The lost Syrian opportunity

News

The protests in Syria seem to be nearing a critical point. While the world’s attention has focused on Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, the violence in Syria has intensified as the regime attempted to quash the protests once and for all.

Without the kind of international condemnation other Middle Eastern regimes have seen, Assad has been able to act freely in ensuring that the same revolutionary wave that has engulfed the Middle East will not topple his regime. His reaction to the protests has been brutal, barbaric and uncompromising, with the estimated number of dead nearing 600.

But in many ways, Syria was seen as an exception. The London-trained ophthalmologist, Bashir al-Assad, was never meant to be ruler, but when his elder brother died in a car crash, he was thrust into the political sphere. Much younger than most Middle Eastern leaders, he has carried out some reforms which indicate a desire to modernise Syria.

Aside from a degree of economic liberalisation, Syrians have been granted some new social freedoms and secularism has been encouraged. Last summer, the niqab was banned from universities and schools, showing the regime’s fear of Islamic fundamentalism. Bassam al-Kadi, head of the Syrian Women’s Observatory, welcomed the move, describing the niqab as ‘a form of violence against women’. However, this was backtracked in one of the first concessions made to the protesters in late March.

According to UNICEF, under-five mortality decreased from 37 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 17 in 2007. And although widely ignored and hugely unpopular at the time, Assad also made Syria the first Arab country to ban smoking in public places, proof in the eyes of many of his commitment to modernise the country.

But if we are to see Assad as an advocate of social reform, we must question why more has not been done in his decade in power. Perhaps these reforms can be seen as proof of the first signs of discontent within the government. He may not enjoy as much power as is thought, and may be being controlled by others.

The incoherent and inexplicable response by the government to recent events has highlighted the power structure frailties which exist within the regime. After Assad formally lifted the state of emergency, Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, the Interior Minister, immediately urged people not to use their new power of protest, showing disagreement at the highest level.

Reports indicate that support for the regime is in a downward spiral, reversing massively from what was a very strong position. Official reports of foreign supported armed gangs are beginning to be refuted as more Syrians see personal acquaintances caught up in the violence, knowing that they are not the criminals the official media describes.

So while Syria could have been seen as an exception, it now looks as if it will join Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen in the pattern of the Arab Spring. The regime did not learn the lessons of the other revolutions and it will never be the same again. Perhaps Syria is a country which would benefit from a gradual transition to democracy, given the delicate relationship between the religious sects. However, the regime has lost its credibility to the extent that it will probably not be able to oversee this transition.

Will Todman