"Good enough is no longer enough."
Asma al-Assad during a panel discussion - "The New Voice: Civil Society and the Arab World" - I had organized in Damascus on March 17. In fact, the overall conference the panel was a part of was held under the 'patronage' of the First Lady but the words of the participants apparently fell on deaf ears. When I asked her about the free exchange of ideas and the obstacles to that in Syria itself, she defensively began a treatise about how change needed to be rooted in what she termed Syrian 'identity.' It was disappointing to see such a lack of responsiveness in the midst of historic change in the region. That encounter was one day before four demonstrators were killed in the southern city of Daraa, which unleashed what has been two weeks of instability in the country. That encounter and the events since demonstrated what is now very clear: the Syrian regime has lost its connection with its people - something definitively apparent after the hour-long speech delivered today by President Bashar al-Assad.
Today, Dr. al-Assad was supposed to give a cathartic announcement of change after two weeks of uncertainty. Here was the Arab world's popular leader, defender of the resistance - young, smart, and in touch. Instead, the delivery was simply off. Al-Assad squandered much of what was left of his political capital with the majority of his people, after a speech that could only be described as a prolific disappointment. Make no mistake about it. On January 14, the day Ben Ali fled Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, President al-Assad was a popular leader in his country. His inaction and the blundering actions of his government since, has led to the current impasse in which Syria finds itself. His country is now on the verge of an uncertain explosion after Friday prayers this week.
When President al-Assad came to power in 2000, he inherited a country with a closed economic and political system, where dissent was suffocated. In the 11 years since, President al-Assad has become well-versed in the language of reform as he has consolidated his power. For many in the country, the President, however, had the deck stacked against him. Internally, he had an entrenched security apparatus led by an old guard that refused to cede power and that solidified its financial status with a hold on neighboring Lebanon. Externally, he had to deal with the immediate disarray in Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon (for which he had some influence of course) as well as the very real threat of regime change from a Bush administration on the march. When President Obama came to power in 2009, President Bashar al-Assad was seen as the people's man in power, fighting against adverse external circumstances. He was defending Syria's integrity and independence and warding of instability. This did not mean that people acquiesced fully to the status quo internally [especially after Obama came to power and the external threat was perceived as less], as the President himself had stalled his initial reform efforts (which he had begin in 2000 and 2001). In fact, when I asked him in 2008 why he had stopped these efforts, he responded: "We need to reform but it is not something we can do quickly. We have to keep in mind our circumstances internally and externally. Perhaps in the beginning I moved too fast." Prior to the wave of regional unrest, there had been growing frustration but not necessarily agitation, with what was now the President's slow-moving political reform agenda.
Economically, the country has opened up dramatically in the last decade. While there has been growth, especially in the cities, with overall GDP growth hovering around 5% in recent years, rural areas have remained under threat of water scarcity and limited economic opportunities. In Daraa, where the current unrest started, poverty has been endemic largely due to the declining water table. This is a situation repeated throughout the country. Of course, going from a state-controlled economy to a relatively open one has given way to many changes, not least of which has been the influx of foreign products, previously unavailable (i.e. as basic as Pepsi and Coke) as well as the mushrooming of trendy cafes around Damascus. President al-Assad and his Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari have also promoted internet access throughout the country. Yet, because of the continuation of the closed political system, with limited devolution of powers to the parliament and the absence of real political parties outside of the Baath Party, corruption has continued to thrive. Moreover, people such as Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of the President, have benefited from building monopolies.
Yet, largely, the Syrian people were of the view that there was a corrosive system with 'their man' at the helm who was trying to steer things in the right direction. Shortly after the fall of the government in Tunis, al-Assad gave a wide ranging interview in the Wall Street Journal. He seemed to indicate that he understood change was needed while emphasizing why his status was different:
As for the internal, it is about doing something that is changing; to change the society, and we have to keep up with this change, as a state and as institutions. You have to upgrade yourself with the upgrading of the society. There must be something to have this balance. This is the most important headline... Why is Syria stable, although we have more difficult conditions? We have growth although we do not have many of the basic needs for the people. Despite all that, the people do not go into an uprising. So it is not only about the needs and not only about the reform. It is about the ideology, the beliefs and the cause that you have.
President al-Assad on January 14 (after the fall of Ben Ali) was not in the same position as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Yet, somewhere between January 14 and March 30, when he gave his first major speech to the Syrian people in response to the growing discontent, he failed to internalize what should have been the new mantra: "Good enough is no longer enough." He mistakenly believed that his ideology of popular resistance and Arab sovereignty would allay demands for immediate and systemic reform. There was a moment when al-Assad could have been the bold leader of the Arab world and proactively move in the direction of change. The events of the last two weeks with the culmination being his speech today, indicated that his government has chosen to have a standoff with its people. After the Friday demonstrations in Daraa on March 18, which led to four deaths, there was a subsequent storming of a mosque after several days of protests on March 23, when as many as 15 people were killed. Then on Friday, March 25, solidarity protests were held throughout the country, the strongest again being in Daraa, and dozens more perished. The situation in the past couple of days had become even more precarious when clashes broke out in places such as the coastal city of Lattackia, raising the fears of sectarian attacks.
On Tuesday, March 29, with the specter of instability around the corner, in a country of 21 million people and a multitude of religious minorities - Christians, Alawis, Ithnashiri Shiites, Ismailis, Druze, heterodox Sunni groups and so forth - thousands gathered to show solidarity with al-Assad and the government. Yet it was clear, that the deaths in Daraa and the reaction of security forces throughout the country had eroded the support for President al-Assad and hastened the calls for immediate reform. The country had hit a turning point and in the last few days, it felt like the government perhaps understood that, with presidential adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, reading out last Thursday (March 24) and again echoing them a few days later to Al Jazeera television, a set of decrees announcing reform, including the repeal of the emergency law that has been in place since 1963.
Yet, al-Assad's speech today set a line in the sand. There were no concessions. There was only a scant reference to the emergency law. There were no major reforms announced. Instead, he raised the possibility of conspiracies from outside trying to destabilize the country. He said emphatically "we are not a copy of other Arab countries." He entered the parliamentary chamber where he gave his speech to chants in Arabic of, "We will give our blood and soul for you Bashar." His speech was interrupted by sycophantic soliloquies. And, throughout he often smiled, almost sardonically. It was shocking - and that is an objective editorial statement.
His speech was made two days before Friday prayers and we can now expect that day to be a monumental day in Syria's history. What started two weeks ago as unruly clashes in Daraa and led to solidarity marches throughout the country and an awakening of the calls for reform, will now lead to something much more definitive. In the past two weeks, the people called for an end to monopolies, corruption, and repression, but not for the departure of Bashar al-Assad. The latter is now formally in play and it is entirely due to the unresponsiveness of al-Assad himself.
The situation in Syria and across the Arab world is fast-moving and is undermining predictions, perceived predilections, and prospective prescriptions. Yet, Tunis and Egypt were deceptive in the speed and relative ease of immediate change. Libya has shown how the situation can unfold in a very fragmented, deadly, and drawn out manner. Syria, will similarly be a very difficult situation. Not only is the regime unlikely to reform or for that matter 'depart' with ease but also the protesters are not consolidated nor do they have chants in unison. Furthermore, very quickly, the situation in Syria can escalate to something far more dangerous, such as sectarian clashes. However, this is now the situation for which the country, the region, and the international community must prepare for. Al-Assad sent his message today, loudly and clearly, and now we await the people's response.