November 3, 2011

حبر على ورق - Syria's agreement with the Arab League

Syrian tank in Homs

حبر على ورق (hibr 'ala waraq) is a common Arabic phrase that translates literally to "ink on paper." It is normally used to refer to and demean a worthless piece of paper, much like the agreement signed just two days ago (November 2) between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad and the Arab League. The agreement did not last two days - on November 3, Syrian army tanks and armored personnel carriers opened fire on protesters in the city of Homs, killing at least 20 people.

According to the the agreement, the Syrian government was to withdraw troops from urban areas, halt armed operations against civilian populations, release political prisoners, and start "dialogue" with opposition groups within two weeks. It also required the government to allow journalists, human rights groups and Arab League representatives into the country. There has been no international press coverage of the protests in Syria - or the government reaction - since they began earlier this year.

I would not put too much stock in the fact that the Syrian government, or regime, if you prefer, under the leadership (or dictatorship) of President Bashar al-Asad reached an agreement with the Arab League. In my opinion, having lived in Syria for several years and following events in the country for decades, Bashar al-Asad has no intention of adhering to any agreement that he makes. If the Syrian government agrees to anything, it is only to buy time to continue repression of any perceived threat to the continuation of the Ba'th Party regime that has ruled the country since 1963. Any agreement signed by Bashar al-Asad will be merely hibr 'ala waraq.

The protesters have laid down some markers of their own - the most important, of course, being the demand that the president step down. They have made clear that not only do the want Bashar out, they also want the end of the Ba'th Party. One need only look at the flags in the anti-regime demonstrations.

For comparison purposes, look at the current flag of Syria, first adopted when Syria and Egypt merged to create the United Arab Republic in 1958. It was used until the union was dissolved in 1961, and re-introduced by the Ba'th Party in 1980.

Pro-regime demonstrators with current Syrian flag

Below is the flag carried by many of the protesters. Note that the colors are the same, but used in different places. Red, white, black and green are common Arab and Muslim colors.

Syrian protesters with pre-union flag

This flag dates back to 1932 and is unofficially called the "flag of independence" because it was the flag in use when Syria achieved independence from the French Mandate on April 17, 1946. It was used until 1958, making it the longest used flag in Syrian history.

The protesters are not fooled by Bashar's alleged acceptance of agreements. It will be interesting to see what happens on Friday, the Muslim holy day.