Syria: A Damascus spring revisited?

The response from the Syrian government to the protests in Deraa has been schizophrenic, not unlike those in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. On one hand the protesters in Deraa were ‘armed gangs’ influenced and/or controlled by outside forces (read: Israel) who issued them guns and sent millions of SMS urging people of Deraa to use the Omari mosque as a staging ground for the protests. On the other hand Bashar al-Assads political and media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban stated in yesterdays press conference that the grievances of the protesters were legitimate. What are we to make of this?

In the past we have witnessed this kind of back and forth from the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad beginning with the so called Damascus spring. It was then interpreted that the young president was not in full control and that the old guard, who had extended their control under the rule of his father Hafez al-Assad, used their considerable influence with the multifaceted Syrian security apparatus to crush the Damascus spring and show the young president who were really in charge. Bit time has been on Bashar al-Assads side. The old guard were…old, and today few remain at the troughs of power. But new players have entered the arena. So will it this be a Damascus spring revisited or not?

If we take a look at the reforms presented by Bouthaina Shaaban we can make a likely prognosis. The reforms can be divided into three sets: a) increased living standards for state employees (20-30% wage increase and health coverage), b) Deraa: relaxation of the law concerning buying and selling of land in border areas; no longer will there a need to obtain permission from (read: pay a hefty bribe to) the security service(s)  and the forming of a committee to talk to the people of Deraa and bring justice to those who killed the protesters, c) political reforms on media, political parties and corruption and the draconian emergency laws.

A) It is a reasonable assumption that the increased living standards for state employees is aimed at shoring up Bashar al-Asaads support among the many thousand employees of the security apparatus and armed forces, necessary for regime survival. This should be easy to enact, if one is not concerned with the budget, that is.

B) Also the decree in buying and selling of land in border areas should not be difficult to enact. And I guess the wage increase might make up for some of the lost ‘revenue’ for those working in the security service(s) responsible for handling of the permits.

The term ‘bury in a committee’ is the first thing that come to mind. According to an article in International Herald Tribune Bouthaina Shaaban claimed that “I was a witness to the instructions of his Excellency that live ammunition should not be fired, even if the police, security forces or officers of the status were being killed”. Such an instruction seems to me odd – even if police, security forces and officers are killed? If such an instruction was in fact issued, why did SANA state that ‘armed gangs’ had attack protesters. And why did the police etc not protect the protesters even if the ‘armed gangs’ were firing live ammunition at the protesters, police and medical staff? Rubbish. This does call in to questions if Bashar al-Assad is in charge of Syria or not? Or if he issued such a sweeping instruction as claimed by Shaaban.

If it is indeed the case that Bashar al-Assad issued such instruction and that he is in control of the government then it is in his interest that the committee is staffed by conscientious individuals who the public respect and trust. And the findings be presents promptly and in a transparent manner.

C) On political reforms Shaaban said al-Assad had issued three decrees – on the drafting of a media law, a law for political parties ending the monopoly of the Baath party. And the emergency law. Shaaban said that the president had issued a decree that would look into, study “the ending with great urgency the emergency law, along with the issuing legislation that assured the security of the nation and its citizen”. The fact that Shaaban even mentioned the possibility of scrapping the emergency law are a positive sign. But there are some things that might dampen the joy. Look into. Study. And with ending the emergency laws there would be the issuing of new legislation to assure the security of the nation. Laws mimicking the effect of the emergency laws? Or what?

Knowing how quick the legislative process is in Syria (slow, to a crawl) this does, all in all, not bode well.

The question is if al-Assad with this move on the hand tries the placate the protesters and the USA, EU and the UN while at the same time buy time with those who stand to loose from enactments political reforms? We should also take into account that if al-Assad scrapped the emergency laws by decree (which he could do) that would immediately raise the question why he did not do it before? And he would also stand to loose support, and even invite a coup from hardliners within his own family or other close supporters in the army and security apparatus.

It will be very interesting to follow the development in Syria, especially on political reforms and the fight against corruption where a lot of people in the security apparatus, corrupt cronies and cousins with lucrative businesses and Baath-party officials stand a lot to loose IF the proposed changes are are enacted, not watered down and enforced.

About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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