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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/7/12

Grasping the Syrian Quagmire

By       (Page 1 of 4 pages)   3 comments
Message Esam Al-Amin

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 loyalty.

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.

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Esam Al-Amin is a regular contributor for a number of websites.
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