Syria: Between oppression and freedom

The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. IFIMES has analysed current events in Syria with an emphasis on the beginning of mass protests against the ruling regime. The most relevant and interesting sections from the analysis entitled “SYRIA: BETWEEN OPPRESSION AND FREEDOM” are published below.

SYRIA:

BETWEEN OPPRESSION AND FREEDOM

Syria, which is 185,180 km² large and has 17,585,540 inhabitants (according to data collected in 2002), is the sixth Middle Eastern country to experience a beginning of an uprising against the second biggest tyrant in the Middle East (after the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein), namely Bashar Al-Assad. The uprising began accidentally on 18th March 2011 in a city named Daraa in the south of Syria, very close to Jordanian border, when the secret police arrested some children between the ages of 13 and 14, who were singing songs from the Egyptian uprising. The parents of the arrested children came to the police station and demanded their children be set free and consequently the demonstrations spread across the whole city. The safety authorities started shooting the demonstrators after they had burned down the seat of the ruling party and destroyed the monument of Hafez Al-Assad, both being the obnoxious symbols of a totalitarian regime. It happened exactly the same way as in Iraq eight years ago, when the Americans took over Baghdad on that same day and destroyed the monument of Saddam Hussein in the city centre a few weeks later.

The demonstrations spread from Daraa to Damascus, the capital. Unlike in other Arab uprisings, the activists from Facebook and Twitter haven't managed to gather enough protesters on the streets of Syrian cities. The demonstrations continue in limited numbers, with security forces constantly intervening and settling issues with the demonstrators in an aggressive and bloody manner.

The crucial question, which is constantly arising these days is: why didn't the young activists and the opposition manage to gather a larger number of Syrian citizens to take part in these protests?

In our opinion there are three factors, which could provide us with a partial answer. These factors are: oppression and fear, utilitarian and self-interest and the international context.

OPPRESSION AND FEAR

Oppression and fear with repression are methods of governance of the authoritarian tyrannical regimes in the Arab world, while the Syrian regime is one of the most authoritarian in the world. This regime is a blend of the well-known regimes in North Korea and Iran. The ruling party called Baath is, similarly as in North Korea, implanted in every segment of the society. The Shia Alawite minority, from which stems the Al-Assad dynasty has occupied the most important positions in the party and in the country for 40 years, the country where the extraordinary circumstances have been going on since 1963.

The security services are "the backbone" of the regime, while the partisan militia, the police and the army perform executive tasks. According to some data the percentage of the employees in the Syrian security services is one among the highest in the world, namely one member of the security services per 158 citizens. This number doesn't include various party colleagues, who have to regularly monitor and spy after their colleagues and neighbours on the behest of their superiors, regardless of their employment (health, universities, industry, etc.). They have to record all events in their weekly reports, which have to be regularly submitted to their superiors.
In the eighties, the regime confronted its opponents with tanks and rockets. The attack on Hama, the centre of Sunni Muslim fraternities, in 1982 is well known. 38.000 inhabitants of Hama lost their lives in this attack (Robert Fisk - The Independent). In the attack on the desert prison Tadmur (Palmyra) in 1980, 2000 prisoners were killed, whereas the same number of people lost their lives during the attack on the largest city in Syria, Aleppo. In the book called Human Rights Watch (HRW), entitled "Syria exposed", this period is called the period of great oppression, because in the world of modern contemporary communications, no such massacres can be hidden.

The regime was contented with the policy of sticks and carrots. The police arrested all the symbols and leaders of the political movements and non-governmental organizations, they shut down the internet forums, prohibited the activists to travel abroad and used other methods of harassment and intimidation.

UTILITARIAN AND SELF-INTEREST FACTOR

The utilitarian and self-interest factor is the second biggest obstacle besides oppression and fear. There are three groups of self-interest individuals. The first group are the powerful and influential people in the party and in the army, who linked their destiny to the destiny of Al-Assad dynasty. The second group is the economic mafia, which is connected with the relatives of the president and also with the first group. They control the larger state-owned and private companies in the fields of telecommunications, trade and energy. The third group comprises members of some other minorities, such as the Christian community, which is being constantly intimidated by the Islamic extremists coming to power in the case of the fall of the regime.


THE INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT

The international context is the third most important factor, which is keeping the regime afloat. The question is how the regime became such an important regional factor that the American and other Western diplomats so frequently visit Damascus to seek advice there? The Americans and the West are very well aware of the fact that the regime supports and gives shelter to the extreme organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, also being an ally of Iran, which is constantly defying the international community, that it is accused of destabilization of Lebanon, since 2003 it has opened its "hermetic" borders with Iraq and thus facilitated the transfer of the terrorists and extremists to Iraq, so they can perform deadly suicidal attacks on coalition forces and Iraqi civilians, while its border with Israel on the occupied Golan heights one of the most peaceful in the world. Strangely enough, Syria is the only country bordering Israel, which has been at war with Israel since 1948. Syria has been developing a nuclear programme, which was bombed and destroyed by Israel, and there are several other contradictory actions that are in opposition with the international law.

The answer to the question about the important role of Syria in the region is that the regime evaded and misled the international community. In the time of the war against terrorism in 2001 the regime played a dual role and provided intelligence data about terrorist groups and individuals in the Middle East. The USA was very grateful to the Syrian authorities until the arrival of the Americans in Iraq in 2003, when the fear arose that Damascus was the next stop of the American policy of introducing democracy with force in the Middle East, after Baghdad. The regime has played a central role in exporting the terrorists to Iraq.

The policy of Syria towards Lebanon, which was under Syrian domination for several years was disastrous. Syria was an important actor in the Lebanese civil war in 1975-1990. An example of bold meddling into Lebanese inner affairs was, for example, the insistence of president Bashar Al-Assad on mandate extension of the Lebanese President Emil Lahud in 2004, despite the fact that all Lebanese parties were against it.

The highlight of interference in internal affairs was the Syrian role in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on 14th February 2005, which led to the Syrian intelligence service being accused by the international investigators. This was followed by resolution no. UN 1559, which requires Syria to withdraw its troops situated in Lebanon since 1975. It's only then that Syria first experienced the isolation by the U.S., which recalled its ambassador from Syria. This was repeated by other Western and Arab countries.

Syrian isolation did not last long. In early 2007, the region developed new facts that were in favour of Syria: the failure of the Israeli attack on Lebanese Hezbollah in 2006, Iraq before the civil war between Shiites and Sunnis in 2007, and the direct failure of American efforts to introduce democracy to Iraq and the failure Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza in 2009.

The Syrian regime has become a regional winner in early 2010. Turkey has played an important role in the return of Syria to the international arena. The latter has accepted Turkey's role as a mediator to continue the indirect Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations. The USA have appointed a new ambassador in Damascus.

Now, when the bloody confrontation of the regime with its own people is taking place, there is no interest in the West to help the Syrian people. Israel's security is crucial for Western tolerance towards the Syrian regime - after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the Israeli - Egyptian border has become questionable once again, as well as the Egypt peace treaty with Israel. In Jordan, Islamist held demonstrations that are threatening the stable Kingdom are taking place. Jordan ratified a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Hamas is constantly rocketing Israel. The only peaceful border with Israel is Syria, that's why the West does not want to interfere in "internal" Syrian affairs. Time is sensitive, possibly because of the failure of western operations in Libya (Odysseus dawn), which is an additional reason to keep Western powers at hand in terms of Syria.


OPPOSITION PARTIES IN SYRIA

Syria's political map contains several political parties. A part of the opposition operates within the regime's National Progressive Front (NPF), while the other opposition parties suffer from a number of regime's restrictions and repression. Some operate from abroad.

Among the most important opposition political parties in Syria include:
1. Communist Party, formed in 1924. Its leader, 80-year-old Riyadh Al-Turk, who spent more time in prison than in liberty. He is called by some the Nelson Mandela of Syria.
2. The Muslim Brotherhoods Movement was founded in 1942 and stems from the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, which was founded in 1928. Until 1962 it participated in several governments. Former President Hafez Al-Assad has banned its operation in 1980. After the Israeli action in Gaza in 2009, the movement cancelled their opposition to the regime and has since then been in a passive opposition.
3. The Front of the National Solution was founded in Brussels in 2006 in the presence of former Vice President Abdul Halima Khaddama, who resigned in 2005 and emigrated to Paris. Also the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhoods Movement and some other leftist and liberal groups were present at the Brussels meeting.
4. The Justice and Construction Movement was founded in 2006 in London. Analysts share the opinion that the movement is the only one acceptable for all Syrian ethnic and religious groups. The movement demands a peaceful transfer of power, preparation for democratic elections and the return of all exiles, as well as the amnesty of political prisoners.
5. ISLAH - this reform party was founded in the U.S. after 11 September 2001. Its leader is controversial Farid Ghadry, who has dual Syrian - American citizenship. The party has close contacts with American neoconservatives and the Jewish Lobby. It demands the overthrow of the regime by the U.S. following the Iraqi model.
6. The Arab Socialist Movement was founded in 1954. Today it is divided into two parts. Part of it is under the leadership of Abdel Ghani Ayyasha, who cooperates with the government.
7. The Arab Socialist Union
8. The Revolutionary Workers' Party
9. The Communist Workers' Party
10. The party of Modernization and Democracy is a liberal party of Syrian Kurds, which was founded in 1996,
11. Kurdish Democratic Party was founded in 1970.

Regime National Progressive front (FNP) was established on 7 March 1972 by the ruling Baath Party and other six satellite parties. Their role is to confirm the regime policy. In the constituting article of the FNP it is clear that the Baath Party leads the country and the society.

The parties constituting the FNP are:
1. The Arab Socialist Baath Party founded on 7 April 1947;
2. Dissident fraction of the Communist Party of Syria;
3. Arab Socialist Union (Nasserists) founded in 1964;
4. Arab Socialist Movement founded in 1961;
5. Arab Socialist Party;
6. The Democratic Unionist Socialist Party;
7. Arab Democratic Union Party.

International Institute IFIMES believes that the international community should react in case of Syria by putting pressure on the regime to start reforming from within. The UN can play an important role in establishing dialogue between the regime and the opposition.

The international community should avoid errors in the future. It has probably learned something from the cases of Iraq, Tunisia and Libya, where there was a collapse of the regime and consequently problems with filling the political vacuum. All the countries of the Middle East need an adequate transitional period for the preparations for the transfer of power to democratically elected representatives. Syrians and other nations in the Middle East lack experience at abolishing one-party regimes, crisis managing and disposing of residues of the dark past.

Ljubljana, 11 April 2011



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