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Between civil war and foreign intervention. Syria in 2012

Published on February 2, 2012 by: in: Politics

Syria was supposed to be the next country in the Arab „domino effect” after Tunisia, Egypt and Libya nearly one year ago. But the deadlock has been continuing for 10 months. The president Bashar al-Assad, who took over the presidency of Syria in 2000 after his late father Hafez, is, on the one hand, too strong to be overthrown by few armed demonstrators and, on the other hand, unable to stop the “creeping” revolution. The game has been dragging on for ages. And the result of this game, which may eventuate in the destabilization of the whole region and where the lives of hundreds of ordinary Syrians are at stake, is yet to come. What is worse, it seems that “the ideal scenario” does not exist.

The wave of social unrest, which was prompted by the Tunisian uprising in January 2011, reached Syria in mid-March. The main reason for the eruption of discontent was the decade of disappointing Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Many Syrians waited, to no avail, to open their country to the world and to allow Syria to join the “global village”. The hope that young Bashar, who received education in the West, would keep his promises and liberalize the current tough rules in politics and economy, was vain.

photo: Taras Kalapun

photo: Taras Kalapun

Since 1963, when The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party (Ba’ath) took over the power, the state of emergency has incessantly continued, which enabled the constant violation of civil liberties and of human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Maintaining the state of emergency resulted in arrests and repressions against the opposition. Due to a single-party system, the election was a sham. National minorities (e.g. Kurds) experienced discrimination. On top of everything else, socio-economic conditions were deteriorating – state aid for the poor was reduced, the freedom of trade was continuously violated, local industry could not rely on government support and the rate of unemployment, especially among young Syrians, was growing.

Tanks on the streets, snipers on the roofs

Initially, the regime had mixed feelings about the outbreak of the uprising in Syria – the president promised reforms, raised wages and tried to meet protesters’ demands. Counter-demonstrations were also held. Yet it was not approved by the society. Having learned a lesson by watching the Tunisian and Egyptian governments being overthrown, Bashar al-Assad realized that the only way to stay in power is to suppress the protests. Tanks appeared on the streets and snipers covered the roofs. The most violent fights took place in Damascus, Dar, Aleppo, Hama, Latakia, Himsie, Banijas, Tall Calah. According to the rough estimate,   6,000 people died and 15,000-40,000 people were arrested. Human Rights Watch has revealed that Syrian security forces tortured hundreds of people arrested during anti-government demonstrations (they were electroshocked and deprived of sleep and water). Just like in Libya, there were reports of women, especially those trying to flee to Turkey, raped by soldiers. Besides, several thousands of soldiers rebelled and joined the demonstrators.

Weak opposition, strong president

Despite the fact that the situation in Syria is worsening, the president seems to strongly believe in his regime, which indeed is much more integrated and efficient than the Tunisian or Egyptian ones. The fact that most of the Syrian opposition is abroad – weak and scattered – is not of no significance. In his last speech on January 10, Al-Assad condemned the Arab League for the isolation of Syria, called the rebels traitors and promised a constitutional referendum in March 2012.

Al-Assad is supported by the government news agency SANA that publishes the reports about mass demonstrations of citizens who stand up for the current regime and object to a foreign influence. The opponents of Al-Assad are called “armed terrorist”, whereas the soldiers killed in riots are called “martyrs” (which is indeed a typical gimmick in the Middle East rhetoric). The accusation against USA and Israel of the conspiracy and of thwarting the president’s efforts is the leitmotif since the president is the defender of the people and the guarantor of peace.

Big role of technology

Obviously, the situation is presented in a different way by the opposition, which uses – just as was the case in other Arab countries – modern communication technology. The Internet plays a crucial role in organizing the protests, which were first peaceful and now are turning into more violent. One page on the social networking site Facebook, “The Syrian Revolution 2011”, attracted 335,000 people. The videos that are recorded by mobile phones and posted on YouTube  come to be the primary source of information about the current affairs in Syria, where the foreign media were refused the entry (there is also a question mark over the credibility of these amateur recordings as some of them present similar incidents from Iraq and Lebanon).

source: Freedom House

source: Freedom House

What others think?

What do the neighbouring countries and the West think about it? The Arab world imposed the economic sanctions upon Syria and excluded the country from the Arab League. In December, Syria agreed to admit the observers from the League, which can be understood as a sort of “playing for time”. However, Syrian activists have serious doubts over the competence of these observers, who cooperate with Al-Assad’s government (it was confirmed by one of the observers, Anwar Malek).

The international community almost unanimously condemned the actions of the Syrian authorities but it has not resulted in any specific actions. Apparently, the United States, the European countries and UN (which described Syria as “standing on the brink of civil war” and its Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for intervention to end the bloodshed) have not arrived at the decision to overthrow the regime. Yet it is worth noting that two powerful Syrian allies, namely China and Russia, export weapons to Syria. In January, Russia sent the ship “Chariot” with its ammunition on board to the Syrian harbor.

After the assassination of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Al-Assad remains the last Middle Eastern dictator who is facing the overthrow. The chances of implementing this scenario are rising as the information about the massacres, which the government carries out, are being disclosed. The Head of the Russian Security Council reported that NATO is planning a direct intervention in Syria under the leadership of Turkey. The main stimulus for such actions is probably geopolitics, that is, friendly relations between Damascus and Tehran. If Al-Assad is really defeated, it will be the consequence of both the “domino effect” and of a much more complicated game of the regional and supra-regional powers.

The analogous situation may not take place, though, as Syria is simply not Libya and the influences of the United States and Europe are not significant. Assuming the course of events that the United States hope for, that is, overthrowing Al-Assad by the Syrians themselves, it would be difficult to build an alternative system as part of “democratic transformation” promoted by the White House. The real power is held by the president along with the Ba’ath party, the generals and high-ranking officials of the security forces and representatives of the powerful bureaucratic apparatus.

Moreover, the Syrian society is distrustful of the West and of the “democracy” that the West is pushing through. Westernization and McDonaldization – these are the concepts that Syrian people usually identify the Western democracy with. Hostility towards Israel and the proud of living in the “cradle of civilization” unite them even more. Besides that, almost everything else divides the society. Al-Assad and his inner circle (especially the military elite) belong to the Alawite sect, which is the minority in the country dominated by Sunni Muslims. Most of the Syrian Christians side with the Alawis and their relatively tolerant rules. These Christians constitute 10% of the population but belong to over a dozen different factions. They fear the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and a repeat of the Iraqi scenario – destabilization of the region that has been extremely peaceful for the past 40 years. Generally, Middle Eastern patriarchs, who have enjoyed the privileged relations with the president for years, openly express their support for him, unlike the laity that keeps the prudent impartiality.

Predictions for the future

The scenario, where Bashar Al-Assad holds the power but does not carry out any reforms, is not satisfactory as it would mean persecution of civilians, violation of human rights and strengthening the position of Iran in this region. Keeping the relative peace by the armed forces for a long time may only deepen a psychological gap between the rulers and the ruled, and ultimately destroy the already-strained legitimacy of the Ba’ath Party.
But if the government or the protesters fail to gain a clear advantage, the country may slide into chaos and the interethnic and interdenominational tensions may build up. Forecasts for Syria’s nearest future are not promising. Deepening political and socio-economic crisis is expected – Syrian pound depreciation, worsening living conditions in the Syrian villages and suburbs, a rise in unemployment, deterrence of foreign investors.

Only when the current regime implements the actual reforms, the above dangers can be avoided. The Syrians would certainly welcome the scenario with relief as they care more about peace, security and development than the overthrow. Unfortunately, the accomplishment of these goals is very unlikely to happen due to the international context – the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and the interests of the local powers: Turkey, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia. One thing is certain, finding a solution to the “problem of Syria” or even alleviating it will be one of the major challenges for the international community in 2012.

Translation: Adam Intrys

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About Marta Wozniak

PhD at the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Lodz, specializes in Middle East.

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