It is tempting to see regional opportunities in Syria's turmoil – but no Arab spring has yet been nurtured by foreign intervention
The Guardian, Thursday 21 April 2011
"Weeks of demonstrations in Syria reached a turning point this week. In the country's third city, Homs, a Tahrir-style sit-in was broken up when police fired into the crowd. More than 20 pro-democracy demonstrators have been killed in the town since Monday. But the switch in many minds happened earlier. It was when President Bashar al-Assad announced he would end nearly half a century of emergency rule. Far from being placatory, he patronised. It was all a problem of communication, he explained. There was a conspiracy (the demonstrations), there were reforms, and there were "needs" of the citizens, not only economic ones. He was sure his citizens understood, but how could they appreciate what was going on when the government did not explain to them what was happening?
President Assad's audience understood only too well. Accused by the regime of being Salafist infiltrators, Muslim Brotherhood stooges, saboteurs supported by Lebanon's Saad Hariri and Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, or agents of the Mossad and the CIA, the protesters demanded to be heard as Syrians. Chants for reform gave way to chants for regime change. "From alleyway to alleyway, from house to house, we want to overthrow you, Bashar", mourners chanted at one funeral. Ever since, they have been attempting, at great cost, to recreate a Syrian Tahrir Square, a physical epicentre of revolt in any major city.
The Assad family (there is Bashar's brother Maher al-Assad, commander of the Republican Guard, and his cousin Rami Makhlouf) now find themselves with fewer political levers to pull, although there are plenty of military ones. Interior Ministry statements go unheeded. Protests continued overnight in Zabadani, Jabla and Aleppo. In Homs, the shops stayed closed, a sign that the urban Sunni population is starting to join in. They will not be mollified by sacking the governor in Homs or the chief of security in Banias. What started with a brutal, but routine, local incident, when police beat up and tortured a group of graffiti artists in Deraa, has become a nationwide protest.
It is tempting to see regional opportunities in Syria's turmoil. This is not just paralysing the Arab League, which postponed a summit scheduled for May, but also encouraging the belief that Assad's rejectionist allies, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, would stand to lose with his departure. Some may be tempted to conclude that fomenting dissent in Syria is a risk worth taking. This is folly in any part of the Middle East but particularly for a country with Syria's borders. No Arab spring has yet been nurtured by foreign intervention. It could yet be killed off by one."