Yesterday I watched Bashar al-Assad give his speech live on television. The speech had been built up as the launch of major reforms, including the possibility of an end to Syria's emergency law and a move towards greater political pluralism. Instead I saw a man nervously laughing and cracking jokes, ramble on about vague foreign conspiracies, and talk for a good hour without saying anything. The speech's takeaway was absolutely nothing, it was void of content aside from raising the spectre of sectarian strife.
It was a disappointing (in a realpolitik sense) performance from a man who had appeared to be the great survivor of the last decade's attempt to destabilize Syria by the Bush administration and, while he'd lost considerable sway over Lebanon, had appeared to be regaining strength and improving relations with Saudi Arabia and the United States despite the post-Hariri assassination chill.
I am not up to date on Syria to know whether the regime is seriously imperilled. I see the regime was able to mobilize a lot of people in support of Bashar, and know enough from having once lived in Damascus that there is something of a consensus around the regime which I don't think has eroded as much as it did in Egypt or Tunisia. But even in the Syrian regime survives the unrest, which appears likely, it is now talking only to itself. Bashar had an opportunity to address a nation and regain its confidence; instead he addressed the regime and its hangers-on in parliament and got empty praise. For the next few years, the realization will dawn over Syrians afraid of instability, if it hasn't already, that this regime is headed nowhere.
I had dinner with Robin Yassin-Kassab of the excellent website PULSE, who suggested that the militias know causing trouble in Latakia are probably regime-backed criminal gangs. Robin writes in Dinosaur in Denial:
In Tunisia the revolutionaries held up signs which said, ‘No Fear From Now On.’ Arabs everywhere read these signs. The first clear indication of the new age in Syria was a spontaneous demonstration in Damascus Old City in response to the police beating of a shopkeeper’s son. The protestors’ demands were not directly political, but called for basic rights and respect. “The Syrian People Won’t be Humiliated,” they chanted. The regime dealt intelligently with that one, sending the Interior Minister to address the crowd, and punishing the policemen in question.
What came next was just plain stupid. In the southern city of Dara’a – stricken by drought, its population swollen by climate change refugees from the east – fifteen schoolchildren were arrested for spraying walls with revolutionary graffiti. The resulting protests were countered by live ammunition. Such repression is worse than clumsy. The lesson from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is that extreme state violence converts even the previously unconvinced to revolt. Protests predictably spread to Sananaym, suburban Damascus, Homs and Banyas. At least 60 people, and perhaps many more, were killed. After these days of blood, Bashaar’s clean-handed image has dissolved.
So too has the regime’s status as guarantor of sectarian coexistence. In the most sinister development so far, armed gangs were unleashed on Latakia, Syria’s Mediterranean port city. In Sunni areas they declared themselves to be vengeful Alawis; in Alawi areas they posed as vengeful Sunnis. Most informed Syrians believe these thugs are the regime-linked Shabiha militia aiming to provoke sectarian conflict and thereby scare Syrians back to loyalty to the devil they know. Competing rumours from the mouths of regime supporters blame Lebanese, Iraqi or Palestinian provocateurs, but these versions are hardly reassuring. If, after half a century of strict emergency laws, shadowy foreign militias can still roam the streets, what’s the point of the security-obsessed state?
I can't verify the story but find it has verisimilitude in its creepiness. Robin also caught this even more telling moment:
After the speech the president blew kisses to adoring crowds. In an unscripted moment a woman ran towards his car and said something. Secret policemen rapidly mobbed her, and the state TV screen went blank.
Peter Harling, ICG's top Syria hand, has a devastating take on the speech at Foreign Policy. Peter is someone very cautious with his language (after all he represents an organization that carries out diplomatic engagement), and that he is driven to write this suggests there are plenty of reasons to be worried that things will take an increasingly violent turn. Here's an excerpt from the last bit.
Fourth and last, the Syrian leadership did not grasp the huge price to pay for the accumulated grievances of the past and booming expectations of the day. The toll could be settled in one currency only, namely moves -- going beyond the announced package of reforms -- that could convince the people that an entirely new compact was in the works: punishing those responsible for the loss of life, reeling in the security apparatus, and coming to terms with the issue of high-level corruption. Revealingly, not a single measure taken threatens entrenched interests in the higher circles of power, when that is precisely what the people want deep-down: holding to account an elite that has considered power as an entitlement, the state as personal property, and the country as a fiefdom. Trying to protect the prerogatives and privileges of the few will only cost them everything they believe they own.
Assad's master card was to lead a revolution against his own entourage. To his credit, he pushed back on those who from the onset wanted all-out repression. But his much-anticipated speech has failed to offer a credible alternative. There is now every likelihood that Syrians, their hopes dashed, will again take to the streets. The regime must past this last test, which is to avoid more bloodshed. Repression could help it survive or it could be tantamount to suicide -- but in either case, it would be an ignominious fate.
Some other takes:
Update: Apparently Assad decided to actually offer something today: Syria's Assad forms panel to study lifting emergency law | Reuters.
Update 2: I also liked this anecdote in this comment piece by Robert Baer - FT.com / Comment / Opinion - Assad’s Alawite army still calls all the shots:
When I was working in Syria in the 1980s, a Syrian officer offered me an insight into the reality of the country’s army. One night not long after the 1973 war, the officer was up late into the night keeping previous president Hafiz al-Assad company. Around three, he watched Assad as he picked up the phone from the side table and asked his operator to put him through to a frontline post on the Israeli border. A lieutenant came on the phone, sleepy and irritated that he had been woken up.
Assad asked him his name. Rather than answering, the lieutenant asked who his caller was. When Assad told him, the lieutenant naturally enough lost his composure and could only stammer his name. He became even more confused when Assad started to ask the lieutenant about his family and village, knowing all the names of his brothers. “Assad had no idea who would be on duty that night,” the Syrian officer told me. “But it is the very reason Assad has so tightly held on to power all these years. It was his army.”
Assad made it a habit to read every officer’s file, committing their personal details to memory. He also personally approved transfers and promotions. But more importantly, Assad instituted an unwritten rule that every large combat unit would be under the command of an Alawite officer. There would still be Sunni commanders, but in name only. They would have no real power over their units and were not permitted to put a single aircraft into the air or drive a tank out of cantonment – without the authority of the ranking Alawite. The Alawite officers were related either by blood or bonds of loyalty that could never be broken.