March 21, 2004
New York Post
What happens when something happens in a country where nothing has happened for decades? In Syria, even the most insignificant event triggers an avalanche of conspiracy theories. And the events this last bastion of Ba'athism has witnessed in recent weeks are anything but insignificant.
In a series of anti-regime demonstrations in five Syrian cities over the past two weeks, an estimated 22 people have been killed in clashes with the security forces and a further 150 injured. At least 700 people have been arrested.
According to eye-witness reports, the centers of the predominantly Kurdish cities of Qameshli, Hassakeh, Raf el-Ain and Hamoudah were turned into "battle zones" last weekend.
But the mainly Arab cities of Hama and Aleppo also saw anti-regime demonstrations last week. In Hama (where by Ba'athist special forces massacred an estimated 20,000 people in 1982), most shops closed while the authorities shut all schools for four days. In Aleppo several Ba'ath Party offices were set on fire.
Other minorities, including the Yazidis, Turcomans and Assyrians, have also come out with calls for reform and an end to religious discrimination.
Earlier, Damascus, the capital, had witnessed its first unauthorized political demonstration in four decades as a crowd of 700 protestors gathered outside the parliament building on March 7. Hours later, copies of a letter to President Bashar Assad were distributed. Signed by some 1,500 Syrian intellectuals and academics, it calls for an immediate lifting of the state of emergency imposed by the Ba'athists 41 years ago.
"An emergency is, by definition, something short and temporary," said Akhtam Naisse, one of the petitioners who are now under arrest. "An emergency lasts a few hours, a few days, at most a few weeks, not a lifetime."
The extent and the intensity of the protest movement appear to have taken the Syrian leadership by surprise. The initial reflex of the regime was to do what it has always done, i.e. crushing the slightest show of opposition by main force.
Hours after the first riots broke out in Qamishli a special army unit was on its way to the city. But this was not 1982 and the idea of killing thousands of people in the streets was vetoed "at the highest level," according to Arab sources.
Next, the leadership tried to portray the troubles as part of an "American conspiracy" backed by Iraqi Kurds and aimed at detaching Kurdish regions of Syria into a separate state encompassing both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds.
When it became clear that the protests were not limited to ethnic Kurds, another theory was circulated: Washington wanted to carve an Arab Sunni state out of the region known as al-Jazeera. Such a state would detach the so-called Sunni Triangle from Iraq, allowing the rest of the oil-rich country to prosper under a pro-American Shiite regime.
But the wildest of all conspiracy theories is based on the claim that the anti-regime protests are encouraged by President Assad himself as part of a scheme to frighten the regime's old guard into accepting his, as yet unspecified, reforms.
Because the Syrian media are muzzled and outside journalistic access to the country is restricted, it is hard to appreciate the full meaning of the recent events. Piecing together this complicated jigsaw, a picture emerges, of a regime in crisis. Assad's timid attempts at cosmetic reform, including a change of prime minister and the symbolic release of 100 political prisoners, some after 40 years of internment, have convinced no one.
What is certain is that the regime has been shaken by the fall of its sister Ba'athist regime in Baghdad.
That fear is not entirely groundless. Syria under Assad has many points in common with Iraq under Saddam Hussein:
* The Syrian regime is based mainly on the Alawite minority as Saddam's was on the Takritis.
* As in Saddam's Iraq, almost all organs of state have been atrophied by years of despotism, leaving the security services as the only dynamic part of the regime.
* As in Saddam's Iraq, Assad's Syria is beset by corruption, racketeering and nepotism.
Nevertheless, there are differences. Syria is not in violation of 18 mandatory U.N. resolutions as Iraq was under Saddam. Nor is Assad as arrogant, as reckless and as egomaniacal as was Saddam.
Assad seems to be unsure of what course to take. Sometimes, he is convinced that the Americans are after his blood and that, no matter what he does, he is targeted for regime change.
As a measure of insurance against that, Assad has signed a military pact with Tehran under which Iranian troops could be dispatched to Syria to counter any American and/or Israeli "aggression."
Assad has also visited Ankara to persuade the Turks that regime change in Damascus could lead to the creation of a Syrian-Iraqi Kurdish state that would, in turn, seek to annex Turkey's Kurdish provinces.
At other times, Assad seems to be tilting toward reform in the hope of securing U.S. support: Syria worked hard to prevent an outright rejection of President Bush's "Greater Middle East Initiative" by the Arab states.
"This young man could go either way," says a senior Syrian politician about President Bashar Assad. "Some people urge him to adopt his father's iron-fist methods. Others tell him that the world has changed and that iron-fists lead leaders into a hole, as was the case with Saddam."
Such an analysis, however witty, is pointless. Neither the Syrian people nor the rest of the world have the patience to wait for Assad to sort out his Hamlet-like tergiversations.
The Syrian opposition, which seems to cover large swathes of society, is not asking for the moon. Three basic demands for reform have emerged so far:
* An end to the 41-year-old state of emergency under which anyone can be arrested without charge and all "unauthorized" political, social, cultural and trade union activities are banned.
* The immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, believed to number several thousand, some held since 1970.
* The holding of free and fair elections under international supervision.
The fall of Saddam and American pressure for change in the region have certainly encouraged reformist movements throughout the Middle East. But these movements have existed for decades and have deep roots in their respective societies. To see them as nothing but the fruit of "American plots" could be suicidal for the regimes concerned.
Amir Taheri will be speaking in New York March 25. For information, call (212) 717-9966 or e-mail events @benadorassociates.com http://www.nypost.com/postopinion/opedcolumnists/21377.htm
"The Syrian opposition, which seems to cover large swathes of society, is not asking for the moon."
It may not seem to us like asking for the moon, but since one demand is , "The holding of free and fair elections under international supervision", Forget it.