Published: 3 March 2013.
It may sound cruel but over the past few weeks Syria’s pro-democracy revolutionaries have been pushing and shoving for headline space with their Libyan and Yemeni counterparts. It’s not hard to see why. Getting the West interested in your particular revolution is a sure way of maximizing the potential for its success, for every Arab knows that the US and the EU who have long accepted dictators as a fact of life (and therefore legitimized them) can de-legitimize them with a press conference or two. Getting the Western media to talk about your revolution will lead to public pressure, which leads to leaders making statements, paving the way for policies to be formulated and political pressure exerted.
The Libyans have so far received the lion’s share of interest. To be fair, they did get in first when they sparked their uprising against Gaddafi back in mid-February. Their column inches is impressive, if not the present course of their revolution which has stalled on the battlefields of Brega and Ras Lanuf.
The Yemenis have so far followed the rather more peaceful Egyptian model, remarkable given the amount of weaponry in ordinary citizen’s hands. However, lack of economic incentives, the relatively low number of dead and injured and the real threat of Al-Qa’ida has made the Western media somewhat wary of embracing the Yemeni revolution. In many ways its a less “sexier” revolution than Libya’s: there’s no Dr Evil-type villain, no African mercenaries, no perfect Mediterranean backdrops, no oil fields; just thousands of Yemenis in traditional garb squatting in the centre of the capital San’a.
The Syrian revolution took everyone by surprise. I say everyone; some did foretell what was to come but these voices were drowned out by the well-informed experts who assured us that the Syrian regime was ‘immune.’ How the mighty have fallen. The problem as far as the Syrian revolutionaries are concerned was that their timing was awful. By mid-March the Western media was enthralled by the images of NATO jets taking off on bombing runs in Libya, and terrified by the threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan; both stories easily relegated Syria to the back pages.
Not for long though. Hundreds of protesters turned into thousands, and inevitably, dozens of dead and injured. Syria is at the crossroads of converging political interests; it is a police state par excellence run by a militarized mafioso family; it’s beauty and romance tempered by undercurrents of danger and extremism. The world just had to take notice.
Take notice it did; the problem was that the debate was being framed within the context of reform, not revolution. This has meant that news editors are giving Syria less attention that it deserves. In part this is the fault of the protesters themselves who initially went out onto the streets demanding reform, not regime change. The media as a whole however, Arab and Western, did not pick up on the subtleties of Syrian doublespeak, which inevitably develops in a totalitarian dictatorship of 48 years. When Syrians say they want “change”, they mean regime change, not just a change in the law, and when they talk about “freedom” they mean freedom not to be ruled by the Assads. The culture of fear still permeates Syrian society, and many still prefer to skirt on the edges of the hated “red lines” rather than dare cross them. All this has meant that there is a great deal of confusion as to the real aims of the revolution. The body count is there, but not the clarity of purpose.
In Tunisia it took several weeks for the protests to solidify into a popular, coherent and nationwide anti-Ben Ali uprising. Syria will take longer; the adversary is more sophisticated and considerably more brutal. If the protests continue, which they will, and Libya-fatigue begins to set in, Syria will feature more prominently in newspapers and on news channels. Glad tidings for the revolution as it seeks to find its deserved place in the media limelight.
Revolutions are notoriously hard to predict. When they do happen, the experts are usually left looking silly. To illustrate the point, a university lecturer once told me of how he, the Soviet “expert”, published an article in The Times entitled “Why the Berlin Wall will not fall in my lifetime.” Weeks later in 1989, crash!
Many Middle East specialists are now finding themselves in similarly uncomfortable situations. They have quite obviously failed to predict the democratic revolutions now sweeping the region. It is not difficult to see why this has happened. Kevin Brennan writes:
Sovietologists of all political stripes were given strong incentives to ignore certain facts and focus their interest in other areas. I don’t mean to suggest that there was a giant conspiracy at work; there wasn’t. It was just that there were no careers to be had in questioning the conventional wisdom.
The problem then is succumbing to conventional wisdom. To answer the question: “Where the next revolution will take place?”, Middle East experts should now start thinking unconventionally. They should be meeting with activists and youth leaders on the ground, researching what’s happening on the blogosphere, following youth groups on Facebook and Twitter, engaging with the political opposition, monitoring local news sources, looking at what’s happening in the provinces and not only in the state capitals, and generally developing a more nuanced approach than has so far been the case. Conventional wisdom, with its emphasis on Western security concerns and macroeconomics, has been turned on its head post-Tunisia. It is at the street level that the rumblings of the next revolution will first be detected.
You would think someone will take note. This week, and within a space of only 24 hours, two articles appeared on the prospects of revolution in Syria, both of which belong firmly in the conventional wisdom school of Middle East analysis. The first was this by Rania Abouzeid in Time Magazine in which she claimed that, “much-publicized acts by Assad that have apparently helped endear him to the public include his driving to the Umayyad Mosque in February to take part in prayers to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and his strolling through the crowded Souq Al-Hamidiyah marketplace with a low-security profile.” Presumably like the impromptu appearances of Gaddafi in Green Square to thousands of jubilant supporters.
The second article was Michael Bröning’s piece for Foreign Affairs, describing Syria as a “sturdy house that Assad built.” This was a more substantial piece, but it contains the same clichés and conjecture that plagues much of what is written about Syria these days. Bröning essentially argues that, ”Despite various parallels with Tunisia and Egypt, a close look at Syria reveals that the Assad regime is unlikely to fall.” So it’s a Syria-is-not-Egypt argument. Sound familiar?
It was J K Galbraith who said, “The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.” The problem with these analyses is that they demonstrate an unwillingness to challenge the underlying assumptions of the great debate on Syria in the light of what has happened in the region during the past three months. Tunisia proved that “performance legitimacy” was no guarantee against revolution; Egypt the extraordinary power of citizen protest; and who could trust a word of state television after Libya? Syria is as much immune from revolutionary change as Romania was in the summer of 1989.
To be fair to the Middle East experts, the Arabs themselves didn’t see what was around the corner. Now that we are on the corner however, it seems rather foolish to predict where a revolution will not take place when the same experts failed to predict the revolutions that did take place. Like the Soviet experts before them, the Middle East experts are good at many things; prophesying is not one of them.
There have been rumours circulating for some time of clandestine support being extended to Gaddafi by Syria. It started with talk of Syrian mercenaries participating in the violent crackdown on protesters in Benghazi. Then I received an email from a Barada TV viewer who said that he was one of many Syrian migrant workers stranded in Triploi who were evacuated by ship. I checked out the claim from multiple sources
and I discovered that a ship had indeed sailed from Tartus to Tripoli. The viewer claims that he saw many plain-clothed security men were aboard the ship, and that the ship’s crews demanded bribes to allow the stranded families safe passage back to Syria.
Circumstantial evidence perhaps. Reports then surfaced of Syrian mukhabarat arriving in Tripoli to “cleanse” the Libyan intelligence archive of evidence that may incriminate Damascus in acts of terrorism committed in the 1970s and 1980s. This particular allegation was made in Al-Hakika website, run by Paris-based Syrian journalist Nizar Nayuf. His source is an unnamed former MI6 intelligence officer who said that:
Last Wednesday [2nd March] UK authorities had observed Syrian mukhabarat officers arriving at Abdulsalam Jallud’s villa in the Libyan capital … It is believed that the “delegation” belonged to the external branch of the Syrian General Intelligence – or more likely – to the Air Force Intelligence.
Abdulsalam Jallud was considered to be the number two man in Libya until he fell out with Gaddafi in 1993. It is believed that he was involved in many acts of terrorism including Lockerbie, which were perpetrated with the active knowledge and support of the Syrians via the Abu Nidal Group and the PFLP-GC. Nayuf says that it is documents relating to these acts which are in the Libyan intelligence archives that the Syrian officers wish to destroy.
The story could be true, but I am deeply sceptical of Nayuf’s unnamed former MI6 source. A more credible report appeared in the 3 March edition of Intelligence Online (below), which says that Syrian pilots based in Libya have taken part in bombing raids against the protesters with the consent of Bashar Al-Assad himself.
The report claims that following telephone calls between the Libyan and Syrian leaders
President Assad told General Isaam Hallaq, the commander in chief of the Syrian air force, to instruct the pilots and technicians in Tripoli to help the Libyan regime should Gaddafi decide to bombard dissident regions.
A long-standing defence agreement between the two countries has meant that a number of Syrian pilots are stationed in Libya to train with the Libyan air force.
Intriguing.. and quite possibly true. What gives this story a large degree of credability was the shooting down yesterday of a Libyan air force jet by rebels, killing both pilots. After checking their ID papers, the rebels discovered that one of the dead pilots was a Syrian.
A cameraman working for France 2 captured the moment. Watch the video here.
It is of course saddening to hear of Syrians participating in attempts to crush the Libyan revolution. Unfortunately, it is does not surprise me in the least. Not only is the Libyan dictator one of Syria’s closest Arab allies, his downfall may encourage Syrians to rise up against their own regime. Reason enough then to make sure he survives.
A few days ago, the above video surfaced on YouTube of Seif al-Islam Al-Gaddafi atop an armoured vehicle in what appears to be a morale-boosting visit to the front line.
What is interesting is that Seif is carrying a German-made H&K G36 assault rifle, not the standard issue AK-47 used by the ordinary troops. His jacket is most probably designer and so too are his glasses. This is the story of the LSE graduate, who counted Peter Mandelson as one of his close friends, now finding himself having to crush a popular uprising on behalf of dictator dad.
You might think he’s grossly out of place. Very briefly, you might even be tempted to feel sorry for him. For Arab dictator dynasties however, this is just another day in the office.
This leads me onto Bashar. I was never sold by the portrayal of him as a gentle, caring, softly-spoken reformer and modernizer. I felt there was something phony about him because had he been the gentle, caring, softly-spoken reformer and modernizer, he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did.
It’s funny how Bashar has much more in common with Seif than he would otherwise like to admit. Both are sons of “revolutionary” dictators, both are stupendously rich, both studied in the UK, both have had military training, both had been assigned portfolios that would endow them with popularity (anti-corruption drive for Bashar, charitable organization for Seif), and both were groomed from an early stage to assume power at a future date.
But more importantly, both have demonstrated that underneath the thin veneer of civility and Western education is a vicious and vindictive character, every bit as nasty as daddy’s.
It took the Libyan uprising for Seif’s true colours to show. Bashar on the other hand has been showing his true colours to the Syrian people for the last eleven years. His latest victim is Tal Al-Mallohi, the 19-year old blogger arrested and recently convicted in a secret trial on trumped-up charges of spying for the CIA. I shudder to think what she has gone through in those cold and damp underground dungeons.
Then there was the Seidnaya Prison massacre of 2008 and the Qamishli massacre of Kurdish protesters of 2004. And let’s not forget the murder of Sheikh Ma’shuq Al-Khaznawi in 2005. That’s not to mention the many killings carried out in Lebanon which implicate Bashar Al-Assad personally.
I suppose the only obvious difference between the two is that Bashar made it to the top and Seif is unlikely to do so. Bloody good luck for the Libyans. Not so good for the Syrians.
Over the years Damascus has seen its fair share of pro-regime demonstrations and rallies of the kind that Kim Jong-il will find familiar. But not since 1980 has it witnessed unsanctioned demonstrations, let alone three in a space of one month! This is exactly what has happened.
It began on 30 January when a group of 100, led by youth leader and known oppositionist Suheir Al-Attasi, held a candlelight vigil in Bab Tuma in Damascus in support of the Tahrir Square protesters. The vigil was broken up by force by plain-clothed security men. When attempting to file a complaint at a nearby police station, Ms. Al-Attasi was physically and verbally abused by a senior security official.
Then on 17 February came the 4,000-strong spontaneous demonstration in the Harika district of Damascus. That was sparked by a policemen assaulting a local man. Read more about what happened here.
Then today on 22 February another vigil was held – this time outside the Libyan embassy in support of the popular uprising in that country. The protesters shouted anti-Gaddafi slogans and sang the Syrian national anthem, emphasising the peaceful nature of their protest. See video above.
What was encouraging was the turnout, which exceeded 200. An improvement on last time. Less encouraging was the response of the security men who broke up the vigil. Young women as well as men were verbally and physically attacked by leather-jacketed thugs. Protesters responded by shouting “those who attack their own people are traitors!” Several of the protesters were arrested.
Not an unsurprising response by the authorities who felt it safe to use force against the 200 or so attending the vigil. They were less keen to use force against the Harika demonstration which numbered 4,000 participants. Size then does matter.
Whether large or small, and despite being banned under the Emergency Law, protests in Damascus are becoming more common. A positive development in the “republic of fear.”