Is Time Running Out for The Syrian Regime?

Until recently, Syria seemed immune from the upheavals that rocked the Middle East region. The protests in Syria so far have been very small by Egyptian, Tunisian, Yemeni or Libyan standards.

But the significant thing is that such protests are happening at all in a country that has been ruled under emergency rule since the early 1960s. The regime still believes that the “iron-fist” strategy is the best policy in dealing with discontent and protest.

The problem with the Damascus regime is that it does not listen to advice even from friends as we shall see later. It does not listen to public demands.

Most of us welcomed Bashar as a western-educated young man who promised reforms, but failed to follow through on his promises. He disappointed friend and foe alike.

The regime failed to absorb the lessons of Egypt and Tunisia. It is the only regime in the Arab World that still openly supports the tyrannical Libyan regime. The regime does not understand that the killing of civilians will not solve the problem. It will only attract international condemnation and possible military intervention.

Critics of Bashar say that the regime will resort to anything to stay in power. Although many Syrians don’t like the Iraqi or Libyan experience to be repeated in Syria, they aspire for freedom and democracy. They do not believe the regime anymore.

For many years the regime relied on anti-Israeli and anti-Western slogans. The mantra of stability is no longer believed. Most Syrians see such slogans as an excuse to avoid reforms.

Bashar Al-Assad inherited the Presidency of Syria in the year 2000 after the death of his father the late Hafez Al-Assad. The constitution was hastily amended to enable Bashar to become President. Since then he has been promising reforms but very little has been delivered.

Like many observers of the Middle East, I was pleased to hear the new President Bashar Al-Assad’s inaugural address in July 2000 promising a break from the dictatorial past. Bashar promised freedom, reform and democracy. Eleven years later, if anything, the situation is even worse. The media is muzzled, bloggers are imprisoned and democracy remains a mirage.

The country suffers from low economic growth, high unemployment and high level of poverty and corruption. Most Syrians are facing economic difficulties. 60 percent of the population is poor with over 20 percent unemployment. Corruption is rife among the upper echelons of society.

The Regime is in denial

The Damascus Regime seems unaware of the Freedom Tsunami which has rocked the region. We have seen two long term dictators toppled. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zein El Alabidine Ben Ali of Tunisia have departed the political scene in recent weeks. The Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi is fighting for his political life and likewise the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is clinging to power by the skin of his teeth.

It is a matter of time before Gaddafi and Saleh disappear into the Middle Eastern sunset.

Lately the Syrian apparatchiks have been telling the world “Syria is not Egypt, Syria is not Tunisia.” Next they will be saying Syria is not Libya and it is not Yemen. Fair enough but such epithets will lead to nowhere.

The Syrian regime has not taken any steps to reform and change. It is not long before the cracks will start to appear in the volatile political structure of the regime.

Most observers believe that stability and slogans are not enough to stop the popular revolution. Although the recent protests are limited in scale compared to Egypt and Yemen, they could escalate.

On March15th the “Syrian Day of Rage” hundreds demonstrated in Damascus.

On March 17th the “Friday of Dignity”, there were more demonstrations in various cities.

On March 24th another Day of Dignity more violence is expected.

Human Rights Groups say that over 100 people may have been killed in Deraa.

Ignoring Advice

Over the last six years Rifaat al-Assad the younger brother and former Vice President of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has been urging Bashar al-Assad to embark on serious peaceful gradual reforms towards democracy.

Rifaat’s reform message was broadcast frequently on Arab News Network (ANN) Satellite TV Station. The Damascus regime chose to ignore these messages. More recently Ribal Al-Assad, a cousin of Bashar Al-Assad and the son of the former Vice President Rifaat Alassad, said in interviews that a window of opportunity still exists for the regime to take some steps such as the lifting of the state of emergency, releasing all political prisoners and reaching out to the opposition. Ribal Al-Assad is chairman of the “Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria” ODFS.

Bashar al-Assad has been too slow to respond to the public demand for reforms and freedom. I am afraid he will offer too little too late and may plunge Syria into the abyss.