Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:19 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:19 | SYDNEY

Syria: Flicking the switch to repression


Rodger Shanahan


28 April 2011 13:02

In light of current events in Syria, February's Vogue puff-piece on Syria's chic first lady now seems particularly ill-timed. There was much about the Assad view on secularism and modernity, but no mention of the stormclouds gathering in the region other than Asma's observation that 'It's a tough neighbourhood'.

Tough indeed. While her husband's father always had a deft touch in playing hardball and offering concessions at the appropriate times, Bashar is finding it more difficult to repeat Hafiz's success. 

Some of Bashar's situation is down to the fact that he is ruling in a period of immense and immediate political unrest, the likes of which his father never experienced. 

Widespread popular uprisings, fueled by decades of corrupt rule and organised by disparate groups that have toppled rulers of decades standing in other Arab states, pose a greater problem of legitimacy than did the Syrian Brotherhood in the 1980s.

Bashar has reacted somewhat strangely to events. Offering pay rises to government employees, sacking the government and several governors in an effort to mollify protestors and then dashing hopes of substantive reform during a much-anticipated but ultimately hollow speech.

His subsequent announcement that he would lift emergency rule seemed to be a concession forced upon him and consequently one that failed to satisfy protestors who likely sense weakness at the centre. 

There is no doubt that the regime has now flicked the switch to repression, lest this sense of weakness further embolden the protestors. 

As demonstrated at Hama, when Hafiz wanted to deal with dissent he attacked the centre with overwhelming force. Although identifying the centre is much more difficult in this instance, Bashar has decided that Deraa is the epicentre of the revolt and so has deployed the military. 

Not any military, but the 4th Armoured Division commanded by his brother Maher. This and the closing of the nearby land border with Jordan are further indications that Bashar has decided that the Sunni stronghold of Deraa poses the greatest threat to him at the moment.

So will the Assads survive until the next edition of Vogue is released? 

So many firsts have been created in the Arab world in the past few months that it is hard to foretell the future with any certainty. Even the US has maintained a relatively low level of criticism, likely because it wants to hedge its bets until it sees what emerges from the current unrest.

On the face of it, the regime appears strong enough to survive. First, unlike Egypt, Libya and Yemen and despite isolated reports of defections, the military appears to be unified behind the government — the senior military leadership has as much to lose as the political establishment if it all goes belly up, so they are committed to their own survival as much as to the Assads. 

If the military fractures then all bets will be off. 

Second, while relatively widespread, the protests are not universal. Damascus and Aleppo have been relatively unaffected and, with the ban on foreign journalists in the country, there is no central rallying point of protest to focus world attention like there was in Egypt and Bahrain and there is in Yemen. 

And last, there remains a goodly part of the population that fears what an internally fractured Syria will bring to their communities and/or businesses — a quick look over the border at Lebanon shows them what chaos a weak central government can bring.

On the downside for Assad, the protests have seemed up to now impervious to security crackdowns, so Assad will be hoping that this latest military intervention works. 

He is likely also worried about what support anti-government forces both in Syria and abroad are receiving from some of his regional neighbours who may see strategic opportunity in a weakened Damascus. 

It's when your most vocal supporters are from Hizbullah's al-Manar television and Iran's Press TV that your isolation in a time of uncertainty is most keenly felt.

The situation in Syria remains fluid and the stakes are high — it will some weeks before we are likely to get a sense of what the future holds for Syria.  

 Photo by Flickr user JamesEverett.