Winds of change reach Syria

Latest of series of Arab countries seeking democracy has seen relentless nationwide protests despite reform promises.

Syria flag
Riad Al-Turk, a long time opposition leader, accuses the Syrian government of trying to “invoke chaos or a civil war” by labelling Islamists a threat [GALLO/GETTY] 

The revolution contagion sweeping across the Arab countries has spread to Syria leading to rare protests challenging the grip of the ruling Baath party on the country.

The regime was quick to describe the turmoil as a foreign-inspired plot aimed at punishing the country for its support of groups opposed to US and Israeli policies in the region.

Dozens have died and many more were injured after security forces used live ammunition against protests that started in the town of the southern town Deraa. The protests spread to several cities including Sanamain, Hama, the port city of Latakia and the capital city Damascus.

Protesters, who have been ruled by draconian emergency law since the Alawite-controlled Baath party came to power in 1963, have called for greater freedoms, democracy and an immediate end to corruption.

The regime responded with promises of political and economic changes.

President Bashar Al-Assad’s political adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, said in a press conference the government will start a programme to fight corruption immediately, ease party formation regulations and give more freedoms to the media as well as lift the emergency law. She also said the government will increase salaries.

The official Syrian news agency SANA ran several stories on its Arabic website on Saturday detailing the salary raise and said there will be more economic measures that will improve conditions for Syrians soon.

But after Shaaban’s press conference, the government resorted to even more force in face of protests in Sanamain, south of Damascus, killing 15 protesters on Friday, according to several news reports on Arabic news channels.

The Syrian official Tishrin newspaper said on its website on Saturday that those killed were members of “armed gangs” that sought to terrorise the public and attack the army.

Call for investigation into killings

The Syrian Communist party issued a statement calling for an immediate investigation into the killings.

“Investigating the shootings and bringing those responsible to justice will open the way for a political course rather than the usual security and military answer to the protests,” the party said in a statement on its website.

The regime’s media blamed the recent wave of demonstrations on outside forces keen on undermining Syria’s assertive foreign policy and ending its role in opposing US and Israeli hegemony in the region.

The state-controlled media said that the protests could serve the interests of Israel and the West by destabilising the country in general and creating a state of chaos.

Syria, a close ally of Iran, has been host to several resistance groups, especially Palestinian groups opposed to the Israeli occupation of Arab land. In 2008, the US extended its sanctions against Damascus after it accused Syria of arming the anti-Israel Lebanese group Hezbollah.

The regime used another tactic to discredit the protests saying that more demonstrations could lead the country to fall into the hands of conservative Islamists, who would then limit freedoms. Syria’s 22.5 million people are mostly Sunni Muslims but are ruled by the minority Alawites, who follow a branch of Shia Islam.

The regime’s arguments were not convincing for the opposition.

Accusation of chaos incitement

Riad Al-Turk, a long time opposition leader in Syria who had been jailed several times before, said:

[They are] trying to scare us by invoking chaos or civil war, using the threat of the Islamists taking over and arguing that our people are not yet qualified to practise democracy, are all futile and hopeless arguments.

The Syrian people have come of age and the authorities should realise this fact before it is too late.

The protesters have dubbed their demonstrations “rallies for dignity and freedom” refuting the regime’s argument that they are motivated by foreign powers who want to end Syria’s backing of resistance groups.

If anything, Syria has many of the conditions that caused the revolutions in Tunisia and in Egypt two other Arab countries that saw long-serving leaders unseated by popular revolt. In both countries, foreign policies played almost no role in fuelling the uprisings. Mass protests were moved by anger at corruption, poor economic and social conditions and the regime’s brutality. 

“Our people can no longer bear living under dictatorship, corruption, repression, injustice, discrimination and poverty. The era of submission is over and it is your turn to go now, Doctor,” said Free Syrian, a Syrian blogger writing for the website of Al Jazeera news channel referring to president Al-Assad, who is an ophthalmologist by profession.

The ruling Baath party has often used lethal force to clamp down on opposition, mostly in the name of unifying the country against Israel and the United States.

Bashar Al-Assad’s father, Hafez, used heavy military equipment to stamp out an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982. Thousands were killed.

This week, some of the protesters have chanted against the head of the much feared Republican Guard Maher Al-Assad, the president’s brother, for his harsh tactics and widespread human rights violations.

“In Syria today, the spirit of freedom is flying over the country,” Al-Turk said in his column on “The wind of changes that blew across the Arab World over the past three months had to eventually come to knock at the doors of the big prison called Syria.”

Emad Mekay is the IPS trade and finance correspondent based in Washington DC. He has written on controversial activities of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Bank. He has also reported widely on the anti-globalisation movement across the world.

This article was first published by IPS.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.