard-nut father, Hafez al-Asad, as President of Syria in 2000, many in the West have fallen for the claim that he is a gentle reformist. This delusion appears to have been based on the notion that a London-trained ophthalmologist with a Vogue-friendly wife could not possibly turn out to be a brutal dictator. In reality, Bashar’s record shows that he is simply a more PR-savvy chip off the old block. Despite some vague rhetoric, Bashar has made no significant reforms since becoming President and has perpetuated the vicious police state bequeathed by his father, run for the benefit of his family and associates.
Unlike some dictatorial governments, the Asads have never been able to fool themselves that they are genuinely popular. They come from the isolated Alawite sect that is a distant offshoot of Shia Islam and forms only about 10% of the Syrian population. Although they have used their power to co-opt individuals from other groups, the regime remains Alawite dominated and aware that loss of power means the loss of everything, including their corrupt grip on the country’s economic assets. This knowledge has meant the regime has always taken care to ensure it retains control of the armed forces and secret police, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia where the army was a separate power centre that ultimately deserted the rulers.
This delusion appears to have been based on the notion that a London-trained ophthalmologist with a Vogue-friendly wife could not possibly turn out to be a brutal dictator.
The “New York Times” journalist, Thomas Friedman, once described the system Bashar inherited as “Hama Rules”. This title refers to the 1982 uprising in the city of Hama, which Hafez al-Asad’s forces crushed by killing at least 20,000 residents of the city and flattening much of it on top of their corpses with tanks and bulldozers. Essentially the “Hama Rules” dictate that, in the absence of popular legitimacy, the Asad regime can only be maintained by creating absolute fear of the consequences of challenging it.
There are signs that Bashar and his government are preparing to unleash Hama time again in the epicentre of the current revolt, Deraa. The steps taken so far resemble those used in the early stages of the assault on Hama; sealing the town off, blocking unsupervised media access to it, cutting off the power, water and food supplies and arresting, torturing and killing a selection of the inhabitants. What remains to be seen is whether the regime will go as far as it did in 1982 if these measures fail to terrorise the population into ending their protest.
Times have changed, though, since 1982. Modern media and communication have made it impossible to isolate the protests and prevent them spreading to the rest of the country. Demonstrations have taken place in at least fifty separate locations. Also, unlike the situation in Hama, which was largely instigated by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the current uprising encompasses all of Syria’s diverse communities. Damagingly for Asad, this includes non-regime-connected Alawites in his home area around Latakia, who are tired of being tarred with the same brush as the Asad clan whilst receiving none of the benefits. Rather than taking a sectarian turn, many of the demonstrators make a point of proclaiming Syrian unity, whilst keeping their anger focused on the regime’s oppression and corruption.
The Syrian protesters have been inspired by the wave of revolutions across the Arab world and have much in common with those who have already succeeded in overthrowing their governments. As with the uprising in Tunisia, which was triggered by the self-immolation of a young market trader, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Syrian revolt started with an emotive rallying point when 15 children were arrested and mistreated in Deraa for writing anti-government graffiti. The authorities then compounded this by killing four of those who protested in support of the children. Whereas Tunisia had the president’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, and Egypt had the Mubarak family, the Syrian uprising’s unifying hate figures are Bashar’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who has made a dubious fortune from his proximity to the president, and brother, Maher, who is cited as the evil power behind the throne.
Modern media and communication have made it impossible to isolate the protests and prevent them spreading to the rest of the country.
Most of all, as has been proven repeatedly by revolutions across the globe over recent decades, governments reliant on intimidation rather than democratic legitimacy cannot be sustained when the lives of enough people in the country are desperate enough that their desire for change surmounts their fear of reprisals. Once the people have acquired a taste for shouting down what Syrian dissident Suhair Atassi has called the “kingdom of silence”, it becomes very difficult to turn back the clock.
As well as freeing its own people, a successful Syrian uprising could have the biggest external impact of any of the “Arab Spring” revolutions. Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world and the main arms conduit to its Lebanese proxy, Hizbollah. Both would be weakened by the loss of a supportive regime in Damascus. Hizbollah aside, Lebanon would benefit from the fall of a Syrian regime which has long dominated it and has been implicated in a string of assassinations of prominent Lebanese opponents. But the greatest impact of a successful transition to democracy in Syria could be on Israel. The approval by Hamas’ exiled leadership in Damascus of a national unity agreement with the Palestinian Authority may have been prompted by the risk of losing its protector. Faced with this unified Palestinian leadership and no longer able to claim that it is surrounded by hostile dictatorships that threaten its existence, Israel would come under greater pressure to engage more seriously in peace talks.
In view of the potential benefits of a successful transition to democracy in Syria, there is frustratingly little that the outside world can do to help bring this change about. A military intervention is a non-starter. Unlike Libya, Syria has a complex geography, a diverse society and strong armed forces, all of which would make a military intervention very messy. It would also be counter-productive as Syria is at the heart of the Arab world and there would be little support in the Middle East for an attack on the country. Diplomatic influence is minimal over a regime that is already borderline paranoid that its woes are the result of a foreign plot rather than its own failings. And whilst further sanctions against the leadership might be a worthwhile gesture they are unlikely to have much practical impact on a group of people threatened with losing everything they have.
Unfortunately, then, the Syrian protestors, who have already shown levels of courage that most of us can only dream of, are largely on their own. Wish them luck.
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