April 22, 2011

The Syrian Leadership's Shame

Unfortunately little time for detailed commentary, but watching this YouTube video (via Al Jazeera's 'Syria Live Blog') of protests in Homs earlier today, we clearly see that Bashar al-Assad's credibility is eroding with immense rapidity. This is what happens, after all, when you order your security forces to kill your own civilians. Bashar has been heard to infer he will not be another Ben Ali or Mubarak. But is he planning a Gaddafi type strategy instead? This is not 1982 in Hama and regardless Tom Friedman's 'Hama Rules' are being re-written before our eyes. And while this YouTube is less graphic than others circulating on the Internets, the brutishness of the security crackdown and desperation of those attempting to assist the wounded is nonetheless arresting (and damning to the regime). It is impossible to predict with certainty, but I cannot see a turning back now or restoration of calm. The genie of increasingly insistent protests seems out of the bottle, and one now wonders whether Bashar is ultimately willing to kill, not scores, but thousands, in a desperate gambit to cow his populace, a terrible eventuality that will only lead to the regime's ultimate demise regardless, in my view.

There is the below video too, shot in the town of Deir-ez-Zor, where Basel al-Assad (Bashar's late brother, and Hafez al-Assad's favored son) statue is being burned. The rage (and accompanying profanity) are palpable. A Syrian student has Tweeted that "Syria is running out of statues". The real live leaders may not be far behind, as I suspect their days are increasingly numbered. While speculative, but certainly given the promises of reform (for which we've been waiting ten years plus, incidentally) are proving instead horrifying rivulets of blood on the streets of myriad cities, towns and villages through Syria, it seems highly likely protests will gain in size, breadth and insistency, shortly spreading to the downtowns of Aleppo and Damascus. In short, we are witnessing a tremendously incendiary situation, especially keeping in mind Syria's complex ethnic and sectarian make-up (Sunni, Alawi, Druze, Christian, Kurds, etc). Unfortunately too, it is hard to imagine a denouement as (relatively) peaceful as what we witnessed in Tahrir Square several months back in Egypt. As Anthony Shadid reports a Syrian protestor stating: "There is no more fear. No more fear...We either want to die or to remove him. Death has become something ordinary.” It did not have to be so, but it is now with dozens across the country felled today. This is not Syria's shame, as its people courageously take to the streets to reclaim their most basic dignities, but it is most assuredly her leadership's.

Posted by Gregory at April 22, 2011 03:09 PM | TrackBack (0)

Thanks Greg.
Wish you had the opportunity to post more.
Take care,


Posted by: poicephalus at April 23, 2011 12:26 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg Djerejian writes here as though he expected something different from the Asad regime.

Perhaps this is a misperception on my part. It looks to me as if the Asad government's response to public demonstrations is squarely in the tradition both of Arab politics generally and his own family in particular. Of course it would be shocking if Syria were Canada or Austria, but it isn't. It was frankly more surprising to me that Egypt's government was not more eager to shed blood when challenged last winter than that Syria's is quick on the trigger finger now.

As for what comes next, we'll have to see. At this moment, Qadhafi seems to be hanging on despite the loss of his "legitimacy," also his government's control over his country's airspace and freedom from occasional strikes by NATO aircraft. Asad, who is not under attack from outside Syria, may prove similarly tough to move. While we're waiting, though, I have a suggestion.

Take the American enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and put some ice on it. Democracy is a very demanding system of government; there are good reasons it didn't take hold in Arab countries before, and equally good reasons to think Arab countries will have great difficulty establishing and sustaining it now. One of them -- it is only one of many -- is that very undemocratic regimes have been in power for a very long time, long enough for the entire political culture of some Arab countries to revolve around them. Syria is one of these.

So is Egypt, and Egypt is the Arab country that really matters. We saw so much enthusiasm and celebration after the Mubarak government fell, and almost immediately had our attention diverted by events in Libya, and now in Syria. While we are worrying about these much smaller countries, Egypt is off our radar screen. Illiberal elements in Egypt still outnumber (and outgun) the forces for a more democratic political order under law, and by the time we have our fill of worrying about who controls Misrata we may turn around and find an Egyptian government that looks a lot like the last one, except less accommodating to Israel and minus Mubarak himself.

Liberalization of Arab politics, the kind that makes torture and abuse of people in the grip of the police less common and the rules of private property and public commerce more orderly, is a worthwhile objective of American policy. The attainment of that objective has to start in Egypt. Whatever happens in Syria is going to happen, and Libya only matters if it keeps shipping oil and doesn't start shipping refugees. The United States needs to take a less enthusiastic, and less reactive, posture toward political unrest in Arab countries. They are not choosing to substitute democracy for authoritarianism; they are only rejecting the authoritarians they had. If the Obama administration wants anything more to come out of the political changes in the Arab world, it neeeds to direct its attention in a more focused way at the progress we most need to happen, in the country in which it needs to happen.

Posted by: Zathras at April 24, 2011 10:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Z: "...there are...equally good reasons to think Arab countries will have great difficulty establishing and sustaining it now."

Tsk, tsk. No less a FP hand than GWB anticipated your objections and answered them resoundingly. Really, why attempt to replace bombast and generalization with intelligence and nuance? Look at our success in Iraq, Afghatistan, and Pakistan. Also, too, if you're not careful Wolfy will think you don't believe in the inherent, historico-cellular trans-human imperative toward democratic capitalism. And Coke.

No, the Syrian situation is not funny. We are.

Posted by: Adams at April 25, 2011 03:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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