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Middle East, Opinion

Syria’s tragedy

Today’s news from Syria demonstrates what to my probably rather limited understanding of the country, is a serious deterioration. It is also disappointing, almost a betrayal of the hopes so many people had for the country. That clearly includes the Syrians themselves.

Today, and over the past few weeks, the Syrian Ba’ath party regime led by Bashar al-Assad has besieged and attacked towns that had the temerity to stand up and ask for reform. The irony of this all is that when current president Bashar al-Assad began his rule after his father Hafez’s death, it seemed that he was pushing for these very reforms the demonstrators are calling for in their thousands.

Syria is not Libya. It is a cultivated, civilised place. This is no slur on the Libyans, but just an observation of the different histories of the two countries.

Syria has been a focal point for most of the great developments of Euro-Mediterranean culture: semitic peoples, indo-europeans – all passed through this patch of land, partly in that magic region Mesopotamia. The Hellenistic world left its mark, as did the Roman and the Persian. It hosts some of the earliest Christian monuments; the Semitic language Syriac was the medium through which much of the Bible (and, of course, of Greek classics) survived and reached us. Under Islam, Damascus became the seat of the Abbassid Caliphate, a flowering of culture and science.

Through this, Syria has developed a dazzling diversity of peoples and religions. Under the Ottoman Empire, it experienced great tolerance. While a Muslim country, it has been and still is a secular state with little time for extremism, fundamentalism or any other of this particular set of “isms”. Not so, unfortunately, of authoritarianism.

The Ba’ath Party under Hafez al-Assad, ruled with an iron fist. Protest were put down with violence, people died in bloody crackdowns. So when, 10 years ago now, Bashar al-Assad took over the presidency from his father, young, fresh from a career as an opthamologist in the UK, and with fresh new ideals, many saw in him a reformer in the making, battling established elites to introduce greater civil liberties, greater political pluralism, even greater democracy.

We have been cured of that now. The Syrian regime’s reaction to initially limited demonstrations calling for reform to the existing system have been transformed, by the heavy handed response itself, into much more widespread protests calling for the end of the regime. It is ironic that the means chosen to contain should have been the catalyst for the very development al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party feared the most.

The deed, now, has been done. The transformation has happened. The protests are spreading. And each time a town is cut off and invaded by tanks , each time leading protesters have been arrested in their hundreds (including, reportedly, 14-year old boys), the movement is strengthened. However authoritarian a regime is, it cannot survive with ever-decreasing public support, other than through the imposition of terror.

Thus Syria has, against all odds, gone down the path of Libya. The difference is, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that there will be any response from the rest of the world on the same scale or lines as that organised for the North African country. Syria has a much more capable military; the powers with the wherewithal to carry it out are already overstretched, there are not the same economic imperatives (that is, no oil); it is unlikely that the regional powers will want disturbance on their doorstep for a million reasons, not all complimentary.

The sanctions announced yesterday  are, of course, a step in the right direction. How effective they will be is another matter altogether. Even if more robust measures are taken (now that is a euphemism if ever there was one), the effectiveness is also doubtful. In Libya, it is proving difficult not only to protect civilians from the air and to enforce a no-fly zone (Ghaddafi’s forces have reportedly dropped mines into Misrata harbour, dropped bombs and destroyed a fuel dump from small aircraft, according to both Al Jazeera and the BBC).

The Syrians deserve our support. How this can be delivered effectively is a different question, but one which needs to be answered. The Syrians, like the Libyans and the Yemenis, should be disappointed that Bashar al-Assad, apart from failing to live up to his promise, has also resisted the honourable path taken by the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and left before too many people got hurt and too much damage was done.

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