Jerusalem Post, 31/3/11
President Bashar al-Assad’s speech to the Syrian parliament was noteworthy more for what the Syrian dictator did not say than for what he did.
Remarks by Assad aides to the media in the last days had raised expectations that Assad might try to defuse protests by offering a series of concessions. In particular, the possibility of a lifting of emergency laws in place in Syria since 1963 had been hinted at by senior adviser Bouthaina Shaaban.
No such commitments were forthcoming from the Syrian president. The address was an announcement by the regime of its determination to stand its ground. It reflected a belief on the part of Assad that to appear to waver at this moment might prove costly. He apparently believes that his regime is sufficiently strong to be able to wear down the protesters without seeking to compromise with their demands.
Instead of wavering, he chose to reiterate the core elements of his regime’s by-now-familiar take on current events in Syria and the wider region.
Since the outbreak of the unrest, the official information channels of the Syrian regime have maintained that an Israeli plot is responsible for the protests. Sana news agency has claimed to have identified mysterious “armed gangs” seeking to commit acts of violence against civilians. The Syrian media has also cited SMS messages coming from Israel that encourage Syrians to take part in the revolt.
Assad’s speech followed and developed this line.
“Plots are being hatched against our country,” he told the assembled parliament members. “Saboteurs are trying to undermine and divide Syria, and to push an Israeli agenda.”
Assad likened the current events to the situation in 2005. In that year, a popular uprising in Beirut and the presence of US forces in Baghdad forced Syria to end its 15-year occupation of Lebanon. The regime faced a Kurdish uprising in the same period.
“Similar to 2005,” the Syrian president told his parliament, “there is chaos in the country under the pretext of reform, especially among sects.”
The reference to sects is perhaps evidence of Assad’s sense of irony, since his own regime rests on the support of the minority Alawi sect, who comprise 12% of the population.
The protesters, meanwhile, hail overwhelmingly from Syria’s 75% Sunni Muslim majority.
But Assad’s irony is no laughing matter. This reference, and the remark about an attempt to “divide” Syria, signal that the regime is accusing the protesters of two of the cardinal sins in the professed Arab nationalist viewpoint of the Baathist regime in Syria.
It matters little whether Assad himself takes seriously his own rhetoric. The point is that this type of terminology has the sound of a regime preparing for a long and ruthless fight against an internal enemy which it is seeking to characterize in the most negative terms at its disposal.
The reference to 2005 is instructive in another way. In that year, the Syrian regime was on the ropes, with some commentators predicting its imminent demise. By citing it, Assad is also reminding his listeners and the world of his staying power. By its favored methods of clandestine violence and intimidation, the Assad family dictatorship bounced back hard from the doldrums in the subsequent years. Bashar believes it can do so again.
Hence the tone of defiance that summed up the speech.
Here the dictator’s feline sense of humor was on display again. “We don’t seek battles,” said Bashar (an assertion which would come as news to the peoples of Israel, Lebanon and Iraq, frequent targets of the myriad proxy military groups maintained by the Syrian regime).
“But if a battle is imposed on us today – ahlan wasahlan – welcome.” Syria would fight the “domino project,” and make it fall.
So there it all was. Israeli plots, domino projects for fragmentation and division.
Armed gangs, chaos, and a welcoming of the battle by the Syrian dictator, casting himself in the nationalist-tragic mode which is the style of stifling rhetoric that he and other regional leaders of his stripe prefer. All by way of a not-soveiled threat.
This time against his own people.
This was the authentic voice of the Arab old order – or at least the military dictatorial part of it. Intoning its old certainties.
No mention of reform or change. “Stability” said Assad, was the number one interest.
The response was swift in coming, and suitably irreverent.
The Facebook page “Syrian Revolution 2011 against Bashar Assad,” a few minutes after the speech, carried a message beginning with the ringing call, “To the public squares, youth of Syria – grab freedom from these clowns, go down now to the streets.”
But if anyone among the Syrian opposition or elsewhere was still under the impression that the Assad family dictatorship would consent quietly to reforming itself out of existence, Wednesday’s speech should be sufficient to put them right.
Bashar Assad wants to keep his job. All the familiar and wearying clichés were on offer, beneath which he will prepare the violence and subterfuge he deems necessary to ensure his survival.