What can be done in Syria (and could have been done in Libya)

Syria is, like Libya, a one-man-ruled country with a long history of having been on Washington’s hit-list that in the past two weeks has witnessed mounting popular protests and government attempts to crack down.
I have made periodic reporting trips to Syria for 35 years now and have a broad range of contacts among people in the regime, in the opposition, and among the country’s intellectuals. For many (perhaps most) Syrians, the main challenge they face is how to reconcile the strong desire they have for a government that is much more accountable and less repressive than the present one with the (also strong) fear they have that any political opening-up might lead to the kind of all-pervading fitna (social breakdown) that they saw in post-Saddam Iraq. Remember, Syria has been host to maybe a million refugees from that fitna in Iraq, and they have seen at first hand the horrendous social and psychological devastation that it involved.
In the past, many Syrians have also muted their calls for political rights and a real multi-party system because they feared that any situation of political uncertainty in the country might invite Israel– with which Syria is still in a state of war, since Israel continues to occupy most of Syria’s strategic Golan region– to take further actions against the country and its people.
It goes without saying that the members of Syria’s numerous overlapping security services have always played very strongly on the fears of Israeli adventurism or Iraq-style (or Lebanon-style) fitna as they brutally shut down any attempts to build autonomous political or civil-society networks.
Now, however, it seems that the Asad regime’s long-sustained attempts to intimidate Syria’s 22 million people into political quiescence have started to fail. Under the pressure of the social-media led activities emanating from Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region, Syrian community groups in various parts of the country have launched and apparently managed to sustain a serious challenge to the regime’s authority. The first ground zero for this movement has been the small southern city of Deraa, where a cycle of small actions leading to arrests leading to big demonstrations leading to crackdown, leading to deaths among protesters, leading to escalating demonstrations has been in motion throughout the past ten days, and continue today.
Other parts of Syria have also seen sizeable protests, including the Mediterranean port city of Lattakia and some exurbs of the capital, Damascus. And there have been other signs of possible regime fracture. Syria’s ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, wrote a blog post on March 25 that was an elliptical and meandering exploration of the concept of sadness… But the most direct aspect of it was the dedication he put in at the top: “(This is dedicated to the martyrs of Daraa).”
Also, over the weekend, “Angry Arab” Asaad Abou-Khalil reported that vice-president Farouq al-Sharaa had resigned– though it subsequently appeared that Sharaa might have had second thoughts.
In the past couple of days it has been widely reported that President Bashar al-Asad is about to speak to the nation and will announce significant political reforms in his speech. However, a couple of deadlines for that address have now come and gone. It feels a little like that momentous but long-delayed Mubarak speech in early February, but less intense. After all, on that occasion the expectation was that Mubarak would use the promised speech to announce his resignation. This time round, in Syria, no-one is expecting Pres. Asad to resign– and significantly, very few of the demonstrators themselves have thus far been calling for his resignation.
Even more intriguing, though: neither the the U.S. nor any other western power– nor even that little Middle East power on Syria’s southwestern border– has been calling for all-out regime change in Syria!
In one commentary I read, the explanation was “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t know… ” Other explanations are also possible. And indeed, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the complete overthrow of Asad and his Baath Party might well lead either to Iraq-style fitna right there in Syria’s strategically important space or to the emergence of a regime that far better represents the interests of Syria’s majority Sunni-Muslim population, many of whom are inclined to be political Islamists of one type or another, as opposed to the longheld secularism of Asad’s Baath Party.
In these circumstances, several voices in western elites have started to call for an urgent political/diplomatic engagement with Syria, the goal of which would be to persuade/pressure Asad to insist on restraint in his forces’ response to protesters while moving speedily to transform his political system into one that is much more pluralistic and inclusive. This is the thrust, above all, of the call that the International Crisis Group issued on March 25.
Here is what the ICG is calling for:

    President Assad must show visible leadership and do so now… He alone can prove that change is possible and already in the making, restore some sense of clarity and direction to a bewildered power apparatus and put forward a detailed framework for structural change. This should include several steps:
    * The President should speak openly and directly to his people, recognise the challenges [Syria faces], stress the unacceptable and counterproductive nature of repression, offer condolences to the families of victims, order a serious, transparent investigation into the violence in Deraa, present a package of measures for immediate implementation and suggest an inclusive mechanism for discussing more far-reaching reforms.
    * He should announce the following, immediate measures: release of all political prisoners; lifting of the emergency law; authorisation of peaceful demonstrations; opening of new channels for the expression of complaints, given lack of trust in local officials; and action on the many cases of corruption that already have been compiled by the security apparatus but lie dormant due to nepotistic intervention.
    * Upcoming parliamentary elections should be postponed pending a referendum on sweeping constitutional amendments which should be discussed with a wide and inclusive range of Syrians. Deeper change requires broad consultation and cannot be arbitrarily implemented.

Also apparently supporting the “speedy reform” project in Syria is Turkish prime minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country– as he noted in Ankara earlier today– shares an 800-mile border with Syria.
That report, from Reuters, included this:

    Erdogan, speaking at Ankara airport before leaving for a visit to Iraq, said he had suggested to Assad that he meet some of the demands of thousands of people who have taken part in pro-democracy demonstrations across Syria.
    “[Subject of verb not given, but presumably Asad?] said they were working on lifting the state of emergency to meet demands. They told us they were working on political parties … we hope these measures are actually implemented rather than remaining promises,” Erdogan said.
    “We did not receive a negative answer when we urged Mr Assad to listen to the voice of people. I hope he makes the announcement today or tomorrow.”

This approach to the developments in Syria is very notably different from the approach that Washington (and France and Britain) adopted toward Libya. The biggest difference is that in Syria, the western governments have been addressing their political demands to Pres. Asad, and thus (presumably in good faith) wanting him to engage with the demands and with their authors. In Libya, by contrast, Pres. Obama and Pres. Sarkozy have been explicitly calling for Qadhdhafi’s ouster– a stance that provides no incentive at all for Qadhdhafi to engage or respond positively in any way.
Allied to these differing political stances (and, in all truth, probably antecedent to them in the decisionmaking in Washington and Paris) was an early desire by France and Washington to intervene militarily in Libya, in contrast to the deliberate military restraint they have announced toward Syria.
Erdogan’s role is, I think, key. Given the length of its common border with Syria, Turkey has a strong interest in preventing a number of outcomes in Syria:

    * Fitna;
    * Emergence of a regime that is much more strongly Islamist than Erdogan’s own AK Party;
    * An outright western or western/Israeli military intervention in the country; and
    * The west’s imposition of much tighter sanctions on Syria, such as would drive the regime and many Syrian citizens toward extremism and further anti-westernism.

Erdogan is also in a unique position to be the spearhead of the “speedy reform” project in Syria, on account of the following factors:

    * The high esteem he enjoys both from Pres. Asad and those around him– and, crucially from the great mass of the Syrian people;
    * Turkey’s geographic proximity to Syria: This allows Turkey to do things (like increasing or easing pressure on trade routes or flows of Euphrates water) that can act as incentives or disincentives for the Syrian reform process. It also means that Turkey’s political elite and public all widely understand that they need to deal successfully with the Syrian challenge, even if it costs them something, because the cost of failure could be huge for Turkey itself.
    * The fact that the AK Party, with its west-leaning and generally moderate form of Sunni Islam, is in a generally good position to be able to interact with emerging leaders from Syria’s own long-repressed Sunni majority community. (Come to think of it, a democratizing Syria could also usefully have a “Justice and Development Party”– AKP– of its own, why not?)

Will Asad engage with this opportunity that western powers and Turkey appear to be offering him? I don’t know, though I strongly hope that he will. The alternatives are too horrible to contemplate. This Pres. Asad cannot, in 2011, hope to undertake a repeat of the “shell them all to smithereens” approach to repressing protesters that his father used in Hama in 1982– and survive.
… All of which does lead me to note, as an important footnote here, that this posture of western governments issuing a clear demarche to Syria against using excessive violence against protesters and then enrolling a variety of international diplomatic mechanisms to monitor and report on the situation with a view to incentivizing or disincentivizing good or bad behavior on the streets and real, significant moves to political reform is one that could and should have been used in both Libya and Bahrain.
Instead of which, what we had was: in Libya, the rush to a terrible war whose consequences (and even, whose goals) are quite impossible to discern; and in Bahrain– nothing, a complete carte blanche to that very repressive regime to do whatever it wanted against the well-organized and above all nonviolent protesters who were gathering in a disciplined way to seek basic human rights.
(Regarding Qadhdhafi, I realize that the bellicose threats that he and his son Seif al-Islam made in the lead-up to the passage of UNSCR 1973 indicated quite the opposite of any willingness to engage with the political demands of the UN or other international bodies. But still, Ban Ki-Moon never even made any attempt to push forward the political parts of 1973; and he and others prevented the AU from doing so, either. The western-led rush to war there was, as I noted yesterday, both tragic and criminal.)

13 thoughts on “What can be done in Syria (and could have been done in Libya)

  1. Scott McConnell

    I’ve been to Syria, but don’t know the country well enough to judge whether Pres. Asad and others in the Alawite elite feel themselves to be in, or actually are in, the classical “rule or die” dictator dilemma. How great is the desire for revenge of the survivors of those killed in Hama a generation ago? How realistic is a regime climb-down from power, the opening up of the political system–or do members of the regime say to one another, “we’d all be slaughtered” with some justification.

  2. David

    Considering the ruthlessness of Hama I would say the thinking “we’d all be slaughtered” is a large part of their equation. At the very least they could face prison and execution at the hands of the new government.
    And leaving the country is becoming less of a escape route.

  3. bevin

    “…this posture of western governments issuing a clear demarche to Syria against using excessive violence against protesters and then enrolling a variety of international diplomatic mechanisms to monitor and report on the situation with a view to incentivizing or disincentivizing good or bad behavior on the streets and real, significant moves to political reform is one that could and should have been used in both Libya and Bahrain.”
    Not to mention Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.
    The sickening hypocrisy of the “west” is such that we have to keep reminding ourselvces of what their attitudes were the day before yesterday, in “memory hole” terms.
    With respect to Tunisia France offered its Riot Police to Ben Ali’s regime and the US simply poured in munitions to be used against the people.
    In Egypt, where hundreds were killed, many more tortured and thousands were and often remain detained, the US used all its influence to keep Mubarakism alive, finally transfered its enthusiastic supprt to the ghoulish Inquisitor Suleyman and currently props up and apologises for the junta, most of whose members are on the US payroll.
    In Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq and elsewhere with the solitary exceptions of Libya, Syria, Lebanon(where Hariri is on the outs) and the Gaza strip the US and its “western” satrapy stand four square behind reaction, dictatorship, human rights abuse and all that they find distasteful where it is associated with dissent from Imperial diktats.
    The Assad regime would appear to be nasty indeed but it doesn’t rate in the same league of evangelical evil doing as the “west” where the killing is industrialised, and consciences are spun clean in a culture where power is worshipped and might is right.

  4. brian

    FYI
    OPEN LETTER
    President of the Russian Federation Medvedev DA
    Prime Minister of Russian Federation VV Putin
    from citizens of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, working and living in Libya
    March 24, 2011, Tripoli, Libya
    …..

    OPEN LETTER
    President of the Russian Federation Medvedev DA
    Prime Minister of Russian Federation VV Putin
    from citizens of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, working and living in Libya
    March 24, 2011, Tripoli, Libya
    Dear Mr. Medvedev and Vladimir Putin,
    You said that citizens of the former Soviet Union were destined to become today citizens of different Slavic CIS countries – Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Despite this, we all believe that it is Russia as successor to the USSR, which is our SOLE safeguard for the interests of our countries and the security of our citizens. Therefore, we appeal to you for help and justice.
    Today, there is blatant external aggression of USA and NATO against a sovereign country – Libya. And if anyone can doubt this, then we say this obvious fact is well known, because all this is happening before our eyes, and the actions of U.S. and NATO threaten the lives of not only the citizens of Libya, but to us who are on its territory. We are outraged by the barbaric bombing of Libya, which is currently carried out by a coalition of U.S. and NATO.
    The bombing of Tripoli and other cities in Libya is aimed not only at the objects of air defense and Libya’s Air Force and not only against the Libyan army, but also the object of military and civilian infrastructure. Today, 24 March 2011, NATO aircraft and the U.S. all night and all morning bombed a suburb of Tripoli – Tajhura (where, in particular, is Libya’s Nuclear Research Center). Air Defense and Air Force facilities in Tajhura were destroyed back in the first 2 days of strikes and more active military facilities in the city remained, but today the object of bombing are barracks of the Libyan army, around which are densely populated residential areas, and next to it – the largest in Libya’s Heart Centers. Civilians and the doctors could not assume that common residential quarters will be about to become destroyed, so none of the residents or hospital patients was evacuated.
    Bombs and rockets struck residential houses and fell near the hospital. The glass of the Cardiac Center building was broken, and in the building of the maternity ward for pregnant women with heart disease a wall collapsed and part of the roof. This resulted in ten miscarriages whereby babies died, the women are in intensive care, doctors are fighting for their lives. Our colleagues and we are working seven days a week, to save people. This is a direct consequence of falling bombs and missiles in residential buildings resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries, which are operated and reviewed now by our doctors. Such a large number of wounded and killed, as during today, did not result during the total of all the riots in Libya. And this is called “protecting the civilian population”?
    etc
    http://en.m4.cn/archives/6734.html

  5. Warren Metzler

    Three points. One, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” John Dalberg-Acton. When is the last time you know of a totally corrupt dictator (and you have to be totally corrupt to torture and kill people who you just perceive as a threat) who willingly gave up power? Never that I know of. So Bashir will only leave if forced out.
    Two. How in the world can any one observe Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, where supposedly the jihad Islamists were poised to take over with the slightest relaxation of dictatorial power, and yet not a peep from them except for support of the various oppositions, and still be willing to toss around the canard they are a viable threat.
    Three. To Brian. I suppose you can dig up a similar letter from this author, to the leaders of Russia back when Moscow was decimating the residents of Chechnya? Just to ensure this author is a genuine humanist????!!!!

  6. Alex Golden

    The first thing we need to do to help the people of
    Syria, Helena, is to ignore the sorry blather of people like yourself who for years have been fawning over Assad and wildly applauding his crazy animus towards Israel and his fellow Arabs. I wonder how it must feel to you to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror these days, now that it has been decisively shown in Egypt,Saudi Arabia,Libya,Jordan,Yemen and Syria, that Arabs do crave freedom and don’t hold Israel responsible for their lack of it. Do you say, “Oh my G-d, the neocons have had it right all along”? No, of course you don’t. For that, you would have to have an honest bone in your body.

  7. brian

    Warren:
    ‘Three. To Brian. I suppose you can dig up a similar letter from this author, to the leaders of Russia back when Moscow was decimating the residents of Chechnya? Just to ensure this author is a genuine humanist????!!!!’
    whats that got to do with the invasion of Libya? are you unhappy to learn that the US/NAToa re dooing a repeat of the balkans war? and that where they CLAIM Gadafis planes were starfing civilians, we learn that US/NATO planes ARE bombing civilians…
    and that US/NATO is proving air cover for jihadis who they were fighting in Afghanisan
    http://tarpley.net/2011/03/24/the-cia%e2%80%99s-libya-rebels-the-same-terrorists-who-killed-us-nato-troops-in-iraq/
    sorry if this upsets you

  8. brian

    what US/NATO ARE doing in Libya:
    US-NATO bombings kill civilians in Tripoli
    By Bill Van Auken
    1 April 2011
    US-NATO air strikes on Tripoli and other Libyan cities have claimed growing numbers of civilian victims, according to the Vatican’s top representative in the Libyan capital.
    The report represents a severe blow to the attempts by Washington and its NATO allies, backed by the overwhelming majority of the Western media, to dismiss the Libyan government’s claims of civilian casualties as “propaganda” and portray the continuous air raids as a “humanitarian” defense of the population.
    etc
    http://wsws.org/articles/2011/apr2011/nato-a01.shtml

  9. brian

    did u know:
    ‘As Asia Times Online has reported, a full Arab League endorsement of a no-fly zone is a myth. Of the 22 full members, only 11 were present at the voting. Six of them were Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, the US-supported club of Gulf kingdoms/sheikhdoms, of which Saudi Arabia is the top dog. Syria and Algeria were against it. Saudi Arabia only had to “seduce” three other members to get the vote.
    Translation: only nine out of 22 members of the Arab League voted for the no-fly zone. The vote was essentially a House of Saud-led operation, with Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa keen to polish his CV with Washington with an eye to become the next Egyptian President.
    Thus, in the beginning, there was the great 2011 Arab revolt. Then, inexorably, came the US-Saudi counter-revolution .’
    http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/obama%E2%80%99s-north-african-war-face#comments

  10. Michael Murry

    “So in the Libyan fable is it told
    That once an eagle, stricken by a dart
    Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
    ‘With our own feathers, not by others’ hands
    Are we now smitten.'” — Aeschylus
    It appears that the Imperial President of the United World States has once again smitten himself with his own ostrich feathers.

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