Syria and the Uprisings in the Arab World
By Syed Arif Hussaini

The massive uprisings in the Arab world that have already toppled the long-standing and supposedly invincible dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, have sunk into turmoil the authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the Arab World, particularly in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

Mass media - broadcast, print and the social media spawned by Internet - have played a major role in prompting an awakening among the people of the region. For instance, the current London Olympics, seen widely on Al-Jazeera, have made the Arab youth wonder why they have to stagnate in poverty and backwardness while China could progress to the extent of winning such a high number of medals apart from posing an economic challenge to the sole super power.

The transforming revolutionary powers of the media spare no region, no country or community. The media permeate a society in so many ways that information somehow reaches the people crossing all authoritative fences.

The main drivers of the unrest in the Middle East are poverty, rising prices, social exclusion, anger over corruption and personal enrichment among the political elite, a demographic bulge of young people unable to find work, and above all the loss of hope.

To preempt trouble, leaders of the affected countries started talking in the language of reform. For instance in Jordan, the king sacked his prime minister for slow implementation of reforms. In Morocco, the monarchy almost doubled the official subsidies for food and cooking gas. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced a $36 billion giveaway in benefit to poor and middle-income families. Libyan President, Muammar Gaddafi, awarded $400 per family without making a dent into the uprising against his autocratic rule.

Neither repressions, nor bribes have preempted the inevitable change – a change in basic structure that assures the youth that they could labor and live well, that opportunities will not be restricted to the progeny of the ruling oligarchy only.

This being the ground reality, all reactionary and radical institutions like Al Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbullah, have become noticeably irrelevant. They may have some nuisance, diversionary and catharsis values, but cannot lay a convincing claim on leadership.

The fears of Israel and pro-Israel lobbies in the US are but flimsy. That does not mean that the emerging new leadership will don the mantel of subservience left behind by Hosni Mubarak or Ibne Ali. For, on the Palestine issue, Israel’s expansionist designs, and continued Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands lack the support of logic and justice. And, sooner or later, Israel will have to genuinely embrace the two-state formula. As president Jimmy Carter has categorically stated in his book, Israel will not be a peaceful state as long as it practices apartheid against the Palestinians in its territories. Force becomes countervailing when not underpinned by logic, morality and justice.

In the current Middle East turmoil, the autocratic leadership of Syria stands out of its brutal violence to suppress the insurgency. Gaddafi was disgracefully thrown out, while Bashar al Assad is unconscionably maintaining his killing spree to counter the uprising against his autocratic rule. He too is bound to fail.

Bashar al Assad, the ruthless autocrat of Syria, has been using extensively his men in uniform to crush the uprising against him. He is reported to have already killed tens of thousands of his protesting citizens. A very large number of Syrians have crossed over to Turkey to escape Assad’s gendarmes. In dealing with the insurgents, he appears to be more ruthless than Gaddafi.

When protests calling for reforms commenced early last year, he sounded amenable to the popular demands. But he changed his stance within weeks and his officials arrested about a dozen school-age children for painting anti-government graffiti in Dara’a, a town in the southeast. That outraged the citizens who took to the streets in protest. Demonstrations broke out throughout the country. Within days, government reneged on its promise not to use force against the protesters. Some 60 persons were killed on the very first day. This merely added strength to the opposition movement and deepened the crisis.

Assad did try initially to balance suppression and compromise, by offering some reform and lifting the emergency law while forbidding protests “under any banner whatsoever”. His true brutal nature, however, could not remain under cover for long. He was found to be more ruthless than his father who had been at the helm of affairs for decades.

Officially, Syria is a republic, but in reality it is an authoritarian state that exhibits only the forms of a democratic system. Hafiz Al-Asad was confirmed five times as President in unopposed referendums. Bashar, his son, too got himself appointed as President in a referendum. The voters had thus no alternative to consider. (Reminds one of the pretensions of Gen. Zia of being an elected President through a similar referendum).

Bashar Al-Assad and his senior aides, particularly those in the military and security services, make almost all basic decisions in political and economic life, with negligible public accountability. Political opposition to the President is not tolerated. The country has been in a state of emergency since 1963, till it was lifted last year in a bid to appease the protesters.

Syria needs socio-economic and political reforms since the Assad regimes of both father and son for almost half a century have failed to improve the material living conditions of the people. The country has been in a state of war with Israel and that is presented as an excuse for the stagnation of the society. The ruling oligarchy belongs mainly to the Allawi (Shiite) sect while the majority of the population is Sunni. An overhaul of the political process is indicated to induct political plurality. A negotiated peace with Israel will enable Syria to get back Golan Heights and divert defense expenditure to the badly neglected socio-economic sectors.

Syria is inherently a very vibrant society. Its people are by and large forward looking and aspire for a place under the sun. If a multi-party political system is introduced instead of the current one-party (Ba’ath) rule, inherently liberal and progressive people are unlikely to allow much room to radical Islamic groups. Matter of fact, Al Qaeda and similar radical bodies have played no role in the current Arab uprisings. For, the agitations are not ideologically driven; they are mundane.

The Obama administration has slapped sanctions on President Assad and some senior officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. The sanctions freeze any assets Assad and the officials have in US jurisdiction and make it illegal for Americans to do business with them.

The trend of events so far indicates that there is no possibility of Syria going back to the status quo ante. And the changes that appear inevitable will be in the interest of the people at large. The earlier Bashar al Assad is made to quit, the better it would be for the Syrians and the international community.



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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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