March 29, 2011

Bashar al-Asad's attempts to placate the Syrians

Syria's President Bashar al-Asad has been in power for over ten years. He has survived numerous political crises, but nothing compared to what appears to be the beginnings of a popular uprising no doubt fueled by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and a host of uprisings across the Arab world. Demonstrations in Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were met with promises of reform and increased government salaries, an attempt to placate the population and maintain the leaders' grips on power.

Syria has a different tactic - the use of heavily armed police, internal security and military units to break up peaceful demonstrations. It was only a day after the initial protests broke out in the southern Syrian city of Dara' that special regime security troops were helicoptered to the city where they brutally stopped the protests with lethal force. Although it is difficult to obtain reliable information on just how many protesters were killed, the numbers may be in the hundreds.

Having seen what happened in other Arab countries over the past months, al-Asad thought he might try the carrot approach after using the stick. His spokesperson, the polished Dr. Butaynah Sha'ban* claimed that the Syrian president had ordered that a committee be established to talk to "our brothers in Dara'" and bring to justice those officials responsible for killing protesters. She continued that the al-Asad government would raise wages, reform the health care system, open election to more political parties, fight corruption and relax tight restrictions on the media.

The claim that action would be taken against those responsible for killing protesters is disingenuous. They were no doubt acting on orders coming directly from the Presidential office. The troops who were dispatched by helicopter were what we at the embassy called "regime protection units."

There are two separate units charged with regime protection, both based in Damascus, but completely separate organizations to make sure the other is not a threat to the regime it is charged to protect. These units do not normally deploy outside Damascus since that is the seat of government and the likely venue for a coup attempt. When they deployed to Dara', they did so with Presidential authority and direction.

The Syrians have a history with handling demonstrators - that history is not lost on the population. In one defining event, the Syrians learned what their government will tolerate and what it will not. It was in 1982 in the northern city of Hamah, the fourth largest city in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood had decided to defy the Syrian government. President Hafiz al-Asad deployed elements of the Syrian army under the command of his ruthless brother Rifa't. Syrian artillery flattened the center of the city and killed upwards of 25,000 people. The Syrian response has become notorious around the world as "The Hamah Rules.

The Syrians learned the rules. Up until now, they really haven't broken the rules. Occasionally, though, in the early and mid-1990's we would hear gunshots in Damascus. Being the inquisitive military attache that I was, I would try to find the source of the gunfire. More often than not, it was a group of Muslim Brotherhood fighters holed up in a house. After a few cursory shots of return fire, the Syrian internal security forces would set the house on fire. I asked one of the officers why they resorted to such drastic action so quickly. He explained that the ikhwan ("brothers") will not surrender, they had to be killed.

It is that history that causes many Middle East observers to be surprised at the tenacity and courage of the protesters. it should have come as no surprise that at the first hint of an uprising, the al-Asad regime put soldiers from its protection units on the streets of Dara' with obvious orders to use whatever force was necessary to put an end to the demonstrations.

It did not. Within days, there were more protests in Dara', but also in the northern coastal city of Latakia, close to the al-Asad family home city of al-Qardahah. Troops were dispatched to both cities and demonstrators were killed.

Al-Asad knew he had to do something to halt the momentum of the protesters. He did two things - he fired his cabinet and orchestrated massive pro-government demonstrations in Damascus.

The Syrian government is good at putting on massive demonstrations comprising hundreds of thousands of people in the street. I was in Damascus when Bashar's late older brother and then-heir apparent was killed in an automobile accident. The Syrians organized huge demonstrations by mobilizing unions and trade organizations - you can do that in a socialist country. A doctor friend was told at work that he was to be present for the doctors' union "spontaneous outpouring of grief" at at specific time and place. What you are seeing on Syrian television is just more of the same organized propaganda.

Firing the cabinet is just another meaningless machination. None of the ministers have any actual power - they do what Bashar al-Asad tells them to do. He will merely replace this batch of yes-men (and women) with a new batch. Nothing will change.

For the Syrian government to react the way it has indicates to me that al-Asad is concerned that at some point his forces, be they police, internal security or military, might well follow the lead of Egyptian military and refuse to act against the civilian population. Or he might fear that the civilian population will continue to rise up as the Libyans have. In any case, he's probably not sleeping well.


* I say "the polished Dr. Butaynah Sha'ban" for a reason. She holds a minister-level position as the Political and Media Advisor for the Office of the Presidency. She has a Ph.D in English literature and is attractive and charming. She is perfect for the job. I know her from the time when I was the Air Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus and she was the presidential interpreter; I worked with her on several occasions.