Like many other politicians, analysts, journalists or ordinary people worldwide, I too watched with interest Syrian President Bashar El-Assad’s third speech at Damascus University earlier this week. And sitting in front of the TV, I was teleported almost unwittingly to an earlier chapter of my life some two decades ago when I was overall Legal Counsel for a patent and trademark international firm that had its headquarters in Lebanon. It was a time when I regularly visited the countries of a vast Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in order to follow up on the legal cases concerning intellectual property rights. The Managing Partner of the firm - my boss - was a Syrian Muslim Sunni from Aleppo who eventually also became a friend.
This friend - let us call him Ibrahim - and I used to discuss Syrian and regional politics often and with much zest when Bashar El-Asad’s father Hafez was president of Syria. Then with the father, just as now with the son after 11 years, the West was mystified, daunted, unhappy and perplexed over the policies of this heartland of the Arab World. Then, just as now, I also used to express my wonderment at the nature of the country and its people, and was impressed that Syria appeared a steadfast defender of Arab rights in the face of Israeli expansionism and intransigence. Whilst many other Arab countries were happy to cosy up to the West and do deals with Israel “under the table” or even by proxy, Syria seemed to be a symbol of resistance that spurned such manoeuvres and championed the Arab cause.
But did it really? Or was that a clever façade cloaking the reality of a Syrian regime with multiple layers? And if so, did what was really occurring then really differ from what is really occurring today? In other words, could it be that a group of politicians or businessmen have been playing chess with their citizens’ lives for 41 years and are only interested in their own staying power - to rule over a docile country, amass more money and protect their own cliques?
The more I tended to defend Syria against its severest critics who spoke out about the cruelty of the regime, the more I was admonished to examine its history against the Syrian people or the wider region as well as its alliances and interests. Look at Lebanon, colleagues would tell me, when Syria handcuffed this small nation militarily for well over fifteen years with unswerving brutality and bled it dry in human and financial terms. Or what about the Hama massacres of 1982, when the late Assad father unhesitatingly killed 10,000 Syrians in order to quell an Islamist insurgency?
Then again, other colleagues would refer to the unsettling alliances between Syria and Hezbollah or Hamas, as well as the closeness with Iran, which concerned many people in the West who viewed such entities not so much as resistance movements but rather as militias or pariah states. And today, many Europeans, perhaps forgetful of their own muddied colonial histories, would make the point again by referring me to the tens of thousands killed, tortured and gaoled in Syria to maintain the vice grip of the ruling elite and its larger clan upon the heady aphrodisiac of Damascene power.
However, despite those sordid reminders, I must admit I still held on to my belief that Syria bore a badge of honour of sorts in the midst of an Arab World, not only because of my own chats with Ibrahim and other Syrian men or women, or even because most other Arab states dealt with their citizens in pretty much the same manner, but also because Bilad al-Sham symbolised the concept of mouqawama / moumana’a (resistance) to an Israeli predator occupier gobbling up Arab lands and supported in its hunger by those powers who treat Arabs as petrol stations at best or else as serfs at worst.
But this propensity to look at Syria through a pair of rose-tinted spectacles altered radically in March 2011.
If necessary, I suppose I can be as much a relativist as the next man and can even disinvest myself of absolute truths. But can I really watch what is happening in this country today and not take a stand? How can I condone rather than condemn the killing of over 1,300 Syrian citizens, the arrest, detention and torture of over 10,000 others and the vicious attacks against demonstrators by tanks, the security apparatus or shabiha thugs? How could I really stand idly by and watch Syrian ruthlessness, Arab deafening silence and Western inertia or perhaps even double standards that are together aggregating the suffering of a people bereft of their basic rights and fundamental freedoms for liberty and dignity?
In fact, can I truly dismiss the report 'Undercover in Syria' by the BBC2 Newsnight reporter Sue Lloyd-Roberts, whose risky account this week of the stories of protestors was mind-numbingly horrific? Is it possible not to react to Amir, a journalist, who tells Sue that he merely wishes to live in a city that is free, with the rule of law, but without dictators or security services? Or the opposition activist Riad Seif who is suffering from cancer but yearns to witness a free Syria before he dies and considers the youth in the streets as the real future of his country? Yet, to be candid enough, I might dare to overlook even those nightmarish accounts if only I could convince myself that they were the final excruciating labour pains of a nation undergoing them for the sake of delivering a more hopeful - free and dignified - future.
So has the regime already transgressed too many unacceptable norms and limits over the past three months of riots? Or is it still succeeding to deploy the well-rehearsed argument - not entirely true, but not entirely untrue either - that it alone can offer the requisite stability for the country, for the broader region and ultimately also for pan-Western interests?
• President Bashar El-Assad has already made three speeches, and yet he does not seem to admit that the time for academic analyses and societal diagnoses is well over and that he now needs to act by initiating forthwith a raft of reforms for the whole country. The president should lead this path of change, not chase it, with clear, specific and concrete steps. Yet, as our own Foreign Secretary, William Hague, twittered following the third speech, there is “little new on how reforms will be implemented and when, or how he will end violence”.
• President Assad stated he would not reform ‘under chaos’, and offered an exposé of the situation instead of a vision for the future. Whilst I was truly encouraged that he touched upon constitutional amendments, expanded the scope of the qualified amnesty issued on 31 May and urged national dialogue, he avoided defining any parameters or tackling the matter of refugees across the Turkish (and Lebanese) borders, inviting them to return to Syria rather than asking the more pertinent question as to why they had fled in the first place.
• So far, I have not been won over by any clear and time-specific set of actions that overrides verbal promises and includes an amendment of Article 8 of the Constitution that marks Syria as a Ba’athist one-party state. Did it not take only one day only to amend a constitution that allowed President Assad to assume his post in 2000?
• What about real dialogue with the youths and Local Co-ordinating Committees who have been demonstrating across the whole country? What about the release of detainees? And equally critically, what about allowing foreign journalists into the country so they could report on the realities themselves rather than be informed that the riots are solely a conspiracy against Syria by foreign elements, by a Zionist plot or by Islamist / Salafist trouble-fomenters? After all, is the proof of the pudding not in the eating - even when it comes to sheer politics?
It is clear to me as a longstanding student of the MENA region, that the social and economic crises President Assad referred to in his last speech mask the real crisis that is in fact political - political insofar as the governance of the country is concerned, political in the relationship between the different members of the ruling dynasty, and certainly political in the fact that the major impediment to a normalisation of the situation is the mounting anger against the ubiquitous 2 million strong security services (moukhabarat) and police force who have been running amok in the country and applying their myriad forms of retributive action against largely unarmed demonstrators.
As I tried to explain in an interview on Al-Jazeera (English) this week, the major problem today is that there is a serious credibility gap with a regime that translates not merely into popular disappointment or distrust but also into scepticism and suspicion that all the promises made by the president and the stalwart analysts of the present political configuration - the likes of Dr Bassam Abu Abdallah, Khaled Abboud, Dr Taleb Ibrahim or Dr Fayez Izzidin appearing on our screens - are vacuous and will vanish into thin air once the people have surrendered their protests. Hence the fear is that it is now a simple question of them versus us. Sadly, the president should have acted rather than talked since it is with deeds and not words that he could prove to his citizens the genuineness of his good will, let alone good faith.
I do believe there is a noteworthy rump of the Syrian people who still like and even support the young president and would wish to give him a chance to prove his mettle. They want to believe that he can still deliver the necessary reforms. In fact, as Mrs Buthaina Sha’aban, the presidential advisor, has stated often enough, there are at least as many supporters as there are detractors of the present regime on the streets of Syria. That might perhaps be true, but what about those who are too anxious or too wary to go out or even those whose interests would resist any change of the useful status quo?
Even today, when the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem gave a press conference that strove to reassure the supporters of the regime that everything was under control, I suppose I could still find it in me to endorse the president despite all the past excesses and atrocities if only I were convinced he is truly willing to take immediate steps for reform and combat the archaic practices of a regime exhibiting symptoms of desuetude. However, not only do I have my grave misgivings, but much more importantly, so does the street that has lost its trust in the authorities and their services.
So has President Assad utterly lost both momentum and legitimacy? Is it an irreversible fact that the confrontations will only lead to more instability and an ever-worsening economic crisis for Syria till the downfall of the president? Or is it that the unbending stance being adopted by this regime, when coupled with the complicitous silence of the Arab League, prove that he will ride the wave and manage to restore his rule over the country? Just like other countries in the MENA region, will the balance tilt toward the Tunisian and Egyptian models or the Libyan, Yemeni and Bahraini ones?
The weeks and months ahead will be decisive for Syria and the whole MENA region. I often wonder what Ibrahim would tell me if we were having a cup of Arabic coffee today? Is there still space for compromise that would lift a fresh face for Syria? Or is there so much uncongealed blood and rancour that we have likely crossed the point of no return and it will now be a battle of wills between the behemoth of the state and protestors seeking their dignity and freedom?
I would like to ask President Assad one small question: I know that I am lucky enough to enjoy the freedom of writing this analysis in Europe. But if I were to write it in Syria instead, or go out on its streets, what would happen to me?
© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian ). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net