Syria: the dictator fights back
The Presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have gone, the President of Yemen is going. The dictator of Libya has lost control of half of his country and is being bombed out of the other half.
But the revolutionary tidal wave of the Arab Spring has now come up against a tougher opponent – the 40-year-old dictatorship of the Assad family in Syria.
It’s clear that President Bashar al-Assad and his security forces have no intention of giving up power, and are now engaged in a violent and bloody crackdown on dissent.
With the barring of foreign journalists, and the government’s control over the media, the internet and social media sites (Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook are blocked), and with even al-Jazeera not reporting events, the regime obviously hopes that it can do its dirty work without international scrutiny.
The close relationship of Syria with Iran makes it even more significant than Libya, Tunisa or Yemen, Amnesty International estimates that the civilian death toll has been around 600 since the demonstrations started on 15 March, with hundreds missing and thousands detained.
In a New York Review of Books blog on 29 April, an anonymous writer who was recently in Syria gave an insight:
“On 25 April, tanks moved to Daraa, the southern city where the protests first began in mid-March, triggered by the arrest and torture of teenagers who had scrawled anti-government graffiti on the city’s walls… In areas where protests have occurred, hospitals were ordered not to treat activists – and some doctors who disobeyed have been arrested… Checkpoints in protest areas have been set up to search people for mobile phone pictures and footage of the violence. Telephone and internet networks in Daraa and Douma have been cut, and few people have been able to leave or contact the outside world. There are reports of government snipers firing on pedestrians, and residents no longer dare leave their homes. Rooftop water tanks have also been targeted by snipers in Daraa, where electricity has also been cut off.”
While the protesters do not have a clearly defined leadership, their broad aim is for radical political reform. The opposition released a statement on 29 April, signed by150 unnamed citizens in Syria and 23 named citizens outside. They outlined a list of reforms and included the following warning:
“Syria today only faces two options; either the ruling regime leads itself in a peaceful transition towards democracy – and we are very doubtful to the desire or will of the regime to do so – or it will go through a process of popular protests that will evolve into a massive and grassroots revolution that will break down the regime and carry Syria through a period of transition after a wave of violence and instability. Therefore Syria is at a crossroads: the best option is for the leadership of the regime is to lead a transition to democracy that would safeguard the nation from falling into a period of violence, chaos and civil war.”
After considerable violent unrest, Assad appeared to give some ground to protesters’ early demands when he announced the lifting of the 48-year-old emergency law.
However, only a few days later, on 22 April, his troops, backed by tanks, engaged in the bloodiest crackdown so far, killing a further 300 people.
Assad the Younger, the London “educated” ophthalmologist, and with his Vogue “reforming” wife, still has a long way to go to achieve his father’s infamy.
In 1982, the Syrian army under President Hafez al-Assad massacred Sunni Muslims in Hama. Estimates of the numbers of deaths of Syrian citizens are between 10,000 and 25,000. Hafez al-Assad’s variant of US air force General Le May’s “we’ll bomb them back to the Stone Age’ until recently has seen very little anti-government activity. The Baath Party under the Assad regime has been in power since 1970.
On the death of his father in 2000, Bashar succeeded to the presidency, when his brutish brother Basil was killed in a car accident, Syria’s compliant Parliament lowered the minimum age of the president from 40 years to 34.
The Assads belong to the Alawite sect of Shi’a Islam, who are regarded by the Sunni majority as heretics. They in turn regard themselves as a natural elite. Although they are only 13% of the population (with Sunnis around 74% and Christians 10%), they control most of the positions of power, including the military and the security apparatus.
Syria has never fully accepted the independence of Lebanon, which until 1923 was a Syrian province. It has played a destabilising role in Lebanon ever since it intervened in the civil war in 1976.
Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2005, but continues to interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs. Syrian and its ally Hezbollah, was notoriously behind the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s reformist Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Assad’s viceroy in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, “committed suicide” (by shooting himself six times in the head) when it emerged that he had been involved in the murder of Hariri.
Syria also acts as a conduit between Hezbollah and the Shi’a regime in Iran, with which it is closely allied. It also sponsors and arms the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The leading Hamas ideologue, Khaled Mashaal, enjoys the protection of the Assad’s intelligence services in Damascus. Assad’s regime also acts as a conduit of al-Qaeda and Ba’athist diehards en route to suicide attacks in Iraq.
Most alarmingly at all, Syria has sought, via North Korea, to acquire the ultimate dictator’s guarantor, nuclear weapons. In September 2007, Israeli planes attacked and destroyed a facility at al-Kibar in Syria, apparently because they believed it was a secret nuclear reactor intended for nuclear weapons manufacture.
The US has existing sanctions on Syria for some time. These were imposed by former President George W Bush and renewed by President Obama. They include prohibiting arms exports to Syria, preventing Syrian airlines from operating in the US, and denying Syrians suspected of being associated with terrorist groups access to the US financial system.
President Obama has now announced further sanctions on Syria’s intelligence agency and revolutionary guard, and on two relatives of Assad (but not Assad himself), freezing their American assets and barring US business dealings with them. A spokesman for the White House said:
“The signal we’re trying to send with this order is that a series of individuals and organizations who have played a key role in perpetrating this violence should bear costs for doing so, and that the choice is imposed on others about what they do in the future. And if they continue this violence, and if they engage in this violence, we have the flexibility to add additional designations.”
The European Union has an arms embargo on Syria. The EU has paved the way for the implementation of further sanctions such as targeted asset freezes and travel bans.
Prime Minister Gillard has called for the international community to impose wider sanctions, and Foreign Minister Rudd has supported the UN envoy to be sent to Syria to investigate events and report back. The Prime Minister has said that Australia will join the EU and the US in autonomously placing sanctions on targeted individuals in Syria.
Australia also joined the international community in successfully blocking next week’s proposal in the UN General Assembly that would have elevated Syria, despite its brutal suppression, to the UN Human Rights Council.
Most significantly, Gillard has said that Australia will support the effort of the International Atomic Energy Agency board to condemn Syria’s refusal to cooperate with the Agency and send the issue to the UN Security Council.
This potential IAEA action comes after the confirmation that the Agency was preparing a report assessing that a Syrian target that was bombed by Israeli warplanes was indeed a secretly built nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium.
The situation in Syria is still very fluid. One of the differences between Syria and other toppled Arab regimes is the support of the army for President Assad. If the Assad regime falls, the Alawite minority would face the wrath of the Sunni majority.
There are also concerns among Syrians (not just Alawites, but also amongst Christians and some Sunnis) that toppling Assad could lead to a civil war similar to that in neighbouring Iraq.
The Baathists have been pleased and the secular nature of the state could change to a more fundamentalist Islamic one. On balance however the removal of this key State of the rejectionist front may open the possibility of advancing negotiated peace talks in the Middle East.
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