Malise Ruthven writes:
“Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives,” wrote Mark Twain after visiting Syria’s capital in the 1860s. “She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”
The turmoil in Syria, where hundreds of unarmed protesters have been mown down by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, who comes from the country’s Alawi minority, is much more menacing than the generally peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, from which the Syrian protesters drew their initial inspiration. The regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia capitulated in the face of spontaneous demonstrations sparked by the self-immolation of a twenty-six-year-old man who had been reduced to scratching out a living as a humble street vendor. Ben Ali, along with his hated wife and family, chose to go into exile before a single shot had been fired.
In Egypt, if press reports are to be believed, the generals unseated President Hosni Mubarak after tank commanders refused his orders to fire on civilians. The Egyptian revolution, which has seen some resistance from the military and police, has now taken a constitutional turn, with the country approving a series of amendments that could lead to the emergence of a parliamentary democracy. Much will depend on the willingness of the military to allow an open political process to take place.
The Syrian government’s response to the Arab world’s turbulent spring, by contrast, has been both violent and vacillating. Its initial response was to characterize the protests across the country as the result of a global conspiracy fomented by a clutch of unlikely allies, including the US, Israel, and Arab enemies in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, working with former regime officials and homegrown Salafists, or fundamentalists. Then President Assad tried to defuse the opposition by receiving protest delegations and announcing the lifting of long-standing emergency laws, apparently acknowledging the existence of legitimate grievances. But this proved no more than a gesture. In effect the government’s response has been contradictory to the point of incoherence: as the Brussels-based International Crisis Group points out in a report released on May 3:
The regime has lifted the emergency law but has since allowed the security services to conduct business as usual, thereby illustrating just how meaningless the concept of legality was in the first place. It authorises demonstrations even as it claims they no longer are justified and then labels them as treasonous. It speaks of reforming the media and, in the same breath, dismisses those who stray from the official line. It insists on ignoring the most outrageous symbols of corruption. Finally, and although it has engaged in numerous bilateral talks with local representatives, it resists convening a national dialogue, which might represent the last, slim chance for a peaceful way forward.
Over seven hundred people have been killed so far, more than a hundred of them in the southwestern city of Deraa, near the Jordanian border, where the Omari mosque—a center of resistance—has been closed to worshipers after being shelled by tanks and taken over by snipers. Some ten thousand people are now said to have been detained by elite security forces backed by the army. According to Amnesty International, detainees have been beaten with sticks and cables, and sometimes deprived of food. Unlike in Libya there are no NATO forces to protect Syria’s cities or parts of the country from the murderous attacks inflicted by a regime that is now losing the last threads of international legitimacy. Assad has a more effective army than Qaddafi and powerful friends in Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.
In contrast to Libya, military action in defense of Syria’s beleaguered population would barely attract a shred of international support. While the Arab League voted unanimously for the no-fly zone to protect the people of Benghazi, in the case of Syria it has not even mentioned the country by name, merely declaring that pro-democracy protesters “deserve support, not bullets.”