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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Don’t let your attention wander!

A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video
Osama Bin Laden, from one of his video releases in 2004. Image via Wikipedia

So the Americans have caught up with Osama bin Laden. No one will grieve too much about that, even if most of the world will not have the public celebrations that started across the US.
It is unlikely that the death of bin Laden will do much in itself to hamper terrorists; it is unclear how deeply involved he has been in planning the various attacks attributed to al-Qaeda. However, while the world’s media attention shifts to his fate, the real danger is that events in Libya, Yemen and now Syria may be ignored, even if only for a while.
The popular calls for a democratic transformation in these Arab nations have met with violent suppression; one has the feeling that the degree of repression would have been all the greater if the eyes of the world were not on events there.
In fact, I seem to remember that when the troubles in Syria began – at a much lower intensity – Col. Ghaddafi to the opportunity afforded him by the media shift of attention to the fledgling Syrian protests to launch an attack on his opponents.
It would be sad if the same thing were to happen again. These “revolutions” are long overdue: the Arab peoples have a long and proud history, and share much of their cultural heritage with Europe (and therefore also with the US and so many other countries around the world).
This means that there is no propensity for the Arabs to revert to despotism, any more than there is that propensity for any average European country. What these revolutions are about (I know, I am going t repeat myself here) is the reclaiming of the public sphere, of the possibility of civil society, political debate and thus influence on the social and political (and also – why not? – economic) direction of their countries. These are things that many of us take for granted.
What shape the new Arab democracies will take is not for us to decide. It is up to us, however, to give all the support we can. At its most basic, this is a simple matter: it does not involve much other than attention. But this is essential.
The rest – involving greater cost and risk, admittedly, is predicated upon this bare essential. Whether it be the use of the military to provide physical protection as in Libya, or the use of diplomatic and economic effort to pressure recalcitrant regimes, or even the care for refugees displaced by the troubles and the provision of resources to interim authorities, any further measures depend totally upon this essential fact of attention.
So this is an appeal: however good having Osama bin Laden out of the way may feel, please please please do not let that distract you from the really important things happening now. And that means the reclamation of public space and debate by Arabs across the Middle East.
Specifically, this means support the fledgling democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt; keep watching developments in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The West has let the Middle East down too often in the recent past to afford to do so again!