Syrian revolution

The New York Times reports:

President Bashar al-Assad accepted the resignation of his cabinet on Tuesday as thousands of government supporters took to the streets of the capital in an effort to counter a rising tide of pro-democracy protests in several cities, news agencies reported.

The cabinet resignation, announced on state television, appeared to be a concession to protesters and came as the political crisis in Syria deepened on Monday, with the armed forces in the restive southern city of Dara’a firing live ammunition in the air to disperse hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators.

The unrest in Syria poses a serious challenge to President Assad and his Baath Party. Mr. Assad was expected to announce as early as Tuesday the repeal of the country’s emergency law, in place since 1963, which effectively allows security forces to detain citizens without charges. Whether the repeal — or the cabinet resignations — would quell the protests remains unclear; other laws restrict freedoms and give immunity to the secret police.

Joshua Landis writes:

Ammar Abdulhamid has emerged as the “unofficial spokesman” and most visible face of the Syrian revolutionary movement.

One of the great weaknesses of the protest movement sweeping Syria has been the absence of any recognizable leadership. Syrians have been asking, “Shoo al-Badiil? – What is the alternative [to Bashar al-Assad]?” Today, one of the faces behind the extraordinary revolutionary movement sweeping the Middle East and driving the social media protest movement has emerged in an extended profile by Eli Lake in the Washington Times.

The Syrian regime has stated that the protest movement centered in Deraa is driven by Islamists, an accusation that scares the moderate middle of Syrian society. No one in Syria wants to see a return to the dark days of the early 1980s, when the Muslim Brotherhood led an insurgency movement in Syria that nearly dragged the country into civil war and ended with the regime’s brutal suppression of an Islamist uprising centered in the city of Hama. Thousands were killed.

Ammar Abdulhamid is no Islamist. He did flirt with Islam and the notion of going to Afghanistan during a difficult period of introspection after dropping out of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but pulled away from the lures of fundamentalism. “It gave my life structure, but it enslaved the hell out of me,” he told the Washington Post’s Nora Boustany. Eventually he abandoned Islam for atheism and ultimately became an “agnostic.”

James Denselow writes:

The modern Syrian republic is a chimera whose mothballed constitution hides the true face of an authoritarian monarchy that legislates through powers granted through a vicious and all consuming emergency law. While Syria appeared initially immune to the revolutionary shockwaves spreading through the region, unrest in Deraa and a cack-handed government response of rotten carrots and bloody sticks has simply served to rally a momentum that has spread across the country.

Before he inherited control of Syria Bashar al-Assad trained as an eye surgeon and he should really have seen these protests coming. His response, communicated so far only through underlings, has been to promise the raising of living standards and the abolition of the 1963 Emergency Law, only in Syria could a state of emergency lead to discussion of abolishing the emergency law.

Unsurprisingly in a country where it is estimated that there is a member of the intelligence service for every 153 citizens, the silent majority are hedging their bets, unsure whether the regime will be willing to resort to the levels of repression that characterized the clampdowns in the 1980s.

The International Crisis Group says:

The regime faces three inter-related challenges. First is a diffuse but deep sense of fatigue within society at large, combined with a new unwillingness to tolerate what Syrians had long grown accustomed to — namely the arrogance of power in its many forms, including brutal suppression of any dissent, the official media’s crude propaganda and vague promises of future reform. As a result of events elsewhere in the region, a new awareness and audacity have materialised over the past several weeks in myriad forms of rebelliousness, large and small, throughout the country.

Secondly, at the heart of virtually any locality in the nation is a long list of specific grievances. These typically involve a combination: rising cost of living, failing state services, unemployment, corruption and a legacy of abuse by security services. In a number of places, religious fundamentalism, sectarianism or Kurdish nationalism also form an integral part of the mix. In others, the depletion of water resources and devastation of the agriculture sector add to the tensions.

The third challenge relates to the regime’s many genuine enemies, all of whom undoubtedly will seek to seize this rare opportunity to precipitate its demise. Authorities have ascribed much of the strife to the exiled opposition, home-grown jihadi elements, local “aliens” (notably residents of Palestinian and Kurdish descent) and hostile foreign parties (notably U.S., Israeli, Lebanese and Saudi).

As a result, the regime claims to be fighting critical threats to national unity, such as foreign interference, ethnic secessionism and sectarian retribution. It also stresses the illegitimacy of exiled Syrians they accuse of stirring unrest — some of whom, in fairness, are suspected of crimes no less deserving of investigation than those of the officials they seek to replace.

The Economist reports:

The situation in Syria is becoming increasingly messy. This weekend the unrest shaking the southern city of Deraa spread to Latakia, a port in the north. The sunny metropolis, dotted with palm trees, is the heartland of president Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect. Most of its inhabitants, however, are Sunni mixed in with a few are Christians. Security forces in other parts of the country have been shooting at civilians for the past ten days. Protesters in Latakia say people there have been shot at and attacked by gunmen and thugs. A journalist allowed into the city on Sunday night reported rampaging by armed hardmen.

For once, this seems to tally with the government’s account of the protests; it released a statement saying that gangs were responsible for the violence. But this may be misleading. Some say they have been sent onto the streets by the government or the ruling family itself. Quite who these gangs are, and who they are loyal to, no one is sure. But at least some of the troublemakers are believed to belong to the Shabiha, a notorious group of Alawite ruffians and smugglers, most of whom are members of the extended Assad family. Residents of Latakia barely dare to whisper the name. Many Syrians believe the Shabiha have been told to stir up trouble. Almost all, including many Alawites, dislike them. But their attacks are stirring up deep-seated Syrian fears of sectarian strife, and the government is playing on this.

This has sparked further questions about who is co-ordinating the regime’s violent response to the protests. Many do not believe it is the president. Mr Assad has cracked down on the Shabiha before. In the 1990s, while being groomed for power, he pulled many of them into line, curbing their tendency to tramp around the city extorting money. Instead, many believe they currently answer to Mr Assad’s younger brother, Maher, head of the 4th division, part of the Syrian elite forces. But while rumours of internecine splits are rife in Damascus, there is a strong feeling that Bashar remains the best chance of the regime’s survival. Elite, metropolitan and foreign-educated, regime insiders may not see him as tough, but he has the most public appeal.

Bloomberg reports:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. won’t enter into the internal conflict in Syria the way it has in Libya, where the international effort to protect civilians from Muammar Qaddafi is progressing.

“No,” Clinton said when asked on the CBS program “Face the Nation” if the U.S. would intervene in Syria’s unrest. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s security forces clashed with protesters in several cities over the weekend after his promises of freedoms and pay increases failed to prevent dissent from spreading across the country.

Clinton said the elements that led to intervention in Libya — international condemnation, an Arab League call for action, a United Nations Security Council resolution — are “not going to happen” with Syria, in part because members of the U.S. Congress from both parties say they believe Assad is “a reformer.”

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