A War of Extremes

In a somewhat unexpected development, the US and French embassies in Damascus were stormed yesterday by Assad loyalists.  The French embassy was not breached, but the American embassy was, and protesters hung a Syrian flag from the balcony, as the picture clearly shows.  The protesters are thought to be avenging the French and US governments’ support of the rebels in Hama, as evidenced by the trips of those countries’ ambassadors to the besieged city late last week.  This sort of mass action could not, given the state of security in Syria – and particularly in Damascus – have occurred without the permission of the authorities, who would doubtless have anticipated what would happen.  Neither, indeed, could Ford’s visit to Hama, as the road north from Damascus is covered with government checkpoints: had they genuinely wished to halt the ambassador in his tracks, they would have had ample opportunity.  The whole thing is simply a carefully-managed series of indignations, culminating in Hilary Clinton’s recent statement that Assad was “not indispensable”, a remark which is explicitly aimed at Assad himself rather than for the consumption of the Syrian people.  It has long been believed that the United States would sit out any Syrian unrest because they had worked out the Ba’thist regime.  They knew that, despite his bluster, Bashar would never order an attack against Israel, and would co-operate over border security in Iraq – although the project of securing a 600km border through uninhabited desert interrupted only by the town of Abu Kamal always seemed slightly loopy.  Now they are telling Assad, very clearly, that they do not see that these benefits are good enough.

The exchange of words between the US and Syria has also brought to light the attitudes held by the two sides in the Arab Spring wherever it has appeared.  From the point of view of the regime, the people at large support stability (which implicitly means the current government), and the protests are motivated by sectarian hatred, bribery from outside forces, or a desire for the collapse of the nation.  The protesters, conversely, believe that everyone is on their side save the people at the highest levels of government plus those the regime has managed to corrupt with promises of wealth – and even they would support the demonstrations if they were less scared.  This scheme is a simplification of an already simplified way of understanding the demographics of the Arab Spring, but it is useful for pinpointing one trend: the belief that the only people who disagree are doing it for the money.
Thus, the opposition movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and particularly Syria have completely ignored their compatriots who support the regimes they oppose.  This will be less of a problem in Egypt, where the majority did oppose Mubarak (whether opposition to Tantawi is so deep remains to be seen), than in Yemen or Bahrain, where the unrest was tied to deeper divisions within society.  Syria, where Bashar is still hugely popular, is a particular problem.  In many ways, the situation is similar to that in Libya, where the rebels – and the West – have had to come to terms with the fact that if Gaddafi had been as unpopular as was supposed, he would probably have fallen by now.  The extent of support for the Ba’th party is something that foreign media has made little attempt to understand, treating events in Syria as they did in any other Arab nation and marginalising opposition to the opposition.  The two main reasons for this are:
1. Gaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Saleh have/had all been in power for at least 20 years.  Bashar has only been ruling since his father’s death in 2000.  Although his rule is a continuation of the Ba’th party’s dominion over Syria, for the majority of Syrians – are not political dissidents – life has become easier than it was under Hafez.  Bashar has also been very shrewd in depicting himself, rightly or wrongly, as a reformer stymied at every turn by the old guard of Ba’thist loyalists from his father’s era.
2. The Syrian regime is not regarded by its population as a foreign puppet, one of the prime accusations levied against Saleh and Mubarak.
3. The most important point is the terrible reputation democracy has in Syria.  Their neighbour to the west, democratic Lebanon, has a religious make-up second only in volatility to Syria itself, and a history of dissolving into civil war because of it.  Their eastern neighbour, Iraq, was forcefully converted to democracy by the invasion of a coalition of democracies, an action which caused several million refugees to flood into Syria to expound on the horrors of war.  And no self-respecting Arab would point to Israel as a model state (leaving aside the conversation about the extent to which the Jewish state really is democratic).

What is the point of all this? Essentially, it’s a prediction.  After the dust has settled on the Arab Spring – in several years’ time, by the looks of things – the beginning may just be over.  We have seen in Egypt what happens when an ‘interim’ military government ignores the wishes of the revolutionaries who brought it to power.  We have yet to see what happens when a government brought to power by popular revolution ignores the desires of those who were against that.  With Gaddafi now apparently trying to negotiate his way out of power, Libya may be the soonest specifically Arab example.  There are plenty of historical instances, of course.  But none of them are very pleasant.

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