Friday, August 19, 2011

Syria: Looking Into The Abyss

By William Fisher

Last week, as Syrian dissidents continued to turn out in their tens of thousands – facing death -- to oppose President Basher el-Assad’s Syrian regime, the country’s cabinet took two steps that its embattled leaders hoped would quell the growing demands for Basher’s ouster.

The Cabinet endorsed a draft election law that would “regulate parliamentary elections” held every five years and establish a commission to “manage polls,” the state-run SANA news agency said.

That action followed the Cabinet’s endorsement of a bill allowing new parties to be formed. Previous elections have been monopolized by President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath party, a situation enshrined in the constitution.

It’s difficult to understand how Mr. Assad could be that far out of touch with the demands of his own people and the condemnatory statements not just from the United Nations and “western governments,” but from such pillars of Arab power in the Middle East as The Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the aging but still powerful King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

And, on the day the Turkish Foreign Minister was in Damascus, failing in his efforts to mediate an end to the violence, 24 more Syrians died at the hands of Assad’s security forces on the first Friday of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, Al Jazeera reported, citing activists. For the week, the toll of dead was 84. The death toll is now more 2,000 and counting. And thousands of demonstrators injured or arrested and jailed.

And yet, the protests appear to grow stronger. Those risking their necks in the streets would be the first to find Assad’s band-aid proposals “a day late and a dollar short.”

But that’s far too mild. The protesters rejected the Cabinet’s proposals out of hand. Not surprising. That Assad at this late date – the protests began in March -- should now be proposing rudimentary “reforms” that should have been introduced years ago, is arguably the most dependable indication that Assad has lost the legitimacy to govern. The government’s performance was nothing short of pathetic.

But it is equally pathetic that while people are being shot down in the streets or tortured in Syria’s prisons, the world’s most powerful nations and institutions can do little more than wring their hands and threaten unspecified “consequences” for Mr. Assad to ignore.

Even the UN Security Council was not able to mobilize its members to use one of the Council’s larger weapons – a formal Resolution. China and Russia both have veto power, and both countries felt the urgent need to protect their commercial relationships with Syria. The Security Council was able to agree only on a Presidential Letter – an instrument not nearly as strong as a formal Resolution – condemning Assad’s massacres. The Council issued a statement Aug. 3 expressing “grave concern” at the deaths and human rights abuses.

The syntax was strong but the substance was just words.

Then there are those courageous Arab organizations that have been, as it were, busy fiddling while Damascus burned. The apparent cure for the Arab constipation was a statement on Wednesday from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He said:

“Every sane Muslim and Arab or others are aware that [the crackdown] is not of religion, values, or ethics…What is happening in Syria is unacceptable to the Kingdom… Saudi Arabia…[demands] the stoppage of the killing machine and bloodshed…[and the] introduction and activation of reforms that are not entwined with promises, but actually achieved so that our brothers…in Syria can feel them in their lives as dignity, glory and pride.”

But we should not kid ourselves about The Good King. His remarks have absolutely nothing to do with Syrians living under the boot of a vicious police state. They have everything to do with strengthening Sunni Muslim influence vis a vis Syria’s close ties to Shia Iran.

Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. While Alawites constitute only about 12 per cent of Syria’s population, they have effective control of all the major levers of power, including the army and the security forces. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Observers believe that Assad will cling to power by whatever means as long as there are more Alawite soldiers than anti-Assad protesters.

So King Abdullah has zero interest in the anti-Assad movement. His main motive, as The Guardian put it, “is the hope of driving a wedge between Iran and a post-Assad Syria.”

But Abdullah’s hypocrisy surpasses embarrassing, considering that Saudis arguably have fewer human rights than Syrians. Besides, Saudi troops are now stationed in Bahrain helping the Sunni King to quell the rising protests of that country’s Shia majority.

And perhaps the ultimate irony is that, a couple of months ago, the Assad regime might have agreed to most of the demands of the protesters and continued to retain power. But that was then and now is now. And, like the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad was way behind the curve. Now, the movement for change has probably gone too far to be stopped.

Everyone seems to know that except Mr. Assad.

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