Monday 25 April 2011

The "Arab Spring" Sweeps Through Syria

The "Arab Spring", the name given to the uprisings which are taking place in many countries around the Arab world, has reached Syria in earnest. Despite the fact that Syria's President Bashar al-Assad indicated that he thought that the uprisings would not reach his country, I wrote more than two months ago that Syria was a clear candidate for the political unrest that started in Tunisia and Egypt, and which has swept through Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East like a fire out of control.

Reports being smuggled out of Syria suggest that more than 100 Syrians have been killed by Assad's security forces over the weekend, the largest number in Syria since the start of the uprising. It seems that the situation in Syria has finally escaped from Assad's control, and he is being forced in the same direction as other countries before him. The uprisings have already claimed the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Gaddafi's situation in Libya is looking extremely precarious and one wonders what prospects Assad may have of overcoming this rebellion and retaining power. His chances of success are not looking good if the results in other countries are anything to go by.

Even though Syria has its own idiosyncrasies which makes it slightly different from the other countries whose leaders have been forced out of power, there is one common thread running through the region. Like the other countries that have been part of the "Arab Spring" so far, Syria has a dictatorial leader who has been in power for many years without having been elected in a free and fair election. It is this point, combined with the dreams and aspirations of his citizens fuelled by the Internet and international media, which is causing citizens of Syria and other countries to rise up against their leaders. Ironically, it is also access to the Internet that is bringing their plight to the attention of the rest of the world. The flow of information and pictures over the Internet is what is really providing the fuel to the fires which have been lit on the streets of the Arab capitals.

When Bashar al-Assad took the reins of power in Damascus following the death of his father, there was real optimism that things in Syria were on the verge of a major change. Bashar is an ophthalmologist who undertook some of his training in London. He is married to Asma who was born and bred in the UK. He was regarded as more worldly, and with a better understanding of western ideals than those who went before him. When assuming the presidency of Syria in 2000, he promised reform and new opportunities for his people. He expressed the wish to upgrade the telecommunications infrastructure to give Syrians greater access to the Internet and, with it, greater participation in the activities of the international world. Unfortunately, his promises remain unfulfilled and Syria remains largely the same country that he inherited in 2000.

The current uprising in Syria brings back memories of the uprising against Hafez al-Assad in 1982. On that occasion, it was the Muslim Brotherhood which mobilised tens of thousands of people to protest against Assad in the city of Hama. By use of murderous force, Assad was able to quell the uprising and retain power in Syria for both himself and his son. In Hama, however, there were no cellular phones and no YouTube video clips documenting the behaviour of the security forces for the world to see. In that sense, Bashar is forced to confront an entirely different reality. He has tried to block information leaking out to the world by closing the country's borders and limiting access for journalists. He has also tried to block Internet access by citizens of Syria to prevent them from leaking out details of the crackdown by the feared Assad security apparatus. The global village has, however, become too small and Assad has been unable to block information leaking out of Syria's uprising. One small hole in the dike has been enough to allow a flood of information to reach the outside world about what is really happening in Syria.

Despite Assad's substantial attempts to block the flow of information and images out of Syria, he has also recognised the futility of this exercise. He has requested of the security forces not to kill more than 20 people a day in their attempts to put down the uprising. This cynical order has been ignored, particularly in recent days. An equally ironic step has been Assad's announcement that he is lifting the state of emergency that has remained in force in Syria for approximately 50 years. The announcement has, however, been accompanied by behaviour on the part of the security forces which completely ignores the fact that, formally, the state of emergency is no longer in place. This state of emergency is one of the main symbols of oppression against which the people are protesting. The irony of this state of emergency is that Assad has been forced to lift it just when he really requires its provisions to control the protest movement.

In a perverse way, Syria's lack of oil reserves may ultimately save the Assad regime. Although the world is looking on with horror at the way in which Assad's security forces are trying to put down the protests, it seems highly unlikely that the world will intervene in any way. Not only are the military forces of the free world stretched to their limits with ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, there seems little incentive for the world to become involved in Syria. This fact may give Assad a free hand to emulate the actions of his father in Hama almost 30 years ago to also squash this dramatic challenge to his power. In spite of the images reaching our TV and computer screens from Damascus and other Syrian cities, it seems as though Bashar will be allowed to do almost whatever he likes. The only remaining question is to what lengths Bashar will be prepared to go to defend his realm.

For Israel, the unrest in Syria creates mixed emotions. On the one hand, while Assad is fighting to stay in power, he has little time to devote to support the activities of Hamas and Hezbollah. This represents something of a relief for Israel. In addition, it is clear that the threat from Syria on Israel's northern border is lower than at other times, which comes as a welcome relief to the Israeli military establishment. While Assad's government is under threat and the possibility exists that Assad may be deposed, Israeli intelligence is trying to create scenarios as to what may happen if Assad is forced out of office. This is always a difficult situation to predict. While the period of Assad's rule has presented a real threat to Israel, directly from Syria and via Syria's proxy armies in the form of Hezbollah and Hamas, there is the possibility that Assad's replacement may even be worse. It is also unclear whether a change of government will bring the possibility of peace talks nearer, or further away. Sometimes, it is better the devil you know than you don't know.

It seems quite likely that the "Arab Spring" will extend into an "Arab Summer". Countries like Jordan, the Gulf States, Iran and even Saudi Arabia are not immune from the current wave of uprisings, and may find themselves next on the list. As the protests reach nearer to the heart of the major oil-producing countries causing further increases in international oil prices, countries in the west will be forced to take more of an active interest. If the current crisis in the Arab world cannot be brought under control in the near future and have a further negative effect on the economies of western countries, we may see the impact of the "Arab Spring" depose western leaders such as Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy, Merkel and others via a ballot box revolution.

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