Tough target

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

President Assad waves to supporters after addressing Parliament in Damascus on March 30. - AFP/HANDOUT/SANA

President Assad waves to supporters after addressing Parliament in Damascus on March 30. - AFP/HANDOUT/SANA

Calls for the removal of Bashar al-Assad are getting louder with the West's support, but the democracy movement is finding the going tough.

DESPITE the significant concessions offered by President Bashar al-Assad to the opposition, including the repeal of the draconian emergency laws under which the government has operated for several decades and the appointment of a new Prime Minster, violent agitations are continuing in Syria. A newly introduced law allows opposition parties to function openly. The government had justified the imposition of the emergency laws as a measure to face the military threat posed by Israel.

Israel, while continuing to occupy Syrian territory, has been trying to destabilise the government in Damascus, which it considers its main enemy in the region. Israel had even sent its planes to bomb a Syrian military installation, claiming that secret nuclear activity was going on there.

In a televised speech to the nation in April, Assad said that with the introduction of the democratic reforms demanded by the opposition there was no rationale left for continued protests and violent demonstrations. Although the protests are now confined to a few towns such as Daraa and Latakia, the opposition has been emboldened by the open support it has been receiving from some governments in the region and from the Western capitals. Credible reports have emerged of financial support from the United States for the various opposition groups, including the prominent Barada television channel based in London, which have been calling for the removal of Assad from office.

WikiLeaks cables have revealed that $6 million was handed out to Syrian opposition groups by the George Bush administration after 2006. U.S. officials at that time described the Syrian government as a ripe fruit ready to fall into their lap.

Syria has been a target for regime change for a long time. The U.S. had classified Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism and targeted it for military intervention. General Wesley Clark, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Commander during the Bush administration, said that Syria was among the seven countries the U.S. was targeting for regime change after the invasion of Iraq. The other countries were Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan.

Syrian media published in the last week of March details of an alleged U.S.-Saudi plan, hatched in 2008, to overthrow the government. The plan, as reported, proposed the establishment of different networks comprising educated unemployed, criminal groups, ethnic-sectarian groups and a media network acting in close coordination with media centres in the West. What has been happening in Syria since then seems to be following this script. Unemployed youth (Syria has a high unemployment rate) have been in the forefront of the demonstrations. Snipers, presumably from criminal groups, have been actively targeting the security forces. Sectarian groups and the media also appear to have played their assigned roles.

The goal of the U.S.-Saudi destabilisation programme, according to the documents published in the Syrian media, is to replace Assad with a supreme national council that would then cut off relations with Iran and the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon.

Damascus has continued its principled support for the movements resisting Israeli occupation and aggression. Ten Palestinian factions have their offices in Damascus. The Hizbollah political movement today dominates the government of Lebanon and has been standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians.

Syria has maintained strong bilateral relations with Iran ever since the success of the Islamic revolution there. Washington has been trying unsuccessfully to persuade Syria to distance itself from Iran. Syria is the only Arab ally Iran has had so far. Things seem to be changing with the new government in Egypt opting for normal relations with Iran.

Earlier there was an attempt to isolate Syria internationally after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The West rushed to the conclusion that the Syrian government was behind his killing and it forced the Syrian peacekeepers in Lebanon to withdraw. But the government in Damascus came out of the crisis with its stature enhanced. Syria has emerged in the last few years as an oasis of stability and as a key player in the region. Many in the West still acknowledge that Assad continues to be popular among large sections of the country's populace. The Western media agreed that a rally attended by Assad on March 29 attracted tens of thousands of supporters.

In the past couple of months, large demonstrations have been held in support of the young President. There is a sizable percentage of minorities, comprising Alawites, Shias, Druze and Christians, who support the government along with secular-minded Sunnis. After Lebanon, Syria has the biggest Christian population in the Arab world. More than 1.2 million Christians live peacefully with their compatriots in the country. In neighbouring Iraq, the Christian population has dwindled after it was targeted by extremist groups following the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

The democracy movement in Syria is mainly led by the Muslim Brothers. Among them are diehard Salafi Islamist elements. There is a lot of bad blood between the secular Ba'athist government and the Muslim Brothers. The city of Hama was flattened by President Hafez al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad's father) in 1982 following an uprising there by the Brothers. More than 10,000 people were reportedly killed in that operation, which remains a painful chapter in the country's recent history.

The Barack Obama administration was caught off guard by the fast-paced developments in Syria. With America's attention diverted to Egypt and Libya, Syria was low on the its radar. Israel, already rattled by the regime change in Egypt, did not want a similar thing to happen in Syria, although the country is part of the rejectionist front since the Oslo peace accords were signed. Syria has maintained a tenuous peace with Israel despite its unlawful occupation of the Golan Heights. Syria has been facing U.S. sanctions for a long time though there are indications that the bilateral relations are slowly getting back on track.

Policymakers in Washington and Tel Aviv had initially feared that continued unrest in Syria could plunge the whole region into turmoil.

Israeli officials privately say that although Assad is not a friend of their country he is still preferable to the chaos that might ensue if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. Turkey has warned that the civil unrest can once again encourage the Kurdish minority in Syria to rise in revolt and join fellow secessionists across the border. Refugees fleeing the unrest have already started entering Turkey. Syria's neighbours, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, fear that the upheaval will encourage forces seeking political change there.

Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East [West Asia], Rami Khouri, a leading analyst, has written. The spectre of sectarian-based chaos within a post-Assad Syria that could spread to other parts of the Middle East is frightening to many people, he said.

In recent weeks, both Washington and Tel Aviv have changed their stance. The Obama administration, under pressure from the Zionist lobby, has become more strident in its criticism of the Syrian government's handling of domestic affairs. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak recently said that Israel had no reasons to be alarmed if Assad were overthrown. In mid-April, a U.S. State Department spokesman offered his condolences for the martyrs who died in the protests. Obama had earlier condemned what he termed as the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful demonstrators as well as any use of violence by protesters.

The Syrian Army has moved in force into towns where soldiers and supporters of the government were lynched by mobs. Assad said the government had proof that the protests were part of a foreign conspiracy to create sectarian strife.

In the small Sunni-dominated town of Daraa on the border with Jordan, where the trouble first began on March 18, seven policemen and four civilians were killed. The protesters burned down the local Ba'ath Party headquarters and a police station. Many of the demonstrators carried firearms. A Xinhua report of April 20 mentions armed terrorist groups attacking the homes of security personnel.

The opposition alleged that more than 300 people were killed by the security forces. On May 6, the United Nations Human Rights Commission passed a resolution criticising the government for using excessive force against protesters. The government announced that it was permitting a U.N. fact-finding team to visit the country to check the humanitarian situation. A Syrian government spokesman said the government is not worried as it has done nothing wrong.

Stringent sanctions

In the last week of April, after failing to get the U.N. Security Council to condemn Syria, the Obama administration issued more stringent sanctions against Damascus and called on its European allies to follow suit. In a strongly worded letter to the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Obama said Syria's human rights abuses constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States, and warrant the imposition of additional sanctions. Obama even dragged Iran into the picture by accusing its government of being a party to the suppression of the democratic rights of the Syrian people.

Obama's language was similar in tone to the order he had issued against Libya in late February, before U.S. military planes launched an assault on Libya. Britain, France, Germany and Portugal circulated a draft resolution similar to the one that was passed against Libya in the Security Council in the last week of April. The draft was opposed by Russia and China and several non-permanent members.

Although the calls from the Western capital for Assad to leave are getting louder by the day, the facts on the ground show that the Ba'athist government will soon overcome the most serious challenge it has faced since coming to power in 1963. The Ba'ath Party, the Army and the security apparatus remain united behind Assad. Even Rifaat al-Assad, the exiled uncle of Bashar, has called for unity among Syrians at this critical period. Rifaat had become an outspoken critic of the government after he was exiled to France following political differences with the then President, Hafez al-Assad, 30 years ago.

Syria is not short of friends in the international community. Influential countries such as Russia have a stake in the stability of Syria. The long-standing defence and strategic ties between the two countries remain strong. The Russian naval fleet uses the Syrian port of Tartus in the Mediterranean. In an arms deal signed during President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Syria last year, Russia agreed to sell MiG-29 fighters, Pantsir short-range surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.

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