Monday, October 24, 2011

Foretelling Syria's Future from Libya's Present

You reap what you sow, it is said, and many Libyans would argue that Ghaddafi's horrific end pales in comparison to the horrors he inflicted on thousands of Libyans during his ignominious rule.  I understand the feeling and have no sympathy for Ghaddafi and yet the way he was killed and the macabre display of his body leaves me uneasy.  As the Libyans rejoice in their liberation, they may think that the circumstances of  Ghaddafi's death is only of concern for Western human rights organizations, but I disagree.  Libya is supposed to be turning a new page not borrowing a page from the defunct Jamahiriya.  If you let one extrajudicial killing slide, how many more will be ignored before it is too late, before the country slides into an orgy of revenge killings. The NTC should have owned up to what happened to Ghaddafi, quickly contained the fallout, imposed some discipline on the fighters in the field and moved on to the difficult tasks ahead.

The juxtaposition of the frantic, blood-soaked final days of the Libyan uprising to images of 90% of Tunisians going to the polls for their first free elections, couldn't have been more jarring and informative.  Tunisia's ousting of their autocratic ruler was relatively peaceful and quick and their transition to democracy seems to be on track. Libya's road to freedom was long, violent and destructive and their road back to some semblance of normalcy will be even longer and more complicated. 

These events leave me wondering about the future of the Syrian uprising. Without a critical mass openly joining the opposition or outside military intervention, it looks like we are in for a long simmering war of attrition between the government and the opposition.  This  will lead not only to more violence and loss of life but will also start to erode the social and economic fabric of Syrian society and disrupt normal day to day functioning of state and educational institutions.  The longer this drags on the more difficult and fraught with danger the post-Bashar transition will be.  So what is the solution if military intervention is not a palatable option to the majority of Syrians who oppose the regime? 

Whereas Ghaddafi clearly would not have succumbed to political pressure, I believe that Bashar, despite his grandstanding, and with the appropriate screws tightened, would succumb to such pressure.  This may be an especially opportune time to do so with the recent toppling of a similarly obstinate dictator.  The trouble is that I do not see such political pressure forthcoming.  The Arab League, with its predictable impotence, is unable to pressure the Syrian regime and the Western countries, not wanting to confront Russia and China are not pushing hard enough and are anyway distracted with their own economic crisis. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Morpheus, the Damascene Architect, Fails to Charm

Morpheus, the Damascene architect, unlike his mythological namesake, has utterly failed to charm with the mendacious lyrics of his tired old song.  His article posted on Syria Comment is a complete whitewash of the Assad dynastic rule couched to appear objective and balanced.  The author's bottom line is that Syrians face two options: secular bliss under the Assad fiefdom or Islamist hell without it.  He also blames the protesters for pushing too hard for reform, inciting violence and ruining "all that was achieved" by seeking to overthrow rather than work within the established state system.

Where to start with a piece so full of fallacies and misinformation. First, to label the dynastic, overtly sectarian Assad regime as secular is laughable.  Second, that Bashar has instituted any significant reform during his tenure as president is equally ludicrous.  At the beginning of his tenure, Bashar started on what appeared to be a reforming path but quickly reverted to the old Assad mode of governing.  He turned out to be as thin-skinned as his father and soon dissenters were rotating in and out of jail. He built a cult of personality -witness its nauseating manifestations among the "minhibbak" crowd- largely based on the charisma, intelligence and looks of Asma.    True, some economic reforms were implemented but benefited mostly the well connected cronies of the regime. I have never seen evidence of genuine, even if gradual, democratic reform. And despite Bashar's utter failure to produce real reform, the majority of Syrians were still, in the name of stability, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Even after the start of the uprising, the peaceful demonstrators were calling for justice and reform not for toppling of the regime even as his thugs were slaughtering unarmed protesters .  It was clearly not the demonstrators who refused negotiate or work within the system, it was the regime that was utterly incapable of dealing with dissent expect by crushing it.

What the demonstrations quickly laid bare is that talk of democratic reform was just that. A regime that is preparing for a transition to democracy would be slowly allowing an opening in civil society and working to develop independent civil institutions, lift the state of emergency and allow the election of a representative parliament rather than a bunch of ass-kissing sycophants. An autocratic regime preparing for reform would not be spending a good part of the treasury to equip a division of the army specially trained not to defend the country but to defend the regime. Even worse, the regime has trained and equipped non-uniformed civilians as a private militia, not constrained by the rules of  law, to do whatever they deem necessary to protect the regime. So it is the regime whose "apres moi, le deluge" attitude is dragging Syria to the brink of civil strife and an uncertain future, not the demonstrators.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Young Ones Laugh: A Syrian Parable

                                            (Photo from: Paxmachina)

The Young Ones Laugh:

    One day the king saw a number of children playing in the field and laughing merrily. 
"Why are you laughing?" he asked.
"I am laughing," one of them replied "because the sky is blue."
"I am laughing," a second replied "because the trees are green."
"I am laughing," a third replied "because the birds are flying through the air."
    The king looked at the sky, the birds, and the trees and found that they were not laughing.  He came to the conclusion that the children were only laughing to poke fun a the king's majesty.  So he went back to his palace and issued an order forbidding the people of his kingdom to laugh. All the old people obeyed the ruling and stopped laughing, but the young children paid no attention to the king's edict and carried on laughing because the sky is blue, the trees are green and the birds kept on flying.

From: The Enemies, by Zakariyya Tamer

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Syrian National Council is Formed: A Hopeful Day for Syria

The formation of the Syrian National Council is a milestone in the Syrian uprising.  That it took six months to put together may have frustrated many Syrians but it is understandable given that the regime has never allowed any opposition activity within Syrian and imprisoned many of the most influential dissidents. The Council's formation is critical in many respects other than the obvious one: that it represents one united effort to change the regime.  Since the beginning of the uprising and with the media blackout imposed by the regime, there was never a defined face of the opposition. The regime stuck to its narrative of armed gangs, jihadists and outsiders fomenting the uprising.  If the outside world did not buy these fabrications, many Syrians, fearing chaos  instability or worse, never questioned this narrative.  This is especially true of Syrian Christians, who were, to a degree, justifiably fearful having seen the fate of their co-religionists in Iraq.  With the formation of a Council whose motto is "One people, one nation, one council",  and composed of people representing the Syrian ideological, religious and ethnic spectrum, the regime will have a harder time peddling their lies.  I am hoping that as a consequence, many Syrians who have sided with the regime will start seeing the light.

Call me sentimental, but I am completely taken by the symbolism of the Council's poster. I am too old to be naive but still hope that the members of the council stay true to their motto and work on behalf of all Syrians. In fact every Syrian must hold them to that. But truly what this poster conveys in ideas, as simple as they might appear, is a radical departure not only  for Syria but for the whole Middle East. Since the countries of the Middle East gained their independence now some sixty to seventy years ago, two political ideologies dominated: pan-Arabism and to a lesser extent pan-Islamism.  Both ideologies sought to homogenize and forcibly conform the diverse countries of the region into a single mold; one ignored the rich ethnic diversity of the region and the other, its rich religious diversity. Both ignored the cultural and historical differences between Arab countries spanning the Arabian gulf to the Atlantic coast of Africa. In this paradigm, the interests of the citizens of a particular country and even those of the country itself were always superseded by the interests of a somewhat mythical whole.  That is why the notion of  inclusiveness, "one people, one nation", the notion that each citizen counts, seems so radical, even if it is long overdue.