/ 1 May 2011

Syria shockwaves sweep across Middle East

The Observer‘s encounter with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was an oddly informal one in a country deeply suspicious of the foreign media. An interview with his British-born wife, Asma, had been arranged, but as it ended, an aide to the president invited me to coffee with Assad himself.

Sitting somewhat awkwardly on the vast plush sofas of his reception room in the “official palace” — a place, he explained, where he did not actually live — he asked as many questions as he answered. In a conversational tone, Assad said he wanted peace with Israel, talked about reform, discussed relations with the US, and reflected on his father’s harsh line on Islamists.

Syria’s new president seemed then, almost a decade ago, a plausible figure, uncertain and almost modest, an impression encouraged by the marketing of him in the west by the British PR agency Bell Pottinger. He had been president for two years, having in 2000 succeeded his authoritarian father Hafez al-Assad, the man who had founded Syria’s Ba’athist republic after seizing power during a coup d’etat in 1970. That early image is one that Assad and his wife have continued to promote assiduously, most recently in an interview given by Syria’s first lady to a gushing Vogue magazine, which included pictures of Assad playing with his sons.

It is an image that served the London-trained ophthalmologist well, securing him a state visit to London at a time when the government of Tony Blair — as well as other European governments — thought he was a different proposition to his father, who gained notoriety for ordering the deaths in 1982 of up to 20 000 in the town of Hama during a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood.

But in the last few weeks that early image has seemed sharply at odds with the acts carried out in Assad’s name in a murderous clampdown on those demonstrating against the regime, which has so far claimed more than 400 lives as Syrian towns have been put under siege — an entire country locked down.

What is less clear now is who Assad really is and what he represents. Indeed, how powerful he really is. On Friday, when a “day of rage” was called to follow Friday prayers — this time endorsed by the banned Muslim Brotherhood — Assad had taken a leaf out of the book of deposed president Mubarak of Egypt and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, flooding the streets with armed security forces even as his opponents demonstrated in more than 50 locations.

Although protests have been taking place weekly after Friday prayers, last week felt different because for the first time, the Assad regime had offered no concessions the day before. There were also the resignations of several hundred members of Assad’s Ba’ath party, and reports of clashes between members of the Syrian army’s 4th Brigade, commanded by the president’s younger brother Maher, and the 5th Brigade outside Dera’a, the besieged town that has become the symbol of the Syrian uprising. And last week felt different because of the horrors that have taken place as the regime of Bashar al-Assad has opted for repression rather than concession.

As it has cracked down, so the regime has blamed the violence on a farcically broad range of culprits: armed gangs, Lebanese legislators, Saudis, Palestinian extremists — all with ominous overtones of the 1980s and Assad’s father’s most infamous massacre.

To underline the message of what might happen should the regime fall, state media and newly printed posters on the streets have pushed fears of chaos, especially of a sectarian nature.

In the coastal city of Latakia, gunmen believed to belong to the shabiha, an Alawite smuggling gang drawn from the extended Assad clan, have shot at Christian neighbourhoods with warnings of a Sunni takeover, before going to Alawite neighbourhoods and warning of Sunni revenge. (The minority Alawite sect, to which the Assads belong, is generally regarded as a branch of Shia Islam.)

But if the tactics used by the regime appear largely identical to that used by Gaddafi, the response by the international community has been markedly different. On Friday, as the US moved to apply sanctions, Assad was noticeably absent from the list of targets, although it named his younger brother Maher as well as his cousin Atif Najib and the Iranian al-Quds forces which the US accuses of channelling riot equipment to the regime. Noticeably absent too has been any threat of military action against a country which — unlike Libya — is seen as having a very well-equipped and trained army and powerful friends, not least Iran.

Officially, the opinion offered by analysts and diplomats in the last few days to explain this difference is that Syria matters in a way that Libya does not in regional and international affairs.

It is for that reason, perhaps, that Qatar, which led the charge against Libya, on Friday quietly absented itself from the UN Human Rights Council’s deliberations on Syria.

For Assad, the survival of the police state founded by his father is a very personal affair which he has dressed up as a national necessity to “prevent” his country from slipping into civil war. For the wider region, how events will unfold in Syria is becoming equally pressing.

Gaddafi’s regime in Libya has over the decades antagonised most in the Arab region. Syria, however, despite its poverty and waning importance as a leader in regional affairs — not least since its humiliating retreat from Lebanon in 2005 — remains a presence that has to be acknowledged.

It occupies a crucial location, bordering Iraq, Israel and Lebanon. And a Syria plunged into chaos, diplomats fear, would have profound consequences for all of those countries as well as for the Middle East peace process.

Damascus hosts the political bureau of Hamas, including its political leader Khaled Meshaal, although reports emerged on Saturday — denied by Hamas — that it is now planning to relocate. Indeed, some have argued that Hamas’s peace deal with its Palestinian rival Fatah was prompted by the fear of losing Syria as a patron.

Assad has also allowed weapons to pass over Syria’s borders for the rearming of Hezbollah after the 2006 war between that group and Israel.

Despite Western efforts to prise it apart from its alliance with Iran, Syria remains close to Tehran. And while Syria played host to a large number of Iraqis fleeing violence, it also allowed passage for foreign fighters travelling to fight the US-led coalition in Iraq.

‘Cockpit of the Middle East’
Joshua Landis of the Middle East Centre at the University of Oklahoma told the Christian Science Monitor last week that Syria epitomised the split nature of the region, describing it as “the cockpit of the Middle East”.

“On the one hand,” he said, “it has always made a claim to be the beating heart of Arabism, calling for unity and secularism, and on the other, it is a deeply fragmented nation with a regime dominated by a religious minority.”

Of most immediate concern to neighbouring countries last week was fear of a flood of migrants fleeing the violence. Cyprus’s foreign minister, Markos Kyprianou, announced on Friday that the authorities there are drawing up plans on how to cope with a possible wave of migrants from crisis-hit Syria — a contingency being prepared by other nearby territories.

For others, such as Turkey, with which Syria came close to war at the end of the 1990s over Damascus providing a safe haven for Kurdish separatists, the violence in Syria is deeply embarrassing. These days, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is personally close to Assad, their families have holidayed together, and visa restrictions were lifted for Syrians travelling to Turkey under Ankara’s “Zero Problems” foreign policy.

Mubarak and Gaddafi also tried to play on fear of the chaos that might follow the fall of their regimes, but Assad’s warnings appear to have found a more receptive audience.

“It’s messy,” says Jane Kinninmont, researcher at the foreign affairs thinktank Chatham House. “What makes it different, I think, is the particular nature of the uncertainty over what might follow Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

“In Tunisia and Egypt it was known who the opposition were, although it is true that in Libya a recognisable opposition pulled itself together pretty quickly. What is more worrying in Syria, given its geographic position, is the prospect of civil war.”

It is a fear that is shared by Syrians themselves. “No one can predict with certainty what would happen if Assad fell,” says one Syrian analyst in the capital Damascus who asked for anonymity. “Those suspicions have been stoked by the government alone. We don’t trust our neighbours not to be members of the security forces. But the conclusion that there will be chaos is an under-analysed scare tactic. The majority of Syrians want to live together in peace.”

The fear of internal violence has been raised by rumours of clashes between different army units outside the key town of Deraa, which has become the symbol of Syria’s uprising.

There are some in the region who might actually prefer that to a quick transition to majority — and therefore Sunni — rule, not least Iran, which would see not only the loss of an important ally but also potentially a transit route for weapons to Hezbollah to maintain a kind of proxy strategic balance that threatens Israel’s border.

And, unlike Gaddafi, Syria has split international opinion as to the nature of both the regime under Assad and the character of Assad himself, with a significant minority still believing that, despite everything, he can be manoeuvred on to the course of genuine reform that he has spoken about but never delivered.

Road to Damascus
It is this that explains the absence of Assad himself from the newly announced US sanctions against his state, explained officially as targeting those directly responsible for the violence.

It is a judgement predicated on one reading of Syria’s dynamics — that Bashar al-Assad is less powerful than other figures around him, including his brother Maher.

Others, however, believe that, far from being the weak link, Bashar al-Assad is as powerful as his father in a regime which is no longer truly Ba’athist but — like Hosni Mubarak’s was in Egypt — one bound together by close and corrupt financial interest.

And whatever the reality, by Saturday there was little evidence that the tactic of selective sanctions was working. A resident of the besieged southern Syrian city of Dera’a said that more troops were being brought in a day after security forces reportedly shot dead dozens.

All of which confirms, for the likes of the Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem, the naivety that has driven Western foreign policy towards Syria for more than a decade.

Writing in Foreign Policy last week, he said: “Over the last 10 years many western politicians and scholars took the road to Damascus, holding out hope that the young Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would lead Syria out of the political wilderness and place it on the path of political and economic reform.

“There was a naive assumption that Bashar had the makings of a modern leader because he was in part western-educated, spoke relatively good English, and married a professional woman who worked as an investment banker in London.”

It is the outcome the west is still betting on as the odds get daily longer. – guardian.co.uk