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

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:03

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.

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