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:
* 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.)