Desperate Assad tries to blunt uprising with new promises of reform

Syrian leader faces greatest challenge to his family's rule since his father took power 40 years ago. Patrick Cockburn reports

Monday 28 March 2011 00:00

President Bashar al-Assad is facing the greatest challenge to his family's rule over Syria since his father took power 40 years ago, as protests sweep through the country.

Yesterday the government deployed the army for the first time, in the main port of Latakia. Authorities admitted that 12 people had been killed and 200 wounded over a two-day period in the north-western city, but said all who died had been members of the security forces or their attackers.

Speculation was growing last night that President Assad would announce widespread political reforms in a bid to bring the disturbances under control. His adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, told Al Jazeera that the emergency law in existence since 1963 and hated by Syrian reformists for the far-reaching powers it gives to security services would be lifted, but did not give a timetable.

In another bid to placate protesters, authorities released political activist Diana Jawabra and 15 others. They had been arrested for taking part in a silent protest demanding the release of a dozen schoolchildren, detained for writing anti-regime graffiti.

While Mr Assad may offer concessions such ending emergency law, releasing prisoners, giving the press greater freedom and legalising political parties other than the ruling Baath party, such changes are unlikely to be seen as credible as long as the same people run the army and the security forces. And the ever-creeping death toll is increasing calls for an end to the regime.

The crisis that is threatening to overturn the Syrian government has erupted suddenly over the past week, initially provoked by the security forces in the southern city of Deraa arresting the graffiti-scrawling children. Their detention provoked demonstrations that were met with live fire, and the funerals of the dead turned into vast political rallies.

Human Rights Watch says 61 people have been killed in Deraa and surrounding towns and villages.

The threat to Mr Assad is the greatest the Baathist regime has ever experienced, and it has in the past always responded to dissent with repression. During the Muslim Brotherhood guerrilla war in 1976-82 Mr Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed the rebellion in the city of Hama by killing an estimated 10,000 people.

Baath party veterans may consider their best hope of staying in power at this time is to avoid making concessions, which, they believe, will only be interpreted as weakness and lead to additional demands.

Mr Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, is widely respected in Syria but his popularity is likely to slump as he fails to speak or respond adequately to the present crisis.

His spokesmen have made contradictory statements on the release of prisoners and other issues, putting in doubt the regime's seriousness in making reforms.

They have also released unlikely explanations of the killing of protesters, claiming that demonstrators opened fire first or were foreign infiltrators. These are often directly contradicted by videos taken by mobile phone and shown on YouTube or by satellite TV stations like al-Jazeera whose correspondents entered Deraa.

In the capital, Damascus, pro-government rallies, with supporter waving Syrian flags and posters of Mr Assad, have taken over main squares and threatened to storm the al-Jazeera offices.

The anti-government protests are fuelled by the demand for political and civil liberty but Syrians, who spend half their income on food according to UN figures, are also suffering from high prices, unemployment and corruption.

Some 30 per cent of the 22 million population are below the poverty line. The government is short of money because of declining oil revenues but has tried to reduce economic discontent by cutting duties and taxes on food and other staples.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, yesterday drew a clear distinction between Syria and Libya, ruling out involvement in Damascus' affairs.

"Each of these situations is unique," she told CBS News. "Certainly we deplore the violence in Syria... What's been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there's a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities (as in Libya), than police actions which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see."

In Latakia, the state news agency said "armed elements roamed the streets, occupied the rooftops of some buildings and opened fire randomly, terrorising people". Troops have now moved into the city, which is majority Sunni Muslim but its hinterland is largely populated by Allawites, the Shia Muslim sect to which much of Syria's ruling elite belongs.

The London-born first lady

* "The household is run on wildly democratic principles. We all vote on what we want and where," explained the Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad in a gushing Vogue profile published this month. Critics might argue that it's one rule for home and one rule for the country after her husband sent in the army to quell pro-democracy protests this weekend.

The 35-year-old was born in London to Syrian parents. She grew up in Ealing; went to King's College, where she studied computer science; and then forged a career in banking, working at JP Morgan. But her life took a different trajectory when she began dating Bashar al-Assad, 10 years her senior and the second son of the-then Syrian president.

As First Lady, her glamorous and fashion-conscious persona has attracted the fawning of the glossies. Paris Match called her "the element of light in a country full of shadow zones". Vogue headlined its profile piece "A Rose in the Desert", lauding her as "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies".

Mrs al-Assad said her priority was to get Syria's large youth population involved in "active citizenship". "It's about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society," she told Vogue. The words ring hollow when Syrian authorities are detaining children, inspired by protests across the Arab world, for scrawling graffiti.

As the Calgary Herald put it: "Ever wonder what a Marie Antoinette profile might have looked like if Vogue published in 1788? Wonder no more."

"Maybe it takes a fashion dictator to know a fashionable dictator," The Wall Street Journal sniped at Anna Wintour after the weekend's events in Syria.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in