Syria: crackdown and concession – the Janus face of nervous regime

In the speech before the Syrian parliament following the protests in Deraa, President Bashar al-Assad stated that reforms would come, but in a moderate pace and not as a result of any demonstrations. He also made it perfectly clear that more protest would not be acceptable. This reform track was echoed in an article in International Herald Tribune on the meeting between Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish Minister for Foreign Affairs and his Syrian counterpart Walid Moualim. The later claimed that Syria is interested in reforms of other countries in the region (read: Turkey) but that reform cannot come as a result of pressure from the ‘street’. But this is not true. The ‘street’, i.e. the protests, are the raison d’etre for the Janus-reaction of crackdown and concession of the Syrian regime. This strategy has so far been one of failure, one that has emboldened protesters and highlighted to the world the true face of the regime.

In the beginning, as protesters were killed in Deraa and Latakia by security forces or plain clothes paramilitary, the reactions mirrored those in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. As the Syrian regime ‘called’ the protesters by the use of indiscriminate violence, wounding and killing demonstrators, the choices were but two – fold or double down. The protesters chose the later, knowing with this regime they had passed the threshold and in essence had nothing to loose. And to ‘fold’ and call off protests would mean that everything, among that the lives lost, would have been in vain.

It does not take a great leap of faith to come to the conclusion that the Syrian regime has taken some lessons from their ally Iran as to the response (crackdown) and success following the 2009 Iranian presidential election. But for the Syrian regime to immediately choose a crackdown strategy can only be interpreted as with Iran – a sign of weakness: by protesters and foreign powers alike. A weakness born from the perception of the regime that it does not have the support of the majority of its citizens. The crackdown has therefore only managed to harden and embolden the position of the protesters and maybe also radicalised some who will come to view armed struggle as the only way forward.

In comparison to Iran, Syria also chose a path of concessions. This can be attributed to a mix of nervousness and weakness. The regime did not know the depth of popular anger against it, its cronies and the general corruption of the system and how much support it really had among the urban Sunni-dominated business community. Another factor that nudged the Syrian regime on the path of concession was foreign relations. Over the last decade Turkey has become one of the single most important trading partners of Syria, and has been held up by the regime has a role model or a road map to reform. Turkey is now using its clout and has repeatedly, since the outbreak of protests in Deraa, pressed the Syrian regime on reforms. Although the relationship with the EU is in no way as warm or close as that with Turkey, EU is by far the most important trading partner for Syria, one that it cannot afford to loose. And the EU is keeping up its pressure on the Syrian regime. Finally there is the USA. Trade is not the issue. As the relationship between Turkey and Israel soured in 2008 after operation cast lead in Gaza, USA became the go-to for Syria in its efforts, genuine or not, for the return of the Golan Heights from Israel. No less than five visits to Syria and meetings with Bashar al-Assad by senator John Kerry, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, attest to this. USA has recently also posted an ambassador in Damascus (Robert Ford) after a hiatus of six years following the killing of Rafik Hariri in 2005. Finally we have the ‘reform stamp’ of Bashar al-Assad from secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

But the quick reaction by the regime through presidential advisor Bouthaina Shabaan in unveiling a number of reforms such as a the lifting of the emergency laws, a new media law and law for political parties must have been a revelation: protests work, the regime is nervous and weak. Let’s press on for more. And so the protesters did.

After the ‘crackdown’-speech of Bashar al-Assad to the Syrian parliament, and the criticism and disappointment from protesters and supporters alike, new concessions were unveiled the following days to religious Sunni and Kurds. The regime hoped to put a damp rag on smouldering discontent in the Hassake region and among religious urban Sunni, splinter the protesters and isolate them to the south, in Deraa and the North-West, around Latakia. This has, at least when it comes to the Kurds, failed. The question now is for how long the religious Sunni will keep quiet on attacks by Alawi controlled military, security forces and paramilitary groups in mainly Arab Sunni areas.

As concessions have embolden demonstrators, crackdown on protests that have spread to Baniyas and Bayda continue unabated. The latest is that some 2000 women and children from Bayda have taken to streets, blocking the coastal highway between Tartous and Baniyas, waving white flags and holding olive branches, demanding the release of their men. The question is if the Syrian regime will answer with more violence, escalating the conflict into unknown waters, forcing the hand of the religious Sunni and radicalising protesters even further. What is certain is that the regime of Bashar al-Assad cannot allow this level of violence for much longer.

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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