Adrian Hamilton: My advice to Assad: go now when you can

International Studies
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The Independent Online

The Syrian government has announced the ending of the 48-year-old state of emergency and says that new laws will be introduced to allow a greater diversity of political views in the country. But it also says that no demonstrations, however peaceful, are to be allowed at this time, calls the uprising in Homs an "armed insurrection" and has arrested the most prominent dissident leader in the city the night after the announcement of an end to the hated emergency rule.

So what are the Syrians meant to make of this? The answer, if you are a protester, is to dismiss it all as just a ploy to buy time for a regime under siege. The hope, if you are an ordinary citizen hoping for change but fearing anarchy, is to pray that it does mean something, that a young president is going to push ahead with reforms.

If only it were so. The Syrians are such a warm people and minority rule, however awful, has at least allowed a multi-ethnic society to survive there when all about it, minorities, from the Copts in Egypt to the Assyrians in Iraq, have been assaulted as soon as there has been a change in power. After decades of ill-judged isolation from the West, disingenuous peace offers from Israel and an economic system that is as sclerotic as it is corrupt, the Syrians deserve a decent break.

Many had hoped it would come with the presidency of Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago. Plucked unexpectedly from the obscurity of life in London and marriage to a British-born Sunni Syrian, by the death of his brother in a car accident, Bashar seemed to offer a different future from the enclosed, suspicious and brutal regime of his father.

It hasn't happened. And if anyone had thought it would, then Bashar's speech before parliament last month when he described the unrest as a foreign plot put paid to that. His problem is not so much clinging to power but weakness. If he had wanted to modernise the country, as he and his wife clearly hoped at the beginning, he needed to have used his decade as president to build up a constituency around him with an interest in effecting it.

Instead he has done very little except to talk the talk. And so we are back to the hard reality of power and the means of sustaining it. The family is all, the security forces are everywhere – together they control many of the businesses of the country.

They are not going to give up such privileges voluntarily, even less so given the nature of Bashar's uncle, brother, brother-in-law and most of the members of the Assad family. It's no different with the royal family in Bahrain, Colonel Gaddafi in Libya or the President of Yemen.

The mass uprisings of the past couple of months undoubtedly represent the greatest threat to the regime in a generation. But they are also disorganised and largely peaceful. Their only hope is if they become too large or too persistent for the security forces to control and the soldiers or police sent to repress them refuse to fire, as they did in Tunisia and Egypt.

That could happen in Syria. It's possible that sufficient reforms will now be introduced to calm a population fed up with the regime but fearful of revolution. But after the experience of Libya and Bahrain, never mind Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq, we should be careful of expecting what we wish to happen. Authoritarian regimes have a remarkable capacity to hang on through fear and weaponry.

Does one feel sorry for Bashar in all this? Not in one sense, given the nastiness of his near relations and the history of thuggery of his family. But, assuming that he is as well-intentioned as he purports to be, the only personal advice can be to get out now before he gets locked inextricably in the cycle of revolt and repression. He has children and a wife who appears to want to do good. He knows what a private life is like from his time in Britain. He has the chance to return to it. Let him take it.

A dam that must be stopped

No surprise that delegates from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam could not reach agreement on the construction of the controversial Xayaburi dam on the Mekong river as it runs through Laos. No surprise either at the reports that the Thai construction company is going ahead with the work without the agreement. Where money is concerned, Thai companies are rarely averse to carrying on regardless.

But this project is far too important to proceed without proper consideration by the countries concerned. Like the Nile, the Euphrates and the Amazon the Mekong is not just a legendary river in history, it's a feature that defines the geography of a whole region and provides the living of millions along its way.

Xayaburi would be the first dam to be built on the main waters of the Lower Mekong. Laos wants it not only for its own energy, but to export electricity to neighbouring Thailand. But once built, not only would the immediate effect on the livelihood of communities be disastrous, but it would open the door to a flood of other such projects.

Like logging of hardwood and the destruction of the rainforest, the international community needs to help Laos with the finance not to do it. But this time it is not the West, with its consumer demand, that can be held to have some responsibility. The obvious source of assistance would be from the Chinese, only they have been busily damming the river upstream. The rise in the price of oil is only serving to increase the inducement to proceed full steam ahead and damn the consequences.