SYRIA: The Second 'Damascus Spring' A Long Way Off

  • Analysis by Mona Alami (damascus)
  • Wednesday, March 30, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

Dressed in plain clothes, policemen and members of the Moukhabarat, the Syrian secret services, keep a watchful eye on the Seven Seas Square. A few hours later, it is the scene of a massive rally in support of the president, with tens of thousands of pro-regime protesters pouring onto the streets.

The show of support comes on the heels of demonstrations against the Assad government, which have rocked the country over the past few weeks, resulting in the deaths of 55 people at the hands of the Syrian security apparatuses, according to Amnesty International. Syrian activists, however, claim the number of the dead is closer to 100.

In a country where half the population seems to be spying on the other half, many are wary of revealing their true political views. 'Many among the country's middle class have become frustrated with the situation. They are asking for wider political reforms,' says Jihad Yazigi, editor of the Syria Report.

'About 11 percent of the Syrian population lives on less than two dollars a day,' emphasises Yazigi.

The southern town of Daraa, where the protests began, is a rural area plagued by drought for the past four years and widespread poverty.

Even among businesspeople and entrepreneurs in the capital Damascus, frustration with the regime and its rampant corruption is on the rise. Take for example the Makhlouf family: As the president's maternal cousins, they are able to control all ventures in the country and ensure they receive a piece of every pie. If they are not granted a percentage of profits, they simply block the business from opening.

'A large international clothing retailer that recently opened in Damascus was prevented from operating until it accepted to give away some of its shares to a relative of the ruling family,' says one economist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The emergency law has also been a point of contention for activists. Enforced since 1963, it effectively suspends most constitutional rights of Syrian citizens. Opposition parties are for the most part banned and freedom of the press is practically non-existent.

In spite of this dire situation, Syrians seem to be divided around the fate of the regime. 'The pro-Assad rally witnessed today is very different from the 'Damascus Spring', which was in essence a secular movement,' says Talal el-Atrache, journalist and co-author of 'Quand la Syrie s’éveillera' (When Syria Awakes).

The Damascus Spring was a period of political and social debate, which was launched after the death of President Hafez al-Assad in 2000. However, the movement was followed by a wave of arrests and was suppressed by the government.

While few Syrians are supporters of the regime, the president does enjoy some level of support -- for honourable and less honourable reasons, according to Karim Emile Bitar, a fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris.

'Many Syrians appreciate the fact that their country was less subservient to U.S. interests than other Arab regimes (in terms of foreign policy). And the president is supported by many members of his own Alawite community,' underlines Bitar.

Other minorities, such as the Christians and Druze, believe the regime is the only line of defence against Sunni fundamentalism.

'There is also fear of the possible 'Lebanisation' of the country if unrest prevails in Syria,' points out el-Atrache, referring to the 15 year long civil war in Lebanon between its many religious factions.

Within the Sunni community, many blame the country's problems on the president's 'Hashya' (entourage) and point out that his power is restricted to foreign policy, deflecting the blame away from Assad when it comes to domestic issues.

According to Bitar, if Assad wants to save his regime and stay in power, he will have to introduce accountability and enact radical reforms that are bound to displease members of his family.

'I am referring specifically to the potential dismissal of a few security officials who are related to the president and the economic reforms that will impact the business interests of the Makhlouf family. It remains to be seen whether Assad will decide to break these bonds and sacrifice the interests of influential family members. If he does, he might regain some popular support,' he adds.

However, the recent crackdown that accompanied promises of political reform leaves little hope for real change. President Assad's speech to the nation today dealt another blow to those calling for real political change.

Assad attributed the recent strife 'to the instigation of satellite TV stations,' adding that the objective behind 'the latest plot against Syria was aimed at ending its leadership of the resistance against Israel'. He also said that the government will start working on reforms without specifying any time or scope.

However, new economic and demographic realities as well as advances in communication tools leave authoritarian regimes with no other choice but to reform, if they want to survive. It seems the Syrian regime is still oblivious to this very simple fact.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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