Syrian Unrest – Your Answer-Man

Wow – check out this article from Le Monde entitled “Syria: ‘There’s no reason why the popular will won’t triumph.'” Anyone following the news lately knows very well that serious, often violent demonstrations have been happening for about the past week in various major Syrian cities, including the capital Damascus. Is the regime of famed optometrist Bashar al-Assad (that last name means “lion” in Arabic, by the way) destined to be the latest to topple in the Arab Spring?

This quite excellent article – structured as a moderated chat in which names like “Mazen,” “hakan,” “Jack,” and “Heisenberg”* pose a series of questions – is pretty much a one-stop briefing on what is going on over there and the historical background that has led events to this pass.

Ah, but it’s also exclusively in French – being Le Monde and all that – but I’m glad to help you out with the main points, among which:

  • It was always unrealistic to assume that Syria could somehow avoid this wave of unrest sweeping through the Arab world from its origin last January in Tunisia. Indeed, the country probably offers the closest resemblance of all to the 1980s Soviet Union: that the Ba’ath Party is the sole governing party allowed was established back in the 1973 constitution, but today it stands for nothing other than a cynical clientelism – it is merely “a superstructure without true ideological content.” The economy is in a similar state, since everything was nationalized back in the 1960s, so now everything is inefficient, uncompetitive internationally, and staffed on the basis of politics and patronage, not competence.
  • Added to that, “[s]ince 1963 Syria has lived under a state-of-emergency regime which permits the security services to intervene at all times and with practically no control in the public and private affairs of the population.” Yes – since 1963! Abolishing that state-of-emergency tops the list of the demonstrators’ demands, along with freeing political prisoners and doing something about the widespread corruption.
  • But note that there’s nothing in there about Islamic-type goals (nor, for that matter, about toppling the regime – at least not as of yet). Further, the demonstrations have occurred not only spontaneously (i.e. not at the instigation of any existing political organization) but uniformly peacefully – at least on the part of the demonstrators themselves, as opposed to the police/military forces that have been sent against them.
  • Ironically, that state-of-emergency is not likely to be abolished anytime soon, as the regime makes full use of it to try to beat down the protests!
  • The 1973 constitution does provide for a vice-president who could succeed President Assad – in fact there are currently no less than two of them. But Assad will never step down voluntarily, because his government is essentially a family affair and his family won’t ever let him give up their privileged ruling position in the government and in society.
  • Daraa – that’s some town down near the Jordanian border that no one had ever heard of previously. Why did the unrest start there? For one thing, Daraa has always been poor, but its economic situation is even worse these days after four years of drought, as it is stuffed with poor farmers whom the drought has driven off of their land in the countryside. Plus Daraa apparently has a larger-than-usual contingent of young men who earlier fought against the American-led occupation forces in Iraq – and whom the Syrian regime has dealt with by throwing them into prison. The regime also threw into prison a bunch of even-younger people (16 and below) whom policemen caught writing anti-government graffiti on the walls – in fact, they were taken all the way to Damascus to a prison notorious for the torture practiced there. Apparently most have now been released and returned to their parents in Daraa, but with plentiful signs of such torture on their bodies.
  • Allies and enemies: There are all sorts of countries in that area nervous about what they see going on in Syria. That country’s leading ally is probably Iran, which relies on the current Syrian government to allow it to ship weapons to its Hezbollah client in Lebanon. Other allies are Algeria, Libya (i.e. the Qaddafi regime), and Qatar. But Israel is also nervous: although it is by no means Syria’s ally, under Assad the Syrian front has at least been quiet and predictable. The Israelis are very nervous that that could be about to change.
  • So what is going to happen? The title of this piece gives it away – our answer-man believes that, sooner or later, the Assad regime is toast. However, he is more skeptical that there will ever be any international intervention there, no matter what outrages the government perpetrates against its own people. That is no surprise, considering that Israel is after all a next-door neighbor and occupies territory that used to be Syrian – still, he does not rule intervention out entirely. (You like “no fly zones” and “no drive zones” in Libya? You’ll LOVE them in Syria!)

Interesting stuff, then, and a lot of it! And there’s only one problem. It’s true that we have no idea who “Jack” or “hakan” or “Heisenberg” are, but at least we have their names. But there’s no indication available here whatever of the name or credentials of he who is providing all this excellent knowledge about the Syrian situation! I’ve searched and I’ve searched, but I haven’t been able to find even a clue. Plus, check out comment #2 below, from “Jo” – he/she also mentions “You have forgotten to note who the person is who is answering the questions”!

Darn – and they’re such informative answers, too! So do we forget about them? I leave that decision to you.

* Heisenberg, it turns out, stands particularly in need of this sort of expert country assistance, since whenever he thinks he has a good sense of where Syria is now, he completely loses track of where the country is going, and vice-versa!

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