Thursday, March 31, 2011

Assad’s Cookie-Cutter

By William Fisher

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria delivered what must be the Mother of all Cookie-Cutter speeches to his parliament yesterday. It’s a pretty good measure of how far out of touch Assad is with his people that he would even consider delivering a smorgasbord of generalities, devoid of any substance, and essentially blaming a conspiracy by Israel and other “outsiders” for all his troubles.

The impact of this pathetic speech was to create even more disappointment, even more anger, because it followed a hurricane of rumors from people close to the president that he was about to lift the decades-old emergency law, in effect since 1963, and begin to build a foundation for reform and constructive dialogue.

None of that even merited a mention. Pro-democracy advocates will not have been impressed with Assad’s sacking of his government – that’s a ploy used by despots going back centuries. It is a breadcrumb that will feed no one.

The dreaded Emergency Law, similar to one in effect for 30 years in Egypt until the fall of Mubarak, gives the government virtually unlimited authority to arrest and detain people without charges or access to lawyers or family members. There are thousands of untried political prisoners in Syrian jails, many of them locked up for years. The Syrian security police are notorious for torturing prisoners and there have been many deaths in detention.

For those who have been courageously demonstrating for democratic change, the takeaway from the speech must have been: “How it is is how it’s going to be. Suck it up and get over it.”

Well, it’s possible that Assad’s brutal treatment of his fellow citizens thus far has intimidated them sufficiently and that we have seen the last of demonstrators – and of target practice by the security services.

But I rather doubt it. So utterly dismissive was the speech from the chinless wonder that those who want democratic change may only become more emboldened. Friday, after prayers, may tell us a lot about the power, or lack thereof, of Assad’s words.

"We cannot say that everyone who went out (in the streets) is a conspirator. Let us be clear about that," he said in a half-hearted sop to those seeking change. But he was equally clear that all of Syria’s troubles were the result of a conspiracy of outside forces “from near and far” designed to foment sectarian violence.

“The first priority was the stability of Syria,” he told Parliament, dusting off a standard line used by dictators who have run out of every resource save bullets. The last time we heard lots of talk of stability, it was coming from our State Department – before the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

And the price of that so-called “stability”?

So far, the street demonstrations in Syria have largely been limited to the South of the country, away from Damascus, the capital. But those peaceful and relatively modest outbursts have cost between 60 and 100 lives. The dead have been shot by the security police.

And here’s our own State Department’s assessment of Syrian “stability”: “During [2009] the government and members of the security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses, and the human rights situation worsened. 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.”

Are we really supposed to be surprised that the Syrian people would try to rise up from such a living death and create the kind of stability that comes only with leaders who respond to their people?

The so-called “Arab Awakening” may fail in Syria this time. But Tunisia and Egypt have created a tsunami of protest that cannot be held back much longer.

What’s surprising is not that the Syrian people are rising up but how patient they have been – until now.

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