The waning days of Assad?
"Egypt is not Tunisia." -- Deposed President Hosni Mubarak
"Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt." -- Executed Leader Muammar Qaddafi
"Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt or Libya." -- President Bashar Al-Assad
"Freedom is never dear at any price. It is the breath of life. What would a man not pay for living?" -- Mahatma Gandhi
One of the most significant and enduring consequences of the
Arab Spring has been the bloody uprising in Syria. For almost a year cities
across the Levant have been defying the iron grip of the Assad regime and
challenging the police state of the Ba'ath party.
Of all the countries engulfed by the revolutionary fever
encompassing the Arab World, Syria, a country of 23 million, epitomizes the
toughest case. It comprises many religious sects including Sunni (79%), Alawite
(off-shoot of Shiite Islam, 9%), Christians (9%), and Druze (3%). Ethnically,
nine percent of its population are Kurds who sympathize with their brethren in
Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, and dream of one day establishing a Kurdish state.
The Assad family, which belongs to the Alawite minority sect,
has been ruling Syria for over 41 years, relying on its brutal 13 security
apparatuses, Para-military groups and thugs (called Shabbiha) and a large
army of over a quarter-million. Most senior positions in these terrifying
institutions have been controlled by the minority Alawite sect to ensure regime
Similar to Iraq's Saddam Hussein, every aspect of Syrian
politics and public institutions has been dominated by the totalitarian-style of
the Ba'ath party since 1963. But unlike Tunisia or Egypt, where the public
enjoyed a relatively vibrant civil society, Syria suffers from the total absence
of any democratic institutions, civic organizations, or independent media.
The Ba'athists have always countered political challenges to
their rule with brutal and bloody tactics. In the 1960s and 70s there were
numerous summary executions and purges of prominent political figures within the
political structure, including rival Ba'ath party leaders. During the reign of
Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez -- who died in 2000 after a 30-year rule -- his
regime was challenged briefly in February 1982 by the Muslim Brotherhood
movement. Within weeks, as much as 20,000 people were killed in the
city of Hama, a mid-size town and the center of the rebellion, as it was
eventually leveled to the ground. Ever since, membership in the movement has
been punishable by execution, life imprisonment, or exile.
Since succeeding his father in 2000, President Assad has
promised political reforms and economic openness but with little success.
Corruption in Syrian society has become endemic. A small but powerful elite
composed of the Assad family and other powerful Alawite families, as well as
small number of loyal families from the prominent merchant class in Damascus and
Aleppo, have been controlling all major industries, financial institutions, and
trade in the country. According to Transparency International, Syria
ranks 129 in the world on the corruption index (by comparison, Egypt's Mubarak
ranked 112 and Tunisia's Ben Ali, 73).
When the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions toppled their
dictators in a relatively short period of time (28 and 18 days respectively),
Syrians took to the streets demanding political reforms in mid-March of last
year. The uprising started in Dar'aa in the south but quickly spread throughout
the country from Latakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Idlib, and Deir ez-Zor, to the major
cities of Hama and Homs. Many segments in the two biggest cities of Damascus and
Aleppo, dominated by the business class and elite families, have belatedly joined
the uprising as well.
Led by a few hundred youths who watched as other dictators
were being toppled through the clever use of social media, the initial
demonstrations were meek and the demands of the protesters were modest. They
consisted of calling for political reforms, civil freedoms, and loosening the
grip of the security state.
Instead of addressing their legitimate demands and embracing
the spirit of change spreading across the Arab world, the regime responded to
these protests with a vicious crackdown. When the families of the 12 youths
and school children who were tortured and killed in Dar'aa in the early days of
the uprising demanded accountability, they were ridiculed and arrested. Quickly,
massive protests spread through southern Syria, as the Arab tribes of these
young victims felt insulted and humiliated by the indifference of the Ba'ath
party officials and the brutality of its security apparatus.
President Assad's first public speech after the Dar'aa
protests at the end of March was highly anticipated. People across Syria had
hopes that their president would be conciliatory, magnanimous, and apologetic
for the Dar'aa massacre. His advisers built the speech as a milestone along the
path of instituting sweeping political reforms and imminent civil liberties.
Instead, his speech to the parliament was highly disappointing.
Assad placed the blame of the protests on foreign
conspiracies and domestic terrorists. He claimed that the demonstrations were
ill-advised and provocative as Syria was already on the path of reforms since at
least 2005. The speech was a staged public spectacle and a relic of a bygone
era. He was repeatedly interrupted every few minutes by members of parliament
singing his praises and showering him with massive applause.