Bashar braves the storm
By the end of the last year, many Western experts on Syria thought that Bashar al-Assad could not survive the raging civil war; hence , misleading titles such as “Syria: the fall of the House of Assad” by David W Lesch began to hit the bookstands. Why has Bashar survived despite these doomsday predictions? There can be three possible explanations: one, resilience of Bashar. Two, weakness of the opposition; and three, the struggle to maintain the balance of power in the Middle East by those external powers who have a stake in the game.
It’s over two years now, since the civil war erupted in Syria and throughout the turmoil Bashar showed a great sense of leadership by leading from the front. While the critics kept harping that he would prefer the comfort of an exiled life rather than bearing the hardships of war, time and again, he reiterated that he would live and die in Syria. Bashar has seen how the imperial powers affected de facto partitions of Iraq and Libya. He understands well that the same game is being played in his country and thus warned the predatory powers in unambiguous words: “[Syria] is the fault line, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake. Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans? Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria that is to divide the whole region.”
Why divide Syria? Not because like Iraq and Libya, it has oil. Actually Syria as it stands today has a great symbolic significance. It has always remained outside the ambit of American and Western sphere of influence. Moreover, in the struggle for regional supremacy in the Middle East, it has acted as ‘the great balancer’ by standing beside Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon against the Arab Sheikhdoms led by Saudi Arabia. It is in this backdrop that one can understand the Saudi King requesting the Americans to cut the head of the ‘Persian snake’.
To the US, Syria is not a direct threat but a mere irritant due to the support it extends to Hezbollah which in turn is a nightmare for the Israelis. The real challenge to the American hegemony in the Middle East stems from Iran which has refused to submit since the 1979 Khomeini revolution and is in pursuit of a nuclear bomb. If Bashar can be humbled then Iran will be isolated and easier to defeat. In other words, the road to Tehran lies through Damascus.
The level of American involvement in Syria can be gauged from the statements of some of its leaders and policy makers. For example, senior politicians Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have openly advocated for arming the opposition to Bashar. In February 2012, first the US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the ‘demise of the Assad regime is inevitable’ and later on President Obama chipped in that Assad’s fall “is not going to be a matter of if, it’s going to be a matter of when.” The previous year in August 2011, first, the White House spokesman Jay Carney predicted, “Assad is on his way out… We all need to be thinking about the day after Assad, because Syria’s 23 million citizens already are;” whereas in the same month Obama officially called on Assad to go by arguing that ‘The future of Syria must be determined by its people… the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
Two themes clearly emerge from these American statements : one, they hoped that the Syrian people would reject Bashar in any nationwide elections, and two, come what may the US would ensure that Bashar was overthrown – a case of the means justifying the end. Bashar did not shy away from both these challenges. On February 27, 2012, he held a referendum on the constitution that allowed multi-party elections and curbed the role of the Ba’ath Party which was approved by 90 percent of the 57.4 per cent of voters who came out to exercise their democratic right. After that, he successfully organized multi-party elections with a turnout of 51% on 7 May contested by over seven thousand candidates including 710 women for 250 seats in the parliament. These electoral results were an affirmation of the fact that most of the Syrians solidly supported Bashar. The election results even tallied with a December 2011 poll conducted inside Syria by ‘YouGovSiraj’, a Dubai-based arm of a British polling company sponsored by the ‘The Doha Debates’ television programme which had confirmed that 55 per cent of the Syrians desired Bashar to remain in power.
If that is the case how can one understand the nature of the opposition, which is waging a civil war against its own people and a democratically elected government? It actually consists of a small minority of the disaffected dissidents inside and outside Syria, who are adept at using the ‘social media’ tools such as the Internet, Face book, You Tube and Twitter against the Syrian government. Between 2000 and ’07, the usage of Internet in Syria increased by 4900 per cent. Almost all the social media sites are against the regime and are used with lethal effect to cause and coordinate protests and disseminate disinformation. One of the tech-savvy dissidents based in Syria admitted that he spent 15 hours a day online: ‘we live and work in the virtual world, not the street.’ The Syrian government seems helpless against these ‘virtual activists’ despite the establishment of a special division of computer specialists called the ‘Syrian Electronic Army’ (SEA) to fight the ongoing cyber war. Notwithstanding the government crackdown, the lifeline of these cyber warriors has not dried down because their sympathizers outside Syria keep sending them large quantities of satellite modems, mobile phones, computers and other social media gizmos. The ‘cyber warriors’ operating from outside Syria are also receiving American assistance in the form of “training in computer encryption, circumvention of government firewalls and secure use of mobile phones.” Now, it is an open secret that the dissidents operating out of Syria are on Washington’s payroll. Such criticism has been most pungent against the leading opposition conglomeration called the Syrian National Council (SNC) which is dubbed as a ‘Washington Club’ bought and sold by the Americans. In fact, another opposition group publicly declared that the SNC is “non-patriotic… has no roots inside Syria and is dependent on foreign powers to change the leadership and to come to Syria later aboard US tanks.”
It is not just the US. The hands of some of the Muslim countries are equally soaked in the Syrian blood. For example, the guerillas of the so-called Free Syrian Army found gracious comfort in Lebanon, Jordan and particularly Turkey which has not only played host to the opposition groups but has also not shirked away from providing safe havens to the armed resistance. As if all this was not enough al-Qaeda, too, jumped in the fray with its chief Ayman al-Zawahiri first calling Bashar ‘the leader of criminal gangs, the protector of traitors” and later on “the butcher son of a butcher” capping his message for a call of jihad against him.
Now, one can imagine what Bashar is up against. He is fighting against the combined might of the liberal West and the Islamist militants of the East. If Syria falls apart, its cataclysmic effects will put the entire Middle East in flames. And Bashar will not be responsible for that. The House of Assad has ruled Syria for over four decades. It has been the only secular state in the sea of Arab religious conservatism. It is the irony of the global power politics that the very forces of the secular West that should have stood by Bashar are siding with those reactionary Islamist forces against whom they have been waging a “war against terror” for over a decade, now. It seems as if the lessons of the bloody wars in Iraq and Libya have been forgotten before the blood of Saddam and Gaddafi even dried up.
The writer is an academic and a journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]