The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is expected to announce reforms today including the end of the 50-year-old state of emergency, to try to defuse protests as thousands of people continue to confront troops.
President Assad needs to convince Syrians that he is sincere in promising to dismantle the arbitrary powers of the ruling Ba’ath party, the security services and his own family. In the week since the demonstrations first started, the government has spoken of reforms, but has allowed its forces to open fire repeatedly on marches and rallies, killing at least 61 people. The crisis in Syria affects the politics of all the Middle East since the country is the predominant power in Lebanon, Iran’s most important foreign ally, a significant player in Iraq, and a backer of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
The violence of the security forces in the southern city of Deraa, which turned initial calls for reform into demands for a change of regime, have so far failed to intimidate local people.
Witnesses, quoted by news agencies, said that 4,000 demonstrators refused to disperse as security forces fired tear gas at them and shot live rounds into the air. Tanks and army vehicles surrounded the city, while as many as 1,200 people held a sit-in the al-Omari mosque, the focus of the protests in Deraa.
Demonstrators chanted “We want dignity and freedom” and “No to emergency laws”, as soldiers and security forces occupied the ground in front of the mosque and pointed their weapons at any gathering of civilians. Snipers took up positions on tops of buildings.
In Syria, there is always a danger that any attack on the regime will take a sectarian form since the Assad family and many of the ruling elite are members of the Shia/Alawite sect, though they make up only 12 per cent of the population in this Sunni-majority nation.
The biggest revolt against the Ba’athist regime was by the Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood from 1976 to 1982, which led to as many as 10,000 people being killed by the security forces during an uprising in the city of Hama.
President Assad, who is seen as retaining some credibility, has so far remained silent. Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa said the President will give an important speech in the next two days that would “assure the people”.
His aides have suggested that he would end emergency laws imposed since 1963, free thousands of political prisoners, allow freedom of expression in the media, and curb the powers of the security services. Even then, people will doubt if he and the ruling elite are really going to give up so much power.
Human Rights Watch called on the government “to hold to account those responsible for any unlawful shooting on demonstrators”.
“The government should understand that these demonstrations won’t end until it stops shooting at protesters and begins to change its repressive laws and practices,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director.
Demonstrations spread last Friday to other Syrian cities, though there were also many pro-regime rallies.
There was fighting in the port of Latakia, a Sunni-majority city in a province in which most people belong to the Alawite sect. In outlying areas, armed residents manned their own checkpoints as the government claimed that foreign gunmen roamed the backstreets. Troops in the centre were deployed to guard the Ba’ath party headquarters and the Central Bank.
Short-Term Prospects for NATO in Libya
In the next few weeks Colonel Muammar Gadaffi is likely to lose power. The forces arrayed against him are too strong. His own political and military support is too weak. The US, Britain and France are scarcely going to permit a stalemate to develop whereby he clings on to Tripoli and parts of western Libya while the rebels hold the east of the country.
Even before the air strikes Gadaffi had not been able to mobilise more than about 1,500 men to advance on Benghazi, and many of these were not trained soldiers. The reason for their advance is that the rebels in the east were unable to throw into the fighting the 6,000 soldiers whose defection touched off the original uprising.
The first days of foreign intervention mirror the experience of the US and its allies in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, by going extremely well. Air attacks shattered a column of tanks and infantry south of Benghazi. Survivors have fled. The rout may soon resemble the rapid dissolutions of the Taliban and the Iraqi army.
In Iraq and Afghanistan most people were glad to get rid of their rulers, and most Libyans will be glad to see the back of Gadaffi. His regime may well fall more quickly than is currently expected. Pundits have been wagging their fingers in the last few days, saying Gadaffi may be mad but he is not stupid, but this is to underestimate the opŽra bouffe quality of his regime.
It is the next stage in Libya – after the fall of Gadaffi – which has the potential to produce a disaster similar to Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases successful war left the US as the predominant power in the country. In Iraq this rapidly turned into an old-fashioned imperial occupation. “The occupation was the mother of all mistakes,” as one Iraqi leader is fond of repeating. In Afghanistan the US always called the shots, even if Hamid Karzai headed the government.
The same problem is going to arise in Libya. There will be a lack of a credible local partner. The rebels have shown that they are politically and militarily weak. Indeed, if this had not been so, there would have been no need for a last-minute foreign intervention to save them.
The local leaders who rise to the top in these circumstances are usually those who speak the best English and get on with the US and its allies. In Baghdad and Kabul those who initially rose were those who fawned the most and who were prepared to go before Congress to express fulsome gratitude for America’s actions.
There is a further complication. Libya is an oil state like Iraq, and oil wealth tends to bring out the worst in almost everybody. It leads to autocracy because whoever controls the oil revenues can pay for powerful security forces and ignore the public. Few states wholly reliant on oil are democracies.
Aspirant Libyan leaders who play their cards right over the next few months could put themselves in a position to make a lot of money. An Iraqi civil servant in Baghdad commented cynically before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that “the exiled Iraqis are an exact replica of those who currently govern us”, but the present leadership was almost sated “since they have been robbing us for 30 years” while the new rulers “will be ravenous”.
Already there are signs that David Cameron, Hillary Clinton and Nicolas Sarkozy are coming to believe too much of their own propaganda, particularly over Arab League support for air strikes. Diplomats normally contemptuous of the views of the Arab League suddenly treat its call for a no-fly zone as evidence that the Arab world favours intervention.
In terms of the exercise of real authority, Gadaffi is likely to be replaced not by Libyans but by the foreign powers which assist in his overthrow. Going by what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq it will not take much for their actions to be seen across the Middle East as hypocritical and self-serving, and resisted as such.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq