Syria Seeks Solutions on the Street
Popular protests and attempted regime change is evidenced in countries from Tunisia to Libya, Syria to Yemen, rolling through the region known as the Middle East. Accomplishments of the protests vary: in Egypt, an interim government based in the military replaced the administration of Hosni Mubarak; “free” elections are anticipated in September, 2011. Libya is experiencing a virtual civil war with pro and anti Ghaddafi forces fighting deadly battles; protests in Yemen threaten that country’s long term ruler. In Syria protests at Damascus University have been “violently suppressed.” One student is reported to have been killed, adding to an estimated total of approximately 200 protestor deaths as of April 12.
Since mid March, Bashar Assad’s government in Syria has been challenged by a series of protests in several major Syrian cities. President Assad’s government has instituted a range of actions in response to the protests including discussing the end to emergency law, dissolving the Parliament and instituting efforts to appease the demands of the minority Kurds and conservative Sunni Muslims. Juxtaposed to this, however, is the fact that the military continues to actively protect the government’s interests. The government has claimed that the protests – and the resulting deaths – reflect the influence of outsiders, specifically naming the CIA, the Mossad, and even the British M5 as sources of the conflagration.
In the West, democratic protest” and “revolution,” often provoke a “knee jerk” response and an automatic offer of support. In the Middle East, the situation is far more complex. Malcolm Hoenlien, a recent visitor to Syria, commented that “the only thing predictable in the Middle East is that nothing is predictable…Nobody know for certain what will happen. It is a sensitive time…things must run their course.”
Rabbi Elie Abadi, who is of Syrian Jewish heritage (he was born in Lebanon, his parents are from Aleppo, Syria) was scheduled to visit Syria during May on a humanitarian visit. The trip has been delayed until the political situation is calmer. The completion of the process of political development, he advises, will take time before real results are seen – possible even a few years. He cites the past history of Arab nations which have shed monarchies or dictators in the twentieth century: “It is difficult to see any clarity in the next months.”
Asked how he thinks the political protests in the Middle East will involve Israel, Abadi told the Algemeiner that there “always will be a group that will use anti Israel rhetoric to unite factions among the Arabs. Despite the reality the Arab people are a non monolithic group, they do have a universal hatred for Israel – the categorical enemy without – that leaders employ as a distraction to keep the population from reaching its goals.”
Continued vigilance and a high level of preparedness are essential. “Israel should be concerned and while being prepared for every necessary scenario, be ready to welcome any good. Since 1974, Syria and Israel have had a de facto peace. Not a single bullet has been fired.” During the last five years, Deputy Minister for the Galilee Ayoob Kara has instituted family reunification visits and initiated limited agricultural trade. “It is a peace,” says Abadi that “is not written, not even spoken about.” Overall, he believes the current protests are unlikely to instigate any policy change vis a vis Israel.
Deputy Minister Ayoob Kara, the single non Jewish member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, a member of the Druze community, strongly opposes the protests in Syria, noting that the path that any “revolution” might take is totally unpredictable. Of major question, for example, is the position the Muslim Brotherhood may achieve. Mohammad Riad Shaqfa, the exiled leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, now living in Saudi Arabia, in an interview with Reuters, declared his support for pro-democracy protesters, saying that the Brotherhood “supported the demands of demonstrators for greater freedom.” We do not have an organization in Syria because of the 1980 law,” he said, “but we do have a large popular presence.”
The Brotherhood status is a curious one: although now illegal in Syria, it has close ties to Hamas, which is closely tied to Iran and ….Syria. This positioning has worked in the favor of the current Syrian regime: the Hamas link probably resulted in the suspension of its opposition to Baathist rule two years ago. Brotherhood officials said then the priority was resisting Israel rather than toppling Syria’s ruler, who is perceived as a strong champion of Arab rights.
Brian J. Davis, Canadian Ambassador to Syria from 2003 to 2006, echoes this perception. He calls President Bashar Assad “a cautious, conservative leader (who) …lacks the natural instinctive talents of a leader …Expectations that he would be the “reformer” are simply misplaced.” Davis continues his analysis, however, saying Assad “is perceived to have stood up to the U.S. (with regard to Iraq) and to Israel (through his support for Hezbollah and Hamas). He has achieved considerable popularity on the “Arab street” across the region. This distinguishes him from President Mubarak of Egypt and President Ben Ali of Tunisia, who were seen to have aligned themselves with western powers, rather than fighting for the rights of Arabs, especially those of Palestinians.”
Patrick Seale writing in England’s Guardian newspaper says “the Syrian regime, long a key player in the Middle East power play, has decided to fight back with full force.” Clearly this approach is evidenced by the aggressive response of the Syrian military to city, university, or town attempts to over the ruling administration.
Regime change will reshape the dynamics of the Middle East. Whether change is achieved by street protest or ballot box, communication or conflagration, the status of the region’s components as they have been in the second half of the twentieth century is unlikely to remain the status quo in the first half of the twenty first. Will there be a quantum leap forward to – or, at least towards – democracy remains an unknown. Will this be a region whose emerging leaders have the courage to develop a productive, positive, and peaceful region providing each state with security and encouraging its peaceful prosperity remains a greater unknown.