Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Last Stop of the Wave of Rebellion in the Middle East is Syria

The Middle East region has been passing a legitimacy test, in a sense, with the wave of rebellion in the last months. Up until some weeks ago, Syria had been passing this test quite successfully. Because Syria was drawing a picture of “A Kingdom of Silence” in the Middle East region, which was surrounded by the wave of rebellion, according to the statement of the Al-Jazeera news channel. Some protest demonstrations took place towards the end of January, but they were not serious enough to make an influence. Nevertheless, the protests emerging in Daraa, which is found in the south of Syria, in early-March turned into large-scale demonstrations during which 25 people died as of now and military units were propelled into the province in order to ensure the security. So that Syria became the last stop of the wave of rebellion, which has surrounded the Middle East.

The event that launched the rebellion fire in Syria was a demonstrator's setting himself on fire just like in Tunisia. Two days after this event that took place on January 26, 2011 in Al-Hasakah region, where the Kurdish densely live, a demonstration was organized in Ar-Raqqah in order to protest the murder of the two Kurdish-origin soldiers. Following the demonstrations containing ethnic demands, on February 4-5 the events spread through the capital Damascus. In the demonstrations that the expected participation could not be provided, “freedom, human rights and the abolishment of the state of emergency that has been continuing since 1963” demands were mentioned. In parallel with the events in Damascus, the demonstrations of the Kurdish in Al-Hasakah also continued. However, the first trials did not create the expected influence and the participation remained in a limited level. The first large-scaled protest took place on February 17. As a result of the events developing spontaneously in pursuit of the fact that a police officer beat a tradesman in Damascus, a group of some 2000 people came together and organized a protest against the police. Nevertheless, the demonstrators tried to show that their protest was limited with the police by shouting slogans of “the Syrian people cannot be humiliated”, “with soul and blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar”.

On March 18, 2011 in pursuit of the friday prayer, large-scaled demonstrations were organized in Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, Qamıshlı, Homs, Baniyas and Deir ez-Zor that had not been witnessed in the Syrian history for about 30 years. The event that initiated the demonstrations in Daraa, where the most bloody events have taken place as of now, has been the arrest of a group of young people on March 6 on account of the fact that they wrote “the people want to overthrow the regime” on the walls of the city. As a result of the interruption of the police in the crowd of people, who came together to protest this event, four protester lost their lives and tens of people were injured. The following day during the funeral service of the protesters, who were killed in Daraa, conflicts took place again. And on the third day of the demonstrations in Daraa, the Ba'ath Party building, the palace of justice and the office of “Syria Tel” company, which belongs to Rami Malouf, who is the richest person of the country, were set on fire. Upon the aggravation of the events in Daraa, the army entered in the province. In this course, the demonstrations in Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Baniyas and Deir ez-Zor continued.

The underlying factors of the insurrections, which have taken place in the Middle East region in the last months, are the political oppression, the inequitable dispersion of the economic resources, ethnic-sectarian differences. Syria carries similar qualifications with Egypt and Tunisia, where the power changes took place, in these senses. Nevertheless, when both the internal and external dynamics are brought together, the possibility that the events in Syria could result in a change of regime or power is quite low. And we can list the reasons as below:

1. The Iraq experience that was gone through after the 2003 invasion set a bad example to the Syrian people on what would be the consequences of the abolishment of a strong centralized authority. The terrorism, security problems, political instability, ethnic and sectarian conflicts in Iraq brought the demand for security, which is the most essential requirement of people, ahead of their other demands. The Iraq experience forces the Syrian people to choose either “freedom or chaos”. This concern increases the legitimacy of the government.

2. The underlying reason of the legitimacy problem, which most of the Arabic governments have gone through, is the nature of the relations with the U.S. and Israel as well. Despite the strong anti-Israel and anti-US opinion in the grassroots, the governments are in a close relationship with the aforesaid countries. And this situation leads to a gap between the Arab communities and the governments. And Syria is in a different situation compared to most of the Arab countries in this sense. Legally she is still in belligerency with Israel, while she has problematic relations with the US. And this stand is in parallel with the demands of the people.

3. From the slogans in the demonstrations and the symbols which the reactions are directed to, it is understood that there is a general reaction against the government not individually against the Head of State Bashar Assad; in fact it is seen that he has a certain popularity. As Syria is a closed society, it is hard to make a clear observation on this issue, there is a “Bashar Assad is good, but the ones around him are bad” perception is common though. As a matter of fact, it is believed that Bashar Assad wants to carry out certain things, that he has achieved quite a lot but that it is impossible for him to ensure a rapid change because of the existence of the strong people called “old guards”, who control the key points of the regime. And this creates a “good cop – bad cop” perception about the Syrian regime. The existence of the “good cop” prevents a deep-rooted opposition against the regime. The fact that Bashar Assad is considered as a person, “who tries to open his country to world in terms of foreign policy, who tries to make reforms in political and economic fields and who fights against the ones resisting against this process as well”, increases the legitimacy of the government. In this sense the existence of Bashar Assad could also be evaluated as a chance for the “old hands”. This situation prevents the demand for an overall regime change. On the other hand, the fact that Bashar Assad wants to strengthen the radius of action of the “reformist” wing that is led by him, and that he wants to accelerate the reform process, which is progressing slowly, outweighs. In this sense, 2011 is an opportunity for Syria. Within this year, besides the parliamentary and local elections, the Ba'ath Party Congress will be held as well. And this could be an opportunity for Bashar Assad to make a controlled change, which would take the political and economic demands of people into consideration.

And the Syrian opponents have been organized through the social networking sites just like in Egypt. From these comments, it is possible to say that nobody has demanded for a overall change of regime yet. What is wanted is making reforms in certain fields within the current structure. It is seen that the reactions have been focused on four main fields. Expanding the political freedoms, making economic reform and providing a fair income distribution, fighting against bribery and corruption. The buildings in the province of Daraa in a central position of the demonstrations in Syria, which are targeted reflect the content of the protests. The fact that the Ba'ath Party building was set on fire is a reaction against the understanding, which has been in power for about 50 years and which has not given any chance to any other party. The second targeted building is the office of the “Syria Tel”, the GSM operator company of Syria. And this is meaningful in two aspects. The first one is a sign of demand for a reform in economic structure under the control of the government and of the people, who are close to the government. The second and the more important one is the reaction against sharing the economic resources of Syria by a limited group. Because the Syria Tel company belongs to the richest man of the country, Rami Malouf. Malouf is a businessman, who is not independent from the government. Rami Malouf, who is the cousin of Bashar Assad, has been carrying on a business as monopoly in strategic sectors.

4. One of the most important weaknesses of the demonstrations in Syria is the lack of an organized opposition movement, which could direct the movement having a demonstration tradition for years. It was the Muslim Brothers, who gained strength in 1970's and in early-1980's, that seriously threatened the Syrian government for the last time. During the operation, which was carried out in 1982 in Hama with the strong reaction of the government, 10 thousand to 30 thousand people were killed and the organization was totally weakened. The leader of the movement is living in Syria right now. Therefore, an organized opposition movement that could be an alternative for the Assad administration has not come out for about 30 years. And because of this, the Daraa-centered demonstrations cannot be carried out within the compass of a certain program. So that the demonstrations are only reactive rather than being oriented to a target. And this factor limits the chance of success and spreading of the demonstrations all around the country.

5. The fear that has got into the Syrian people is one of the handicaps on the way of the demonstrations for reaching the potential that could overthrow the regime. Although it has been seen that in the province of Daraa the threshold of fear was relatively passed, it is has been also seen that the protests in the other provinces still remain weak. The underlying reason of the fear that got into the people is the harsh response experiences that the regime has given to the similar insurrection attempts. In 1982 the insurrection of the Muslim Brothers had been resulted in a considerably harsh response, which is also known as the “Hama Massacre”. After this, the most serious rebellion attempt was carried out in Qamıshlı in 2004 by the Syrian Kurds. The response of the regime to this insurrection was bloody as well. Therefore, in case the demonstrations get expanded, it is highly possible that the reaction would resemble Libya rather than the example of Egypt.

6. Another factor that makes Syria different than Egypt and Tunisia is the structure of the army. In case the demonstrations get more expanded, it would be true to expect that the Syrian army will be on the side of the leader as a whole rather than Egypt and Tunisia. Because in Syria the army means the regime itself, in a sense. Besides, the Arab Alawites are found in the key points of the civilian and military security units. Today the structure that was established by Hafez Al-Assad, who was an Arab Alawite himself as well, still keeps its existence. The reason why the “minority government” concept is used for the Syrian government mostly in the Western resources is this. So that the army and the other security units would consider the insurrection against the regime as a threat against their own existence, and they would be completely on the side of the Assad government.

7. The monopoly of the Ba'ath Party in the political field is considered as disturbing. However, on the other hand, the “Arab nationalist and secular” ideology of the regime is considered as a guarantee for the security and stability of the country by many groups. This situation is completely valid for the minorities. For about 12 % Arab Alawites and 10 % Christians of the population, the Ba'ath ideology is supported as an understanding that encompasses the whole society. Even the Sunnite Arab majority could think that the best choice for the stability is the Arab nationalist, secular ideology. An opposite understanding of government would increase the sectarian and ethnic conflicts within the Syrian people having a heterogeneous structure. The post-invasion Iraq sets a bad example. The fact that the slogans containing sectarian emphasis were shouted for the first time during the demonstrations in Daraa, would rush this understanding up. The “No Iran, No Hezbollah. We want Muslims, who believe in God” slogans are directly against the Arab Alawite government and the Shi'ite alliances.

8. One of the biggest weaknesses of the disorganized opposition movements is the fact that most probably the regional dynamics are in favor of status quo rather than change in Syria. In case the demonstrations reach a level that could threaten the regime, it is probable that the Bashar Assad administration would take France on its side too, as well as the regional powers such as Turkey and Iran.
In the light of all these factors, the possibility that the demonstrations result in a change of government is quite weak. Nevertheless, the demonstrations would have important political consequences anyway. The primary provinces, where the demonstrations have the expansion potential, are Hama and Al-Hasakah. A reaction, which is directly against the regime and which has a Sunnite-Islamist ideological dimension, could develop in Hama. And in Al-Hasakah, ethnic-nationalist demonstrations of the Kurds could get expanded. The solution of the protests with the change of government would only be possible with the spreading of the demonstrations through Damascus. The leading factor that would determine this depends on the consequence of the developments in Dara.

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