Adrian Hamilton: Is violence now the only way to change Syria?

International Studies

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The BBC clearly feels rather pleased with itself for secretly recording the Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as its Reith lecturer this year.

The effect, it has to be said, is rather spoilt by the fact that she is having to share the prestigious podium with Lady Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, who has three lectures to Suu Kyi's two. This betrays not just a weird sense of equivalence, but an even weirder presentation of opposites. The Burmese leader has spent her life, the last 15 years largely under house arrest, fighting to change a political system. Baroness Manningham-Buller has spent her career, five of it as head of MI5, being paid to defend it.

But then that is the way we in Britain and the West continue to see the movements for freedom erupting all across the world – as cries of people seeking liberal democracies similar to our own. They may be partly that, of course, but they are primarily struggles by people across the spectrum to rid themselves of the shackles of political oppression and corruption.

In her lectures, to be broadcast next week, Suu Kyi draws the parallel between her fight and the Arab Spring. She's not the only one. Recent demonstrations in Georgia, China and even Spain have all drawn hope, and inspiration, from what is happening across North Africa and the Middle East.

They have also posed the question – as has Suu Kyi's own life – of how far you can achieve real change in power without violence. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet rule gave the West a false sense of the ease and speed with which popular movements might overthrow regimes.

They were certainly movements which, like the Arab Spring, were propelled by popular will. But they were also uprisings against occupation and governments supported by a Russian communist system which was imploding. Even then, the "colour revolutions" did not follow each other as successively as many outside had hoped.

The Arab Spring and its fellows are not the same. They are revolts against domestic regimes. Admittedly some of those regimes have been sustained in the past by outside forces, mostly American, but also British and French. But it is no longer these powers which are preventing the kind of sweeping change we saw in Eastern Europe. If anything the West was taken completely by surprise by it all.

Tunisia and Egypt, of course, are taken as the example of successful and relatively (although not entirely) bloodless change. But in both cases it has been the army, not the people, who have taken over, to the suspicion and concern of some protesters seeking radical change.

The crowds in the central squares became too numerous for the security apparatus of Presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali to control. That has not been the case elsewhere. In Bahrain the internal security forces have been buttressed by the intervention of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In Yemen, the peaceful, civil side of protest has been subsumed in clan conflict. In Libya, Colonel Gaddafi has been able to hang on because his security forces, in a low population country, have the arms and training which the opposition lack.

But it is in Syria where the fight between popular protest and brute force has become most clearly and bloodily drawn. Syria is not like Tunisia or Egypt. The security apparatus of the ruling Alawite regime is far bigger – as many as a million some say. It has learnt the lesson of Cairo and Tunis in stopping any mass concentration of protesters in central squares. And it has no compunction about killing its own people.

It is far too late now to witter on, as Foreign Office ministers do, about President Bashar al-Assad having the choice of reform or isolation. More and more he appears the pathetic creature of a family and clan determined to hold on to power whatever. He speaks the words, his brother and brother-in-law send in the tanks and the snipers.

What is so ennobling about the Syrians is that still they go on protesting, each Friday, on many nights and in many places. Will they succeed in gradually wearing down the regime and encouraging a steady peeling away of its support? Can they succeed without resorting to the weapons and violence that Assad has so grotesquely accused them of? No-one knows.

It is almost impossible to put into words one's admiration for the courage these Syrians have shown in their protests. For their persistent, obstinate revolt is where the Arab Spring is now at. We all have a vested interest in seeing them succeed. Because, if they don't, then Aung San Suu Kyi and every other proponent of peaceful democratic campaigning must face the question: can brutal oppression ever be overthrown except by violent and organised revolution?

Advice to Cameron: ignore the generals

There they go again. The Service Chiefs are now moaning about an overhasty withdrawal from Afghanistan while at the same time complaining about how our forces are being overstretched by the Libyan venture.

They can't have it both ways (well, institutions will always try). The reality is we are getting out of Afghanistan with as much good grace as we can. President Obama has said so and last night started the process. The negotiations with the Taliban are not about a post-withdrawal government but whether they'll give us the space to get out with the appearance of honour. After that it's anyone's game. Perhaps then we can get on with the real defence debate about what kind of forces we need and can afford, free of this disastrous pursuit of foreign adventures.



a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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