Leading article: The Assad regime's desperate – and dangerous – gamble

Share
Related Topics

Almost half a year after the start of what became the Arab Spring, the former President of Tunisia is being tried in absentia, Egypt is bogged down in constitutional debate before elections scheduled for the autumn, and Libya's President Gaddafi is fighting for his life. In the Gulf, the government of Bahrain, bolstered by Saudi security forces, is retrenching, with the trials of political opponents and medical staff, while the President of Yemen may or may not return from Saudi Arabia, where he is being treated for injuries sustained in an attack on his palace.

But one of the fiercest and potentially most destabilising – or, more positively, transforming – struggles has still to reach its climax in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad yesterday gave his first televised speech for two months. If he wanted to regain the political initiative, he conspicuously failed. And if he intended to extend an olive branch to his opponents, this is not the message they understood. No sooner had he completed his address, they took to the streets to express their displeasure. As an attempt to calm mounting tensions, it rebounded.

Mr Assad essayed the despairing stratagems of every threatened leader. He blamed and threatened the opposition, branding them hooligans and saboteurs, while at the same time trying to woo them back with vague promises of an amnesty. He expressed regret – the first time he had done so – for the deaths of protesters and held out the prospect of a "national dialogue". He said a new committee was being set up to examine the constitution, and a reform package would be ready by September.

As he blew hot and cold in this time-honoured way, however, it was impossible to discern whether he was broaching political reform in good faith, or whether it was a sop to his critics at home and abroad. By trying to play simultaneously to hardliners and would-be reformers, he risked a balancing act which is unlikely to come to any good end.

As the fate of Hosni Mubarak demonstrated, there is a point beyond which promises of reform, however well meant, are no longer enough. In Syria, with more than 1,000 protesters dead, more than 10,000 arriving as refugees in Turkey, another 10,000 trying to reach Turkey, and villages and towns laid waste, that point has surely been reached.

The international response has lacked clarity and cohesion, in part because the stakes are so high. Chaos in Syria could have more profound repercussions for the region than any of the revolutionary changes that have so far taken place. One glance at the map is sufficient to appreciate the fragility of the neighbourhood.

One hope might be – as the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, suggested yesterday – that Turkey's government, newly endorsed in the recent election, could exert influence on Mr Assad to introduce reforms or "step aside". Among European foreign ministers, moves are afoot for a new UN Security Council resolution to condemn Syria's military crackdown. Even if, as seems inevitable, such a resolution were rejected by Russia, however, it is hard to see how any outside pressure would change the dynamics of what is now happening in Syria. Mr Assad, who raised such hopes when he succeeded his father 11 years ago, has probably allowed the chance of controlled reforms to pass him by.

Unfortunately, his procrastination could have an additional cost. Those rulers who have shown a more realistic understanding of what is needed – in Morocco and to a lesser extent in Jordan – could yet find a popular appetite for measured reform turning to insurrection under the influence of events in Syria. In trying to defy the wind of change, Mr Assad risks unleashing the whirlwind.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London