April 17, 2011

Bashar al-Asad warns the Syrian people


Syrian President Bashar al-Asad said Saturday (April 16) that he expects the government to lift the state of emergency that has been in effect for nearly 50 years. This is but one of the demands of demonstrators emboldened by successful regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, continuing demonstrations in Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan, not to mention a civil war in Libya.

I have to laugh at his choice of words about "expecting the government to...." In Syria, Bashar al-Asad IS the government. He alone can and will make the decision whether or not the state of emergency is ended. Of course, there will be show debates and a vote in the People's Council (the Syrian legislature), but in the end, it is Asad who decides what happens.

What is more important and of concern, however, is the remainder of President Asad's statement. He continued that after the lifting of the emergency laws and the implementation of some reforms, there would no longer be any reason or excuse for demonstrations. The Syrian leadership and media are careful to use the Arabic word for demonstrations rather than the word for protests. He stated, "After that we will not tolerate any attempt at sabotage."

These are pretty clear words - this is a blatant threat. Threats from the Syrian government are not to be taken lightly. By now, the world is aware of the 1982 destruction of the city of Hamah when the Muslim Brotherhood defied the government; as many as 25,000 Syrians were killed in the artillery barrages that destroyed the center of the once-beautiful city. In the last month, over 200 people have been killed by Syrian security and military forces.

In his remarks, Asad reiterated the claim that the demonstrations have been orchestrated by unidentified foreign conspirators who have incited armed gangs to attack security forces and Syrian civilians. In Asad's mythical version of events, Syrian security and military forces are merely acting to protect the population. I don't think the world is buying it.

It will be interesting to watch. I lived in Damascus in the early to mid-1990's. The Syrian intelligence and internal security forces were and remain pervasive and heavy-handed. Their primary, possibly only, mission is to preserve the regime. Bashar al-Asad will do whatever it takes to remain in power. He may go through the motions of lifting the state of emergency and implement some reforms on paper, but nothing will really change.

This is not Tunisia, this is not Egypt. When and if there is a serious threat to Asad's hold on power, he will use armed force to brutally put down the demonstrations. Although there were a lot of people willing to march in Tunis and Cairo, Damascus is different. The government has so thoroughly ferreted out any opposition groups that I doubt there are enough Syrians willing to risk their lives taking to the streets that will pose a real threat to the government.

That said, I have been surprised at the number of Syrians willing to demonstrate. They are all aware of what we call "The Hamah Rules." I do not think Asad is going to put up with much more. His words were chilling, "We will not tolerate...." He means it.