Interview with the Russian expert in Middle East and North Africa security studies Vladimir Ahmedov.
So the situation is developing differently in different countries. In Syria, Bashar Assad hasn’t been in the president’s chair as long as Hosni Mubarak was in Egypt, yet we’re seeing not just internal pressure, but also external pressure – and please correct me if I’m wrong. So if before domestic demonstrators were calling for his resignation, we’re now seeing more and more demands from the opposition and US to this effect.
This is very true. There’s a really paradoxical situation in Syria and as you say, the incumbent president hasn’t been there for that long. So what’s the problem? The problem is that when Assad first came to power, there was a lot of hope vested in him and his popularity in the country was huge. He said, clearly and plainly, that the next presidential elections, which happened in 2007 – the president there is in office for 7 years – would see alternatives. But there were no alternatives-based elections.
Because the people around Assad, who, as you say the external factor is currently working against, got in the way of doing this, so really, the president broke his promise. He just quietly got re-elected under the “Arab scenario”, which applies to Saleh, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi, etc. Nevertheless, he is a young president with a Western education, a civilian in power, who at the outset of his rule set out some very correct and true ideas. Even after the 2007 reelection, the hope lingered. Today, he has had two terms in office, so 2014 would mean a 14 year run as president. But as regards Syria and Assad, the methods that are being used today and everything that has been happening since he was reelected in 2007 are strongly reminiscent of the sorts of means that his father used. Thus factually, during this period that he has been in power, he couldn’t, or maybe he wasn’t given the opportunity, to distance himself from the era of his father’s rule. Understandably, there has to be continuity, and he spoke about this and we’ve written about this, the idea of “continuity for the sake of reform” – that is, you have some continuity, take everything positive from past experience, but at the same time you take into account the demands and requirements of the modern day. This didn’t happen in the end when it came to political and economic reforms, to the reshaping of the social and administrative spheres. This didn’t happen and very quickly, particularly half-way through Bashar Assad’s second term in office, everything was a lot like the period of his father’s presidency. The same people, methods and mechanisms were relied on, the rhetoric remained. Everything was oriented outwards and the regime was very well-adjusted to counteracting external challenges. This worked incredibly, which is why everything has continued in Syria for so long. The regime was focused on this. Syria survived through some very difficult moments, both under Hafiz Assad and Bashar Assad. But the problem is that the regime, its means and ways, the propaganda machine and so forth were absolutely unprepared for the internal crises that have started in the country, which is why this happened. So there has been a shift in thinking, so that rather than talking about the time of Hafiz Assad, with its own positives and negatives, and the time of Bashar Assad, with its upsides and drawbacks, there is now an umbrella discussion of the time of the Assads and this is obvious now. And this is a 41-year rule of the Assads. Let alone the Alawis, which we’ll talk about separately. Bashar Assad has not separated himself from his father’s rule, despite his best intentions to this end. But he didn’t have the chance. Today, this is the picture. Factually, they are past the point of returning to what was before, but the government is refusing to accept this. The course that they embarked on in the second decade of April, that is the forceful quelling of protestors, who are exclusively positioned as emissaries of dark foreign forces, conspirators and the like – it doesn’t work. Admittedly, they do have some very powerful internal forces, special strike forces of the army and divisions of special services that are particularly skilled in the forceful suppression of demonstrations. Yet nevertheless, this isn’t working. And the trend is completely different. If before they went on demonstrations on Fridays, like to prayer, and then during the week it subsided, today this is happening every day and the geography of these protests is expanding. At this stage, they haven’t gathered the critical momentum. Damascus and Aleppo, two major cities where about half of the population lives, haven’t been affected by disorders to such a great extent. But this is a question of time. They haven’t been able to confine these uprisings, which continue to grip more and more settlements, cities and the like. It is obvious that this course of action will not lead anywhere good and most importantly, they are past the point of no return.
If today, after more than a month of forcedly suppressing protests they have started to talk about a national dialogue, this indicates that they have lost. Because talking about a national dialogue in Syria 3 or 4 months ago was absolutely ridiculous and laughable. This was good for Lebanon with its confessional map, which calls for a national dialogue. This was also good for the neighboring Iraq. But in Syria, there was no room for such a concept. So talking about this now is an admission of their loss of ground, they understand that the application of force is not working. What were the other options? Well, they could have heeded the advice and calls to stop shooting protestors, as a start. They could have kept the enforcement agencies that were doing this under better control. Whereas these enforcement structures largely operate autonomously, so that when the president later meets with the locals of various cities and they tell him amazing stories about what happened, he is surprised but cannot do anything about it. This is what happens. At that stage, they could have carried out reforms but now, all of the top brass, the new government headed by the new prime minister – they are facing sanctions from the EU and the US. So they have been rendered illegitimate. What can they do? They can’t do anything. Sure, their trade turnover with Turkey and Iran is much greater than say with Europe and the US, but nevertheless. The Turks have changed their attitude too, they’ve started talking about a national dialogue – and this doesn’t bode well. For Syria, the idea of a national dialogue is on par with an admission of defeat.
Because there was no such idea before. The government considered that the entire nation was united by the idea of deflecting a foreign threat.
So what are the fault lines along which the society is breaking?
Its most dangerous part is odds along internal lines. I don’t want to say that these are religious tracks, I hope that it won’t come to that and there aren’t really any conditions for that. But the conflict is simple. The government wants to keep everything as is without any changes, or keeping all changes superficial and palliative, which doesn’t suit the greater part of the population. The people who go out into the street represent the interests of this part of the population. The rest are still sitting at home and not participating, but this hardly means that they support this government and this regime. They are just drawing their own simple conclusions, namely that the government has not been able to extinguish these outbursts of dissent, demonstrators, manifestations, disorders and so forth for over a month. They are willing to forego certain personal freedoms but only in the name of a good and stable life, which is what happened before. They insisted that what happened in Egypt in Tunisia could not have happened here, because they had a young president. Sure, we don’t have a great deal of personal freedoms, sure we haven’t got huge economic prosperity and we are a little on the poor side – but all in all, we have a pretty good life. We don’t want to have the shake-ups that rattled the neighboring Lebanon and Iraq or the sort of revolutionary crises that tore through Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. And we are prepared to tolerate this government, even with the very few personal liberties that it affords us. But in the end, the government was unable to provide this. The entire regime was predicated on the choice between unlimited freedom and stability and security. The majority of the population, 60 to 70 percent, chose stability and security and was ready to accept the level of freedom that the government was able to provide but with the stability and security that was needed to deflect external threats, of which there were more than enough in the past decade. And the Syrians were indeed able to deflect them well thanks to its consolidated society. But this system doesn’t work anymore. So it is very difficult to figure out who’s friend and who’s foe, and where the threat is coming from. Now, the number one threat increasingly comes from within, because, say the US or Israel held out till the very end. They really tried to back the regime and the president personally. Even now – yes, sanctions have been introduced. But what are US sanctions for Syria? Admittedly, the European ones will have a greater effect. But as far as I know, this isn’t a particularly corrupt man, with the sort of schemes and Western bank accounts of Mubarak and Ben Ali. So these sanctions are largely for show, there isn’t much of a tangible effect. They have the unpleasant consequence of sending a call to action for Europe and, most importantly, of sending signals inside the country. Because on Thursday Obama makes a speech and on Friday, there is a huge uprising in protest sentiments in Syria, which hasn’t been seen in the last two months. This is the effect and this is what they’re working at. They presented him with a choice: either you lead this process, which is what we spoke about a month ago and I expressed my hope that he would become the leader of this reform process, or stand down – there is no other option. They have their own interests of course – it isn’t a matter of them being particularly fond of Bashar Assad or Syria itself. Rather, the longer that the disorders continue in Syria, the greater the flow-on effect to other regions, including first of all Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, which is very unpleasant for the Americans. So they need him to lead the reforms, which would see everything calm down and return to normal. This would require the distancing of all top military and enforcement officials, which are all close allies and family members, so distancing them may result in a military coup or a counter-coup. But the only way to push them back is with force and I don’t know if he’s got that in him, given that he’s put the special services and all law enforcement agencies into the hands of these very people that he now needs to push back. Else, he needs to step down.
And then what?
In that case, things will go a completely different way. Because to this day, despite everything, the Syrians believe in a kind young and talented president and hope that maybe he’ll come through. Especially since they have had this happen before – Syria has lived through 22 military coups and attempted coups before Hafiz Assad came to power. That’s over the course of its independence, between 1946 and 1970. So this is a unique country in that sense. That generation is still alive, the memory of that is still there. There is still talk about this in Syria, you can buy books about these military coups in Syrian bookstores. They hope that this might still happen. The recent memory of Hafiz Assad sending off his misbehaving brothers to France – stories of all of this are still recounted by Syrians.
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