While many analysts thought Syria’s Bashar Assad’s regime would remain safe and sound amidst the wave of Arabs turning their countries on their head, it seems that they were wrong. During the last two weeks, protesters in the cities of Daraa and Latakia have taken to the streets, and Syria has once again showed to what extent it will go to silence opposition, opening fire and killing at least 100 protesters. The brutal regime of Hafaz Assad, inherited by his son Bashar (who never really seemed that it was his dream to inherit such a role) at last is coming to an end. Yes, it is not important anymore whether or not the recent clashes in Daraa and Latakia will translate to mass demonstrations in the capital of Damascus, clearly Assad will now have no other choice than to lead Syria on a path of democracy. If he does not do this, you can rest assured that the Syrians will do this for him. Yes, for Assad these demonstrations mark the beginning of the end.
The Syrians have lived under draconian emergency laws since 1963, and under Hafiz and Bashar Assad’s iron fist since 1971. Even if Bashar when coming to power in 2000 introduced reforms, they still cannot cover up the farce of a son inheriting the position of his father; and, they cannot cover up the fact that the whole regime is rotten at its very core. The father Assad unarguably was one of the most brutal of the Arab regimes, who will be most remembered for the 1982 massacre he orchestrated in Hama. With the Muslim Brotherhood gaining strength, the city of Hama was bombarded leaving over ten thousand people dead, with some placing the number up to thirty thousand. The massacre always stood as one of the greatest double-standards of the Middle East. While the world voiced a loud protest (rightly so) to Israel and their Lebanese counterparts for the massacre of thousands in Sabra and Shatilla refugees camps, most chose to ignore Assad’s crime. In fact, it was almost as if much of the Arab world suffered from a strong case of amnesia when it came to criticizing crimes against humanities perpetrated by leaders like Hafiz al-Assad (last blog I mentioned the massacre at Halabja committed by Saddam Hussein).
Of all the Middle East countries, perhaps Syria was one country that following the French occupation and Mandate was well on its way to democracy until the Baath party halted this. With a multi-religious makeup, including Sunni, Greek Orthodox, Druze and Alawi, among others, ideological political parties of the 1950’s offered the Syrian people a political system that potentially could cross religious and ethnic lines (there is also a large Kurdish population in Syria). This long break with the past, and years of living under fear, might actually serve as a golden opportunity, a key to unity, which will unite all Syrians. However, this will not be easy with disproportionate amount of peoples living off the huge bureaucracy, and the secret service (muhabarat) embedded in almost every nook and cranny. In Latakia, Assad’s hometown, tensions have been reported between the minority Alawi community and Sunnis; an important note: the Assad family is Alawi and not Sunni. Yes, even if this is not the main motive of all Sunnis, many seem set on taking the “power back” from the Alawi minority.
A Syria free of Assad, a free Syria, free from an outdated ideology, could offer the Middle East a genuine democracy. Just the thought of thousands of Syrians demonstrating a few weeks back seemed unimaginable. For now, we will need to wait and see how this plays out; will this produce an opposition that challenges the regime and forces them to relinquish power in the next few weeks? For now, this does not seem to be the case. However, Syria’s neighbors will need to watch closely since the status-quo has certainly taken a great blow. For Turkey, who has voiced their cautious support of the Assad regime, a new order could dampen their attempts to create a “new Middle East lead by Turkey.” For Israel, new challenges will await now that a genuine call to take back the Golan Heights through peace agreements might emerge. For Lebanon, an Assad free Syria would change all the powers, pulling the carpet of support out from under the Hezbollah, which could set off numerous crises. For Iran, this most definitely would hurt their regional prestige. This fact was read out clearly by the protesters at Daraa that chanted “No to Iran, No to Hezbollah.” I can vouch that someone who has worked on the Middle East for years, the change is refreshing.