Sunday, August 21, 2011

God, Syria and no Bashar

 If you say ‘God, Syria and Bashar’, I say ‘God, Syria and My people’, I Bashar Al-Assad will remain dutiful and faithful to my people and will walk with them to build Syria…
Powerful words from Syria’s President yet drowned by chants of ‘God, Syria and Freedom’ and ‘Syria is protected by God’ as millions of Syrians take to the streets of Damascus and other cities standing united and strong against the oppressive regime. And as the global leaders unite to put sanctions against Assad, will this succeed in ending Assad's brutality? 

Hafez al-Assad with his sons Basel & Bashar
Bashar al-Assad became Syria’s president by accident. Though not originally the first choice to succeed the iron fisted Hafez al-Assad, as the President of Syria, Bashar was thrown into the spot light after his elder brother Basel was killed in an accident in 1994.

An eye doctor trained in Britain, Bashar’s sudden change to a military career and his super progression from June 2000 when his father died to mid July when he took over his father’s place, was the aftermath of Hafez’s efforts to ensure his son was his successor.

Rifaat al-Assad with Hafez al-Assad
Hafez was afraid his disgruntle brother Rifaat would be staging a coup to take over Syria’s presidency after him. Rifaat, a hardened politician himself, who commanded a ruthless army of 55,000 men with arms & ammunition fell out with his brother in 1984 and since lived abroad in exile. Rifaat had showed his displeasure at the inexperienced Bashar contending for the Presidency.

But Hafez’s faithful coterie of Alwaties ensured that Hafez’s last wish came true. In the next month and half; the constitution was amended to lower the age of Presidency from 40 to 34 (Bashar’s age then), Bashar was made the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, then promoted to the military rank of lieutenant general, made the head of the Ba’th party. He was then endorsed by the leadership for presidency, nominated and then duly elected for president with 97 per cent of the Parliament voting for him.

A novice in politics then, Bashar tried to bring in some reform- he released 600 political prisoners, relaxed few controls on the economy and the press. Syria saw emergence of private banks and universities and the private sector got some room to grow. The Damascus spring which saw the slight opening of the economy and the political system did not last long. But never a believer in democracy, Bashar still kept the country in the four decade old martial law.

Syria’s foreign policy too saw turbulent times. Bashar’s influence in Lebanon cannot be underestimated. He forced the Syrian constitution to pass an amendment in 2004 to extend Emile Lahoud, the then Lebanese president term for three years. Lahoud has been a Syrian puppet and Bashar had vested interest in doing so which also led to allegations of Syria orchestrating the murder of Rafik Hariri, a leading politician who opposed it.

United States imposed sanctions under the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSA) in May 2004. SALSA bans all U.S. exports to Syria (except food and medicine). This has hit Syrian aviation particularly the State-owned Syrian Air, Syrian oil and gas production and other projects that depended on US technology and US parts for their operations. Also companies specializing in major high-tech projects shunned operations in Syria for fear of angering the US.

A UN Resolution in 2004 forced Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon which were posted there since 1970s. But after the Israeli & Hezbollah war in Lebanon in 2006, Syria’s influence in Lebanon once again grew as they were the main suppliers of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. This forced United States to acknowledge that Syria was an important player in the Middle East peace process.

In 2007 Bashar was re-elected the President with 97.62% vote, not surprising since there was no other candidate which reinforced that any political reform was just lip service.

In this picture taken on June 13, 2000, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, right, his brother Maher, centre, and brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat, left, stand during the funeral of late president Hafez al-Assad in Damascus, Syria.  (AP Photo, File)

But what was perhaps Bashar’s biggest political mistake was to remove many of the old and seasoned politicians – Bahjat Suleiman, head of intelligence, Hasan Khalil, head of military intelligence, Adnan Badr Hassan, head of political security and Vice President Abdel-Halim Kaddam.

What followed was the emergence of the triad of power: Bashar, his brother Maher who heads the Republican guard and his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat who heads military security.

What Bashar perhaps did not foresee was that the narrower the coalition became the greater the opposition grew.

Syria’s opposition was organized by a group of activists online inspired by events in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. The group, called the National Initiative for Change, said that its members in Syria represented a broad spectrum of groups opposing the leadership. From the initial sparks of unrest online, the opposition grew in numbers and determination over the months. Syrian revolution has moved from above to below. A revolution from the grassroots has a far disastrous impact on the elitist regime that that from its own clan.

In a country where any political meeting of more than five people required a permit from the government at a two week notice with the names of speakers and attendees duly given, thousands take to the streets everywhere defying the state. Battles continue as the army fires on innocent civilians but that has not deterred the proponents of democracy.
Assad is spraying bullets at his people to stay in power, inspiration gained from his friend Muammar Gaddafi who is turning Libya red with protesters blood. It’s important for the international community to mobilize support against Assad’s regime. However their experience in Libya had put them on a back foot.

The new sanctions imposed on Assad and his faithful coterie by the US and the EU came too late. Assad's regime can still survive on its reserves of $18bn dollars held in its central bank and Iran too has pledged financial support of almost $6bn. However it cannot survive forever and soon when the money runs out and the isolation sets in, Assad will have to decide on a plan B. There is no doubt Syria will eventually get its freedom, at what price to its people is the worrying bit.What is also worrying is that exiled politicians like Rifaat Assad might use this opportunity to support the revolutionaries in a bid to get back the throne he was never given but thought was always his. Syria needs to watch out as Rifaat would be as bad as the rest of the Assad clan.

US turning against Syria is a good sign as in the recent years they were hoping to garner a partnership with Assad to isolate Iran and broker peace in the Middle East. Recently the Obama administration condemned the attacks on Syrians in these strong words; ‘Syria would be a better place without President Assad’.

And for once billions worldwide agree.

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