Syria's Never-Ending State of Emergency

Unable to blame foreign powers, Bashar al-Assad's next move is the greatest test of his ability to reform Syria.
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Unable to blame foreign powers, Assad's next move is the greatest test of his ability to reform Syria.

The modern Syrian republic is a chimera whose mothballed constitution hides the true face of an authoritarian monarchy that legislates through powers granted through a vicious and all consuming emergency law. While Syria appeared initially immune to the revolutionary shockwaves spreading through the region, unrest in Deraa and a cack-handed government response of rotten carrots and bloody sticks has simply served to rally a momentum that has spread across the country.

Before he inherited control of Syria Bashar al-Assad trained as an eye surgeon and he should really have seen these protests coming. His response, communicated so far only through underlings, has been to promise the raising of living standards and the abolition of the 1963 Emergency Law, only in Syria could a state of emergency lead to discussion of abolishing the emergency law.

Unsurprisingly in a country where it is estimated that there is a member of the intelligence service for every 153 citizens, the silent majority are hedging their bets, unsure whether the regime will be willing to resort to the levels of repression that characterized the clampdowns in the 1980s. In the past fortnight of protests, over 100 Syrians have been killed, and the state has conducted the predictably standard roundup of usual suspects of human rights activists and regime opponents.

So the critical question is whether Assad, after ten years of failing to bring genuine reform to Syria, is capable of suddenly being the engine needed to restart the country's stalled political-economy?

I believe that Assad will likely do whatever is necessary to halt the momentum of protest and give his regime breathing space, as long term promises of reform have repeatedly crashed on the rocks of the regime's inability/unwillingness to change.

Assad was once quoted as saying that it was better "to go slowly in the right direction than quickly in the wrong one", while there has been some economic opening up under his rule the country cannot be realistically compared to Chinese model it is supposedly trying to emulate and has instead stagnated. The country has an estimated 16.5% youth unemployment and dwindling oil reserves.

This is Assad's most important speech since inheriting power. The parliament, only an echo chamber for the President's dictate, will likely be dissolved and scapegoats will be found and fired. Assad has already deployed the classic move of blaming 'foreign elements', with weapon caches supposedly captured at the border with Iraq displayed on state television. Facebook was unbanned at the start of the protests in Egypt, but many suspect this was to allow the security forces to better identify and track IP addresses.

Ironically enough considering the deep animosity between Washington and Damascus over the past decade, the Americans may be Assad's great hope. On British radio this week Syrian embassy representatives gleefully quoted Obama and Hilary Clinton at will. This came after when asked if America would intervene in Syria as they have in Libya, Hilary Clinton responded by explaining that the elements that led to intervention in Libya -- international condemnation, an Arab League call for action, a United Nations Security Council resolution -- are "not going to happen" with Syria, in part because members of the U.S. Congress from both parties say they believe Assad is "a reformer."

Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- all firm US allies -- have apparently sought reassurance from Washington that it won't pour fuel on the fire in Syria that could destabilize the region in a manner that would massively overshadow events in Egypt or Libya. Veteran Syrian watcher Patrick Seale put it succinctly when he wrote that from Washington's perspective "stability in Syria may still preferable to yet another experiment in Arab governance".

In short the regional and international players appear to have decided to avoid nudging the wobbling Jenga tower that is the Assad regime. However, whether the Syrian people will be content to trust in Assad's promises of reform remains to be seen. If the new found fearlessness of residents of towns and cities across Syria continues to spread then Assad may find himself supported from abroad but isolated domestically, a complete reversal from the situation he has governed over for the majority of his time in power.

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