Monday, February 28, 2011

Could Syria Be Next?

By William Fisher

As the state dominos continue to fall across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, “who’s next?” has become the most fashionable parlor game in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and points East.

Tunisia and Egypt have had their so-far successful uprisings. Pro-democracy demonstrators in Yemen and Bahrain are still trying to tip over their dominos. Libya’s domino is, as of five minutes ago, in a horizontal position. Morocco, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia appear to be vertical for the moment, with the Saudis offering its people the most aggressive rewards to stay quiet and enjoy the sunshine: cold hard cash.

But what about Syria? We haven’t heard much about this bastion of democracy, but that’s because the media tends to go where cataclysms have already happened, not those where the explosion is sometime in the future.

How far in the future, lord only knows. But assignment editors might do well to keep a special eye on Syria as possibly the next domino to fall.

Why not? It seems to have all the ingredients!

Syria’s 20 million people live under the authoritarian presidential regime of Bashar al-Asad. The president makes key decisions with counsel from a small circle of security advisors, ministers, and senior members of the ruling Ba'ath (Arab Socialist Renaissance) Party. The constitution mandates the primacy of Ba'ath party leaders in state institutions and society. President al-Asad and party leaders, supported by security services, dominate all three branches of government in what is characterized as a republic.

But, regardless of its structure, it is a dictatorship.

According to the U.S. State Department, in 2007 al-Asad was confirmed for another seven-year term in a "yes or no" referendum that local and international human rights advocates considered neither free nor fair.

What’s Syria’s human rights situation today? Probably as miserable as anywhere in the Middle East. But receiving a lot less attention from the U.S. press. When American journalists write about Syria, it’s generally within the context of its proximity to and violent history with neighboring Israel. Or Syria’s relationship with Iran, whose shipments of arms for Hezbollah must pass through Syrian territory.

But Syria could become a crashing domino for none of those reasons. It might happen because, in a neighborhood peopled by monster governments, Syria is a monster in its own right.

Just look at 2010 alone. In its annual report on human rights around the world, the State Department tells us that during 2010 “the government and members of the security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses, and the human rights situation worsened.”

Here’s more from the State Department report:

During 2010, the government systematically repressed citizens' abilities to change their government. In a climate of impunity, there were instances of arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life.

Members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees. Security forces arrested and detained individuals--including activists, organizers, and other regime critics -- without due process.

Lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention remained a serious problem. During the year the government sentenced to prison several high-profile members of the human rights and civil society communities.

The government violated citizens' privacy rights and imposed significant restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and travel. An atmosphere of corruption pervaded the government.

Violence and societal discrimination against women continued, as did sexual exploitation, increasingly aimed at Iraqi refugees, including minors. The government discriminated against minorities, particularly Kurds and Ahvazis, and severely restricted workers' rights.

During the year there were numerous reports of deaths in detention, torture, and people being disappeared. Security Services appear to act with total impunity and there are no reports of arrests, trials or even reprimands of law enforcement officials.

So sayeth our State Department.

There is no freedom of expression in Syria. The most recent outrage in this department is the arrest and jailing of a 20-year-old woman blogger, who has been sentenced after a closed-door trial to five years in jail on state security charges -- "divulging information to a foreign state."

It is widely believed that she was targeted for her online poems and
writings on political and social issues, such as on the fate of Palestinians
after the 2008 military operations in Gaza.

The State Security Court's verdict is final, and there is no possibility of

Before the current president, Basher al-Assad, there was his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the country for more than thjirty years. His reign was brutal and retrograde. Syria’s support for terrorist groups isolated it even from the more moderate Arab governments.

While Assad has from time to time made gestures toward a more open and mild regime, Syria has remained a dictatorship.

Assad’s government demonstrated its hold on the country last month, while the Middle East and North Africa was exploding in a wave of protest and civil disobedience. Anti-Assad citizens ran campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, calling for demonstrations in Damascus on Feb. 4 and 5. But, as the New York Times reported, “no one showed up except for police officers and members of the security forces.”

The Times wrote: “In stark contrast to several other Arab capitals, where hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated against their governments, planned ‘Day of Rage’ in Damascus on Friday failed to attract any protesters against President Bashar al-Assad, a sign that he opposition here remains too weak to challenge one of the region’s most entrenched ruling parties.”

Syrian activists warn that Syria is “not ready" to sustain a Tahrir-type protest.

But authorities are taking no chances. On Friday, security officials arrested Ghassan al-Najjar, an Islamist who heads a small opposition group. He had called on Syrians in his city to demand more freedoms.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week that at least 10 people were summoned by the police in the previous 48 hours and pressed to not demonstrate. There were also reports that prominent opposition figures, many of whom spent years in jail for opposing the government, were also summoned. On Thursday, three Syrians were briefly detained and forced to sign pledges not to participate in future protests, after they protested, along with 12 others, against corruption and high cellphone costs.

At least 100 Syrians held a vigil in support of their Egyptian counterparts last Saturday near the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus, and quietly lit candles as police officers kept a watchful eye nearby.

Eventually, witnesses said, one of them shouted: “Oh blow, winds of change. Yesterday Tunisia became green, tomorrow Egypt will be free. Oh, winds of change, blow and sweep away injustice and shame.” As she finished, they said, officers quickly moved in, ordering them to leave immediately or else they would be detained.

“It is still soon for us,” a Syrian activist told the New York Times. “We have time. The street is definitely not ready yet,” he said.

One factor possibly discouraging Syrian activists from staging a Tahrir Square-type demonstration is the memory of The Hama massacre of February 1982,when the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people were killed, including about 1,000 soldiers, and large parts of the old city were destroyed. The attack has been described as possibly being "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East".

But there are other fctors as well. Chip Pitts, a lecturer in law at Stanford and Oxford universities, told The Public Record, “Syria would certainly be more of an uphill battle, being relatively insular as compared to the other regimes in the region, and likely falling on the Libyan side of the equation, where economic and political pressures and latent resentment against the long-standing and repressive rule by the minority elite (the Alawites, in Syria) could result in even wider and more effective action than the fairly small protests seen to date.”

But, he addds, “the regime would almost certainly continue to resort to brutal force in order to defend and perpetuate itself as revealed in its recent reactions, its crackdowns on bloggers, and the alleged killings of prisoners who had started an uprising at Sednaya Prison last week.”

“The continued serious human rights violations and extreme intolerance of dissent under Syria’s ever-present emergency laws combine with the limited economic opportunity for the 65% of the populace under age 30, to set the stage for a wider revolt that could put the lie to the somewhat kinder, gentler, and less hated face presented by Bashar al-Assad (including in his turnabout in granting the recent civil pay rise and his stated willingness to embrace political reforms),” he said. President Assad lifted the three-year ban on Facebook and YouTube only three weeks ago.

Pitts added: “The Assad family has already proven itself capable, like Gaddafi, of repeatedly deploying the Syrian military against the Syrian people, especially including the Kurdish Syrians and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the notorious massacre of tens of thousands in the town of Hama in 1982 remains very much in everyone’s mind. Former staff colonel Bashar al-Assad still depends on the military and the secret police/intelligence Mukhaberat to retain power, and despite some perceptions to the contrary, is still his uncle’s nephew and his father’s son. That said, the ongoing events of the past few weeks certainly demonstrate that anything is possible –and long overdue change in Syria would be very welcome.”

Pitts concluded, “I also think it’s undoubtedly true that Bashar al-Assad is less hated than Ghadafi, in part because he hasn’t been in power for so long -- i.e. he’s a younger generation and the successor autocrat rather than the decades-long autocrat -- but also because he comes across as more normal and (relatively) less arbitrary. The fact that unemployment in Syria (8%) is only about one-third that of Libya (25%) probably also plays a role.”

Americans who have followed the “war on terror” as waged by the George W. Bush Administration may be familiar with Syrian justice through the ordeal experienced by Maher Arar.

Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin who was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York in September 2002, held in detention for two weeks, flown to Jordan, and then driven to Syria, where he was detained for ten months and, he says, tortured repeatedly.

It appears that Arar had been named by two other Canadians, `Abdullah al-Malki, of Syrian origin, and Ahmad al-Maati, of Egyptian origin, whom Syrian intelligence agents reportedly interrogated and tortured earlier in 2002. All three were eventually released without ever being charged with a criminal offense.

The Canadian Government convened a blue-ribbon inquiry into the circumstances of Arar’s “rendition” to Syria, determined that it had been guilty of providing false intelligence to U.S. authorities. The head of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police was forced to resign his post. The Canadian government apologized to Arar and awarded him a settlement of approximately $10 million.