Israelis are quietly confident that Bashar al-Assad can survive the unrest in Syria but fear what might follow if he falls. Assad himself seems confident he can use the same tactics as Mubarak, but with the opposite outcome.
The Guardian reports from Damascus:
The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has blamed foreign conspirators and satellite television channels for two weeks of widespread unrest that has challenged his regime, but in a highly anticipated speech he offered none of the reforms that protesters had hoped for.
The address to the Syrian parliament, which was seen as the most critical of his 11 years as president, left observers bemused and is unlikely to placate protesters who have taken to the streets across the country demanding democratic freedoms and more accountability from the government.
Assad said “conspirators” were pushing an “Israeli agenda”, but offered no further details. “There is chaos in the country under the pretext of reform,” he said.
He said changes to governance in Syria could be considered, but only after the country became more stable and economic conditions improved. However, he offered no timeframe for change, or specific details about what his government would offer.
“We tell those asking for reform that we were late in implementing it but we will start now. Priorities are stability and improving economic conditions,” he said.
Assad had been widely expected to revoke a four-decade-old emergency law, which was put in place by his father and used by security forces to crush dissent ever since. He was also thought to be preparing to lift restraints on the media, which are largely government-controlled.
On Wednesday morning the al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime, predicted Assad would “reassure all Syrians and draw clear features for the coming phase”.
Nicholas Blanford reports:
Looking relaxed and smiling and chuckling frequently, Assad delivered his hour-long address to the Syrian parliament in a customary conversational tone. His statements were interrupted every few minutes by parliamentarians standing up and offering individual messages of support and loyalty. He entered and exited to a standing ovation, and was frequently interrupted with coordinated applause.
“Only God, Syria, and Bashar!” chanted the parliamentarians.
“I am talking to you at an exceptional time. It is a test that happened to be repeated due to conspiracies against the country,” said Assad, who became president in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. “God willing, we will overcome [this conspiracy].”
He acknowledged that reforms have been slow in coming, but he blamed the delay on traumatic distractions over the past decade, including the 2000-2005 Palestinian intifada, the September 2001 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Hezbollah-Israel war of 2006.
“We know we haven’t addressed many of the people’s aspirations,” he said, adding that not all those that have taken to the streets since March 15 were “conspirators.”
He said that Syria was heading toward “another phase” and admitted that proceeding without reforms “destroys the country.” He said that there would be new measures to combat corruption and “enhance national unity” and that the new government would announce them later. The previous government of Prime Minister Najib Ottari resigned Tuesday, and a new premier is yet to be named.
Patrick Seale writes:
By all accounts, the debate about how to deal with the growing protests has led to increasingly violent confrontations inside the regime between would-be reformers and hard-liners. The outcome of this internal contest remains uncertain.
What is certain, however, is that what happens in Syria is of great concern to the whole region. Together with its two principal allies, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Lebanese Shiite resistance movement Hezbollah, Syria is viewed with great hostility by Israel and with wary suspicion by the United States. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis — of which Syria is the linchpin — has long been seen by many leaders in the region as the lone bulwark against Israeli and American hegemony. With backing from Washington, Israel has sought to smash Hezbollah (notably through its 2006 invasion of Lebanon) and detach Syria from Iran, a country Israel views as its most dangerous regional rival. Neither objective has so far been realized. But now that Syria has been weakened by internal problems, the viability of the entire axis is in danger — which could encourage dangerous risk-taking behavior by its allies as they seek to counter perceived gains by the United States and Israel.
If the Syrian regime were to be severely weakened by popular dissent, if only for a short while, Iran’s influence in Arab affairs would almost certainly be reduced — in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. In Lebanon, it would appear that Hezbollah has already been thrown on the defensive. Although it remains the most powerful single movement, both politically and on account of its armed militia, its local enemies sense a turning of the tide in their favor. This might explain a violent speech delivered earlier this month by the Sunni Muslim leader and former prime minister Saad Hariri, in which he blatantly played the sectarian card.
Cheered by his jubilant supporters, he charged that Hezbollah’s weapons were not so much a threat to Israel as to Lebanon’s own freedom, independence, and sovereignty — at the hand of a foreign power, namely Iran. The Syrian uprisings may have already deepened the sectarian divide in Lebanon, raising once more the specter of civil war and making more difficult the task of forming a new government, a job President Michel Suleiman has entrusted to the Tripoli notable, Najib Mikati. If Syria were overrun with internal strife, Hezbollah would be deprived of a valuable ally — no doubt to Israel’s great satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Turkey is deeply concerned by the Syrian disturbances: Damascus has been the cornerstone of Ankara’s ambitious Arab policy. Turkey-Syria relations have flourished in recent years as Turkey-Israel relations have grown cold. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have actively sought to mediate local conflicts and bring much-needed stability to the region by forging close economic links. One of their bold projects is the creation of an economic bloc comprising Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan — already something of a reality by the removal of visa requirements as well as by an injection of Turkish investment and technological know-how. A power struggle in Syria could set back this project; and regime change in Damascus would likely put a serious dent in further Turkish initiatives.
The Los Angeles Times reports:
As popular unrest threatens to topple another Arab neighbor, Israel finds itself again quietly rooting for the survival of an autocratic yet predictable regime, rather than face an untested new government in its place.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s race to tamp down public unrest is stirring anxiety in Israel that is even higher than its hand-wringing over Egypt’s recent regime change. Unlike Israel and Egypt, Israel and Syria have no peace agreement, and Syria, with a large arsenal of sophisticated weapons, is one of Israel’s strongest enemies.
Though Israel has frequently criticized Assad for cozying up to Iran, arming Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and sheltering leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, many in Israel think their country might be better off if Assad keeps the reins of power.
“You want to work with the devil you know,” said Moshe Maoz, a former government advisor and Syria expert at Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
Several Israeli government and military officials declined to speak in depth about Assad, fearing any comments could backfire given the strong anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world. That’s what happened when some Israeli officials attempted to bolster Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before he resigned Feb. 11.
“Officially it’s better to avoid any reaction and watch the situation,” said Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry’s policy director. He predicted Assad’s regime would survive the unrest.
David W. Lesch notes:
When I met with him during the Syrian presidential referendum in May 2007, he voiced an almost cathartic relief that the people really liked him. Indeed, the outpouring of support for Mr. Assad would have been impressive if he had not been the only one running, and if half of it wasn’t staged. As is typical for authoritarian leaders, he had begun to equate his well-being with that of his country, and the sycophants around him reinforced the notion. It was obvious that he was president for life.