At the threshold
With the US and rest of the West backing the rebels, will Syria go the Libya way? Not yet, it seems
Sanjay Kapoor Damascus (Syria)
Wearing a red Fez hat and traditional baggy trousers, Abu Shady, perhaps the last surviving story teller of Damascus, listens to the fading strains of azaan from the muezzin of the nearby grand Umayyad Mosque, and settles to his elevated chair at the An-NausFana café. Now he is ready to tell a story that he has repeated so many times in the past.
He picks up a bound book and slowly begins to go through it till he settles on a page that he seemed to be reading the previous evening. The story teller or al-hakawati as he is called in Arabic tells his own version of the Arabian tales of forbidden love and vanquished invaders in a monotone. In the absence of a loudspeaker, his words don't travel far from a room thick with perfumed smoke from 'sheesha' or hubble bubble. To raise his presence over the din, he brings the stick like a scimitar and bangs it on the side of the chair. Despite hakawati's exertions, there are very few takers for his fiction at a time when the reality looks starkly different -- with a little twist and spin.
Syria is facing a serious existential crisis. People of this country who have lived through stability of the last 30 years imposed firmly first by Hafez Assad and later by his son Basher, are suddenly feeling very vulnerable. Fear hangs heavy in the cities of this ancient civilisation. Copy cat protests and demonstrations in a few cities of Syria in March, 2011, after the Arab Spring ousted Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, have deepened collective anxiety in the government and the masses. The government of Basher Al-Asaad tried to crush these demonstrations, but ended up worsening the situation. Expectedly, US and European Union imposed sanctions against Syria.
Eerily, subsequent events have been a replication of what transpired in Iraq or Libya before their rulers were smoked out. US Ambassador Robert S Ford, who, the US claims, has been asked to leave Damascus due to lack of security reportedly claimed that the conditions in Syria today were very similar to that of Libya. The Syrian regime calls him partisan, pro-rebels. The big question in the Arab world and outside is: "Will Syria be the next target of the West after Libya?"
No one wants to answer this question. Part of the reason being that for many in Syria it hurts to even visualise what being a target of the West really implies. Images of death and destruction raining on them from US and NATO bombers come easily to them. The government's narrative of foreign powers like the US and Israel stirring up trouble in the cities of Homs and Hama (see box) is shared by many people that this writer spoke with, but they are still not sure how this crisis will play out. The Wikileaks expose of US giving funds to opposition groups also provide ready corroboration that the crisis in Syria is of a foreign make.
Contrary to the exaggerated reporting by the western media that claimed Syria to be teetering towards a civil war, major cities like Damascus and Alleppo seemed peaceful. Only Homs, Hama and Daraa saw violence, mass insurrection followed by severe, bloody repression. However, rest of the towns and villages have not expressed their enthusiasm for change.
Evidence of the problems that are staring the Syrians is available in the manner in which sanctions have smothered tourist traffic to this country. Hardnews was part of a delegation that visited Syria recently; we found the country slowly getting blighted by the economic squeeze. In Damascus, where history steps out from every corner, boutique hotels in the older part of the city find their occupancy plummeting perilously. Talisman in the Jewish quarter is a quaint looking hotel that has been refurbished according to western needs. "Last six months, they have been very bad for us," said its manager.
What has compounded the country's misery is the refusal of foreign banks to countenance any exposure to Syria. This means that credit cards do not work in this country. Also, insurance companies refuse to insure travellers. Under these circumstances, who will travel to this beautiful country that is strategically located between the three continents and has been historically a melting pot of religions and different cultures?
Maybe Iranians or the Chinese can shift the paradigm. That is, if Beijing decides to bail out Assad in these debilitating times.
Besides, the squeeze by foreign banks has brought all construction projects to a grinding halt. A worried manager of a Dubai based company that has invested heavily in Syria told this writer that he was hoping that things will normalise in the next few months. He, too, seemed disturbed by the inability to move finances to this troubled country.
Embassies and foreign missions are also in dire straits as they cannot pay salaries to their staff as foreign banks are not recognising demand notes. Hence, missions are compelled to pull out funds from neighbouring Lebanon and ferry it to Damascus. Experts believe that increasingly Syria would have to rely on the underground network to keep the wheels of its economy greased. Such a prospect is surely salivating for smugglers, wheeler-dealers and dubious businessmen who extract bigger margins when they ride the risk of violating the sanctions.
Syria is a self-sufficient economy with small foreign debt. "We can last for six months without a sweat, but after that life will get difficult," claimed a university don. On the upside, Syria has oil and gas reserves, but finds it difficult to find a buyer. After four years of drought, it has had good food grain production. So these economic indicators could steel Assad's resolve to fight it out against those who want him to go back to his medical practise.
The support for Assad is both visible and vocal. Big cut-outs and posters of Assad adorn most empty spaces in Syria. Like the big brother of Orwell's world, he stares out from everywhere. Clearly, his spin doctors want to use his dapper and suave personality to reach out to women -- his key supporters, the minorities, and all those who want 'stability' over 'democracy'.
Despite the aggressive projection of Assad, scepticism about the longevity of the government has slowly begun to take hold over key players of the ruling establishment. The fear of being part of a bombed out rubble is forcing many of them to lobby for a solution that neuters the existential threat that the anti-democracy agitation and uprising in Homs constitute to the government in Damascus. Some of them have begun to see democracy as a "killer application" that can lift the shadows of uncertainty.
The Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr Ahmed Badr Al Din Hassoun, who is considered to be close to Assad, is a serious mediator in resolving the crisis in Syria. The Mufti is not an archetypal man of god. He chooses his words carefully and seems well versed with the happenings around the world. Mufti has paid a heavy price for his mediation. His son, who was studying in Alleppo -- the second biggest city in Syria and the last point of the Silk Route -- was assassinated by unknown people.
"I am personally not with the government. This government has committed political, economic and educational mistakes. But that does not mean that by killing people you can correct the mistakes," he said.
Recognising that the situation was chaotic, he reached out to the opposition parties; but they refused to budge as long as Assad remained in power. Their condition: Assad should resign and only then will they come for negotiations. The Istanbul based Syrian National Council has been particularly recalcitrant. It includes the local coordination committees, an activist network spurring protests in Syria, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Kurds and Assyrian groups. A motley group that wants to be like the National Transition Council (NTC) of Libya.
The Mufti talks about creating a new Syria, based on democracy and secularism. "There is no space for religious parties in Syria," he said. The Mufti had threatened the western powers that if they dare to bomb his country then he would send waves of suicide bombers to the US and Europe.
To the credit of Asaad, he had earlier made a serious attempt to usher in multi-party democracy. He initiated a dialogue with the people and asked what kind of changes they hoped to bring in the country. "We were amazed by the entire discussion where the vice president sat through the deliberations and studiously took notes. In a controlled society, such freedom seemed incredible," said a diplomat. Since then, however, the roll out of reforms has been slow.
In Syria, where the first alphabets were discovered by the Phoenicians in Ugarit, there is no media freedom. In the immediate aftermath of the protests and killings by the regime, media was briefly unshackled, but was put back under control when the government realised that it was reporting against them. As part of the 'reform' process, media will supposedly be liberated.
Bouthania Shaaban is a former columnist, currently the media and political advisor to Assad. Extremely powerful in the government, she is strenuously trying to lend content to Assad's efforts to stave off the tangible threat to his regime. She has got in touch with politicians who are based in Syria. "We may have political differences, but they are our friends." Shaaban brings articulation and passion to her tough job, where there is little clarity. Indeed, democracy can change the great game that is being played out in this region. "The idea is to divide the Middle East, to create mini-states: the result will be one hegemon in the region -- Israel."
Everywhere in Syria the grand conspiracy of the US, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to overthrow the Assad regime is feverishly discussed. Turkey, which shares about 800 km border with Syria, reportedly tried to mediate in this crisis by suggesting that Muslim Brotherhood should be included in the negotiations, but Damascus refused since the Brotherhood is a religious grouping. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are allegedly feeding Sunni resentment against the minority Alawite government that rules Syria. "How can a person from the minority rule the majority Sunnis? There is a case for correcting this," said a Syrian government official.
However, minorities like Christians, Shias and others are desperate that the secular character should not become a casualty of this demand for change.
If there is indeed a great game to overthrow Asaad and break up Syria by its neighbours and the 'hegemon' – then, would these reforms that Assad is trying to bring in really work? When Hardnews asked this question to the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Al-Moallem, he said that these reforms are crucial for the country. "We will be stronger after that."
This admission that the problems of Syria are due to the very nature of the regime (one-party rule by the Baathists) is a clear proof that the government realises that without democratic enlargement and sharing of power it may find it difficult to survive. There is a simmering need for authentic freedom and equality.
Interestingly, with all this confusion about its existence, there is gratitude for Russia, China and India for stopping the UN resolution against Syria. Posters and banners are strung in different parts of the country thanking the three countries. A mere mention of India invites warm handshakes and applause from the people, often food is served free in restaurants for Indians, and people smile with transparent warmth when they meet people from India.
While these three countries may have staved off the threat of UN resolution, there is near unanimity that Syria has, perhaps, six months to unwrap reforms and power sharing arrangements before its people and the world, lest its powerful enemies begin to deepen its festering problems further.
The writer was part of a delegation sponsored by the Syrian government which visited Syria recently