Bashaar al-Asad’s speech this week was undoubtedly a sign of weakness. Apart from a phone call to Lebanon, the ‘president’ (how insubstantial the word now sounds) hadn’t been seen or heard for two months. Turkey, the West, even Russia wanted to see a proactive, present president dealing with the crisis; Syrians began to wonder if the man was under house arrest, or sedated, or dead. So finally he turned up, only to repeat vague and unsubstantiated noises about ‘reform’, ‘dialogue’, and the like. All entirely meaningless – the killings and arrests continue regardless. The greater part of the speech focussed on the alternative reality which lives in regime heads – on conspiracies, germs, saboteurs, vandals, infiltrators. At the start of the trouble, the president said, he’d thought the ‘armed groups’ contained only 10,000 men. Imagine his surprise when he learnt there were in fact 64,000!
The only change was one of style. This time al-Asad was careful not to giggle. (A Facebook page was set up the day before the speech, called – in Arabic – ‘Bashaar, if you laugh tomorrow, we’ll shit on you.’) The camera was careful to pull away from the president when the audience applauded, lest he break into one of his gormless smiles. But he wasn’t smiling. There was very definitely fear in his eyes. And he’d lost weight. Not as much as lost by 1400 corpses, but a good few kilos.
Yesterday President Bashaar al-Asad lifted the Emergency Law, dissolved the notorious State Security Courts, and legalised peaceful protests.
After the president’s decree, a lawyer asked permission to hold a protest in Hasakeh. He was detained by security forces.
Today – ‘Great Friday’ – large, peaceful, unarmed protests were held in all regions of the country. Police, army and militia used tear gas, electric rods and live ammunition against the people. At least 88 sons and daughters of Syria were murdered. Regime forces prevented some of the wounded from receiving medical help. Other wounded have been arrested from their hospital beds. (Here are ugly scenes in Homs).
Damascus is under lockdown, mukhabarat clustering on every corner. Someone I know tried to cross the city today for entirely apolitical reasons. During the journey he was taken off the bus (with everyone else) and marched to a police station where he was questioned and his details recorded. But protests and gunfire still roared from the suburbs as far into the city’s heart as Meedan.
Words are one thing, actions another. The president’s words have no meaning at all.
Until recently it seemed that Syria, along with wealthy Saudi Arabia, was the state least likely to fall to the revolutionary turmoil sweeping the Arab region.
The first reason for the Asad regime’s seeming stability is Syrian fear of sectarian chaos. Beyond the Sunni Arab majority, Syria includes Alawis (most notably the president and key military figures), Christians, Ismailis, Druze, Kurds and Armenians, as well as Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. The state has achieved a power balance between the minorities and rural Sunnis while building an alliance with the urban Sunni business class. This means that Syria is the best place in the Middle East to belong to a religious minority, certainly better than in ‘liberated’ Iraq or in the Jewish state, and for a long time domestic peace under authoritarianism has looked more attractive than the neighbouring sectarian and strife-torn ‘democracies’ in Lebanon and Iraq (the American dismantling of the Iraqi state provided a serious blow to Arab democratic aspirations, neo-con fantasies notwithstanding).
Some (I hope exaggerated) reports say that well over a hundred people were killed in the southern Syrian city of Dera’a yesterday. And after Friday prayers today, enraged Syrians took to the streets in nearby Sunamayn, in central and suburban Damascus, in towns such as Tell and Ma’adumiyeh in the Damascus countryside, and in the cities of Homs, Hama and Lattakiya. They chanted “God, Syria, Freedom – That’s All,” and “With our Souls and Blood We Sacrifice for You, O Dera’a.” And they did sacrifice; reports suggest that many more were killed and injured by the state’s bullets this afternoon.
The officially-sanctioned chants usually heard in Syria promote sacrifice for President Bashaar al-Asad. Today a group of pro-regime demonstrators rather lamely replaced Freedom with Bashaar, as in “God, Syria, Bashaar – That’s All.” But it doesn’t work any more. Bashaar, previously perceived by many as innocent of his father’s regime’s crimes, now has blood on his hands. His name sounds like the antithesis of freedom.
A sigh of relief blew across Syria when the Bush administration was retired. Bush had backed Israel’s reoccupation of West Bank cities, described Ariel ‘the Bulldozer’ Sharon as “a man of peace”, given Syria two million Iraqi refugees and an inflation crisis, and blamed Syria for the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Veiled American threats of “regime change” scared the Syrian people – who observed the blood rushing from neighbouring Iraq – almost as much as they scared the regime itself.
Obama’s re-engagement signalled an end to the days of considering Syria – in the predatorial neo-con phrase – “low-hanging fruit”, but American overtures have remained cautious, the new administration’s policy severely limited by its commitments to Israel and the domestic Israel lobby. Obama nominated Robert Ford as the first American ambassador to Damascus in five years, but the appointment has since been blocked by the Senate. In May, Obama renewed Bush-era sanctions, citing Syria’s “continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs,” which, “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
So not much has changed. The neoconservative language is still in place, the same elision of distance between American and Israeli interests, and between anti-occupation militias and al-Qa’ida-style terrorists, plus a flat refusal to understand that the countries really under unusual and extraordinary threat of attack are Syria, Lebanon, and – Netanyahu’s “new Amalek” – Iran.
It’s important to remember that Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches consist of more than mere rhetoric. One of the reasons for Nasrallah’s enormous popularity in the Arab and Muslim worlds is that, unlike other Arab leaders, he says what he means and means what he says. Hizbullah is the only force to have defeated Israel – once in 2000, when the brutal occupation of south Lebanon was brought to an end, and once in 2006, when Israeli troops attempted to reinvade in order to dismantle the resistance, but bled on the border for five weeks instead. During the 2006 war Israel bombed every TV mast it could find, but failed to put Hizbullah’s al-Manar off the air. Nasrallah spoke on al-Manar of “the Israeli warship that attacked our infrastructure, people’s homes and civilians. Look at it burn!” As Nasrallah uttered these words, a Hizbullah missile did indeed disable an Israeli warship, forcing Israel to move its fleet away from the Lebanese coast.
In mid-February 2010, Shaikh Nasrallah made a speech which may well mark a fundamental change in the Middle Eastern balance of power. The speech, quoted below, should not be read as a string of empty threats, but a signal of new weaponry and fighting capabilities.