Adrian Hamilton: Questions over the Syrian clampdown

International Studies

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If President Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, had been alive, we would either have had 20,000 dead in Hama and the city half raised to the ground (as it was in 1982) or we would never have got here in the first place. A wily old fox, Bashar's father knew how to buy off opposition when it suited him. Instead the son has done neither. He has failed to temporise with the protestors early on to take the sting out of the revolt, and he hasn't come down with a total crackdown in the manner of the Russians in Chechnya, the Chinese in Tibet or, indeed, the authorities in Bahrain.

That doesn't make the crackdown we are witnessing now in Hama, and have over the last months seen in Homs in central Syria, Deraa in the south, Jisr Al-Shughour in the north and Daraya by Damascus, any the less appalling in its assault on civilians.

Nonetheless, there is a hesitancy in Damascus's onslaught against its enemies – and it is that, for all the desire of the outside world to see it in black and white terms – which makes it more complex and perhaps more optimistic than the revolts in Libya or Bahrain.

It would be nice to think that the reluctance of Damascus to do "another 1982" was because of outside pressure. But it is probably for internal reasons.

President Hafez al-Assad was able to unleash the artillery on Hama in 1982 because it seemed an openly secessionist revolt by a conservative religious group from one location. The rest of the country did not feel involved. The present disturbances are much more unsettling, and dangerous for the regime, because they have spread right across the country.

The Alawite regime has tried to cope with them by clamping down, place by place. But it has been like a waterbed – each time you have pressed down in one part, they have emerged in another. The hope of the security forces was that they could use specific force away from the cameras to quiet local disturbances one by one. The strategy of the protesters has been to keep moving the point of resistance.

So far it has resulted in something of a stand-off. On one side the regime has not felt strong enough to stamp out the revolt completely. On the other side the protesters have not been able to achieve the critical mass yet – especially in the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo – to force an overthrow of the regime. Those in the middle, the commercial and middle classes, are still too fearful of the consequences of regime collapse to come out, as they did in Tunisia and Egypt, to bring the whole edifice down.

The outside world can help not by direct intervention but by helping to change the calculations of the nervous middle. We need to keep saying whose side we are on. But we also need to emphasise that the benefits of open trading, outside finance and international acceptance are no longer available to the existing regime. If the people of Syria want to operate in a more open economy and environment, they are going to have to step forward and get rid of Assad, his family and his cronies.

Just as in Libya, it will be the economic interests of the individual which will decide the outcome of the struggle in Syria, and that is where we need to bend our purposes.

Show trials are there for show

Egypt's deposed President Hosni Mubarak has finally been made to appear before the judges on charges of corruption and ordering the shooting of protesters in the uprising there. The unexpected development yesterday was that he actually appeared in the defendant's cage, wheeled in on his hospital bed.

For his defence council, that might have been allowed in order to arouse sympathy for his sickly plight. The army would have prefered a more seemly sight for an ex-head of state. For his enemies at large, it is seen as a just act of humiliation – the first Egyptian ruler to be brought to trial and, in this case, feeble and pathetic.

But then that is the problem of holding a show trial of this sort. It is more a matter of politics than justice. The charges in this case are so nebulous and, in the murder accusations, so difficult to prove, that it is difficult to see true justice being done.

Mubarak is there because the generals need to show the population that they are doing something to keep faith with the revolution. The public are eager because this was an uprising as much against corrupt oppression as for democracy. But at the centre is a frail old man. After the experience of the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the usefulness of the law as purger of the people's anger and the means of reconciliation of society seems less and less salutary.

Critics of the US miss the point

To the world at large – as indeed to many Americans – the game of political chicken played over the US debt limits is a sign of the collapse of politics as a mature and responsible activity.

What the critics of a US system that seems incapable of producing rational resolution miss, however, is that it remains, at bottom, a democracy. The mid-term elections saw the success of more than 120 Tea Party candidates who had promised their voters to put a stop to federal indebtedness. You may dismiss them as "crazies". But the uncomfortable thought persists that these were people properly elected and that it is not party factionalism that is making America ungovernable but the failure of parties to comprehend the voice of the grass roots, that is threatening the effectiveness of democracy in the US, as here.