Syrians Deserve A Better Deal


Earlier this month, when the Syrian government and the Arab League (AL) signed off on the "Arab Initiative" to end Syria’s crisis, Syria’s opposition at home and abroad accused the government of "buying time". Now, in apparent violation of its own internal regulations, the Arab League has voted to suspend Syria’s membership and impose economic and political sanctions.

Most citizens of the Arab world are appalled by the AL because its resolutions in favour of Arab interests are invoked only when certain interests are concerned. For example, the AL Peace Initiative to install normal diplomatic and trade relations for all 22 Arab League countries with Israel, seeking only Israel’s adherence to existing UN Resolutions, has been largely ignored by the international community for nearly a decade.

The response of Syrians to this latest AL decision can be seen in street protests throughout Syria.

For the past eight months, Syrians have mounted pro-President Bashar Al Assad demonstrations. Initially largely Ba’athist organised affairs in which people were instructed to turn up, demonstrations have now swelled to huge numbers of Syrians of all generations and genders, and of varied economic and faith backgrounds.

Many Syrians characterise President Bashar as an honest broker of the kind of radical political reform Syria needs, and believe that a power vacuum now will leave them open to the same sort of wholesale persecution and massacres seen in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya at the hands of both ‘victors’ and opponents.

In the meantime, western commentators persist in depicting all anti-government demonstrators as peaceful and Syria’s claim of quelling an armed insurrection sponsored by physical and ideological support from outside the country as government propaganda. Yet two days after the Arab Initiative was brokered with Syria, the US State Department advised Syrian opposition movements not to lay down their arms — direct recognition, surely, of anti-government protestors who are armed and militant.

In March and April this year, I spoke with Syrians all over the country who were supportive of anti-government demonstrations and were elated by the opportunity to say so. But they viewed these protests as being about corruption, poor governance and political evolution rather than revolution. Some cautiously welcomed the swiftly introduced measures to ease the burden on the middle classes, but most held high hopes for more profound political reforms.

It is critical to note that while Australia claims Syria is an obstruction to peaceful solutions in the neighbourhood and characterises (or is that caricatures?) President Bashar Al Assad as a brutal dictator who will stop at nothing to retain power, many in Syria’s opposition tag President Bashar a neo-colonial puppet (like Mubarak) who is kept in power in order to contribute to Western economic interests while depleting local resources and widening domestic socio-economic gaps. (See here, for example.)

Syria’s narrow monopolies and invidious and systemic corruption are rightly attributed to the government, but are not solely of its making. For its resolute foreign policy regarding Palestine and its friendly relations with Russia and Iran, for years Syria has suffered economic sanctions (such as America’s Syria Accountability Act, deemed illegal by the UN) that have contributed significantly to undermining the middle and merchant classes, creating robust black economies and empowering well-armed smuggling rackets.

With the new presidency of Bashar Al Assad, Syria began to show signs of coming in out of the cold. In 2005 the government announced economic reforms in adherence with IMF guidelines and for its efforts, Syria’s ranking progressed upwards in the World Bank Doing Business Report 2012.

By 2006, universal signs of prosperity, consumption and competition were indeed striking as the first luxury hotels, restaurants, cars, boutiques, malls, and housing projects were made possible by foreign and expatriate investment. This led to vastly improved infrastructure and to Syrians of all ages furthering their educations and expanding their lives in cyberspace. Striking also was the downside, however, with the poor reduced to new levels of poverty.

The first presidential reforms announced this March and April spoke directly and specifically to these inequities and effectively overturned a raft of IMF-induced austerity measures.

Syrians welcomed lower diesel prices, higher salaries, lower taxes, release from enforced Ba’athist party membership for public servants, and promise of open elections. Syria TV aired seemingly endless vox pops of citizens complaining about poor governance and corruption, and everyone seemed elated at a new freedom to speak openly rather than "under the covers at night to your wife", as a friend of mine put it. Clearly radical change was ahead and everyone I spoke to, up and down the country, embraced it.

Remarkably, those opposition parties most heeded by the international community continue to reject all Presidential reforms and refuse to enter into the current national dialogue sessions in preparation for Constitutional change and free elections called for February 2012.

While their political claims remain somewhat incoherent and their stances intransigent, these splintered opposition groupings struggle to claim popular support. Now the recent AL decision has stirred up deep emotions in Syria and even the silent majority seem likely to take to the streets in a show of unity with both the current government and the Syria-based, unarmed political opposition.

Why? Because Syrians regard the Arab League’s action as further evidence of a deliberate derailment of the evolving political process in their country. Many believe it has been engineered by the energy-rich Sunni Muslim states in great part because they fear the rising influence of Shia Iran.

While Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei insists that the Palestinian issue is the criteria by which we should measure any nation’s commitment to notions of freedom and human rights, and that Muslim opposition to Israel is a moral and religious duty, Arab League countries, including Syria, expressly recognise the State of Israel.

But Syria alone preserves the Palestinian issue as a central fixed element of its foreign policy. Add to this the massive regional support for Hizbollah (dubbed the defender of Lebanon against Israel’s 2006 aggression) and Syria becomes a natural ally of Hizbollah, Iran, and Hamas in the so-called "axis of resistance" ("jabhit al mumaana’a") to Western hegemony.

The energy-rich Arab Sunni Muslim ruling families allied to the US, Britain, and France, find this axis increasingly problematic. Iran must be contained, therefore Syria, as an ideological and physical pathway for Iran’s influence and mineral energy, must also be contained.

Newcomers to this scene might take heed, as do Syrians, of retired US Army General Wesley Clark’s outline of the Pentagon’s general plan for Syria and the region. (Watch a short version here.) 

In this game of containment of Syria, the sectarian card has been given the highest value. Even the casual observer will have noted the insistence in Western reporting and blogs that the Shia elements of the Syrian leadership are a cipher to unlocking the revolution, despite the actual demographic make-up of Syria’s government and its resolutely secular platform.

Disturbingly it now seems the western media are as responsible for radicalising Syria’s Islamist-Salafist opposition as are the YouTube-ing Imams based in Cairo, Doha, and Riyadh who implore their brethren to annihilate the "heretic" Shia.

Ongoing sectarian-based murders in Syria are chilling in their brutality and disregard for gender or age. Yet they remain unreported in western media and ignored by public advocacy instruments, even though the hate blogs and graphically violent email-embedded videos have long since gone viral.

The brutish modus operandi of Syria’s street-level security apparatus unleashed the first flush of the revolution in Dera’a, but the deaths of over one thousand soldiers and police since the first ambushed army officers on the Tartous-Baniyas road in March have made Syrians deeply suspicious of all opposition groups’ objectives.

So Syria’s government continues to claim its right to restore order within its borders while the US-led alliance cheer on the armed opposition.

With their country’s oscillating population of about 2 million Iraqi refugees, and the long established Palestinian and Kurdish Diasporas, Syrians are now asking who will host them all when the US-led grand plan finally plays out?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.