People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 22

May 29, 2011


 Syria: Destabilisation Attempts


Yohannan Chemerapally


DESPITE the significant concessions offered by the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad to the opposition, including the repeal of the draconian emergency laws and the replacement of the prime minister, protests though waning in their intensity, have been continuing in the country since early March. A new law that has been introduced allows opposition parties to function openly. The government had justified the emergency laws because of the military threat posed by Israel. Israel while continuing to occupy Syrian territory has been trying to destabilise the government in Damascus, which it considers its main enemy in the region. Some years ago, Israel had sent its planes to bomb a Syrian military installation, claiming that it was a site where secret nuclear activity was going on.  


In a televised speech to the nation in April, president Assad had said that with the introduction of the democratic reforms demanded by the opposition, there was no rationale left for continued protests and violent demonstrations. Though now confined to a few towns like Daraa and Latakia, the opposition has been emboldened by the open support it has been receiving from some governments in the region and from western capitals. Credible reports have emerged of American financial support for the various opposition groups, including the prominent “Barada” television channel based in London, that have been calling for the ouster of Bashar al Assad.


Wikileaks cables have revealed that $6 million was handed out to Syrian opposition groups by the Bush administration since 2006. US officials at the time were describing the Syrian government as a “ripe fruit ready to fall” into their lap. Syria has been a target for “regime change” for a long time. It had already been classified as a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the US and was targeted for military intervention. According to General Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander during the Bush administration, Syria was among the seven countries the US was preparing for regime change after the invasion of Iraq. The other countries were Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan.


Syrian media has published details in the last week of March of an alleged US-Saudi plan hatched in 2008 to overthrow the government. The plan as reported proposed the establishment of different “networks” comprising of educated unemployed, criminal groups, “ethnic-sectarian” groups and a “media network” acting in close coordination with media centres in the West.  What has been happening in Syria since then seems to be following this script. Unemployed youth (Syria has a high unemployment rate) have been in the forefront of demonstrations. Snipers, presumably from criminal groups, targeting the security forces have been very active. Sectarian groups and the media have also apparently played their assigned roles. The goal of the US-Saudi destabilisation program according to the documents published in the Syrian media is to replace Assad with a “supreme national council” that would then cut relations with Iran and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. 




Damascus continued with its principled support for the movements resisting Israeli occupation and aggression. 10 Palestinian factions have their offices in Damascus. The Hezbollah political movement today dominates the government of Lebanon and has been standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians. Syria has strong bilateral relations with Iran, since the success of the Islamic revolution there. Washington has been trying unsuccessfully so far to persuade Syria to distance itself from Iran. Syria was the only Arab ally, Teheran had so far. But now things seem to be changing with the new government in Egypt apparently opting for normal relations with Iran.


There was an earlier attempt to isolate Syria internationally after the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The West had rushed to judgement that the Syrian government was behind his killing and had forced the Syrian peacekeepers in Lebanon to withdraw. But the government in Damascus came out of the crisis with its stature enhanced. Syria had emerged in the last few years as an oasis of stability in the region and a key player. Many in the West still acknowledge that Bashar al Assad continues to be popular among large swathes of the country’s populace. The western media acknowledged that a large rally attended by Assad on March 29 attracted “tens of thousands of supporters”.


In the last couple of months, there have been large counter-demonstrations in support of the young Syrian president. There is a sizeable percentage of minorities comprising of Alawites, Shias, Druze and Christians who support the government along with secular minded Sunnis. After Lebanon, Syria has the biggest Christian population in the Arab world. More than 1.2 million Christians peacefully coexist with their compatriots in the country. In neighbouring Iraq, the Christian population has dwindled after they were targeted by extremist groups following the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The “democracy movement” in Syria is mainly led by the Muslim Brothers. Among them are die hard Salafi Islamist elements. There is a lot of bad blood between the secular Baathist government and the Muslim Brothers. The city of Hama was flattened by president Hafez al Assad (Bashar’s father) in 1982 after an uprising there by the Brothers. More than 10,000 people were reportedly killed in that operation, which remains a painful chapter in the country’s recent history.   


Initially, the Obama administration was caught off-guard by the fast paced developments in Syria. With its attention diverted to Egypt and Libya, Syria was low on the radar. Anyway Syria has been under US sanctions for a long time though there were signs that bilateral relations were slowly getting back on track. Washington’s closest ally –Israel, already rattled by regime change in Egypt did not want a similar thing happening in Syria, though the country is part of the “rejectionist” front since the Oslo peace accords were signed. Syria has maintained a tenuous peace with Israel despite its unlawful occupation of the Golan Heights.


Policy makers in Washington and Tel Aviv had initially feared that continued unrest in Syria could plunge the whole region into turmoil. Israeli officials had been privately saying that though Assad is not a friend of their country he is still preferable to the chaos that could ensue if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. Turkey has warned that the civil unrest could once again encourage the Kurdish minority in Syria to rise in revolt and join their fellow secessionists across the border. Refugees fleeing the unrest have already started entering Turkey. Syria’s neighbours like Saudi Arabia and Jordan fear that the upheaval would encourage forces seeking political changes there. “Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East”, a leading analyst Rami Khouri has written. “The spectre of sectarian-based chaos within a post-Assad Syria that could spread to other parts of the Middle East is frightening to many people”, he said.  


In recent weeks, both Washington and Tel Aviv have changed their stance. The Obama administration, under pressure from the Zionist lobby, has become more strident in its criticism of the Syrian government’s handling of its domestic affairs. The Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, recently said that Israel has no reasons to be alarmed if Assad is overthrown. The US state department spokesman had in the middle of April, offered his condolence for the “martyrs” who died in the violent protests that had erupted. President Barack Obama had earlier condemned what he termed as the “abhorrent violence committed against peaceful demonstrators” as well as “any use of violence by protestors”. The Syrian army has moved in force into towns where soldiers and supporters of the government were brutally lynched. President Assad has said that government has proof that the protests are part of a foreign conspiracy to create sectarian strife.


In the small Sunni dominated town of Daraa on the border with Jordan, where the trouble first began on March 18, seven policemen and four civilians were killed. The protestors had burned down the local Ba’ath Party headquarters and the police station. Many of the demonstrators had fire arms. A Xinhua report of April 20 mentions “armed terrorist groups” attacking the homes of security personnel.  In the second week of May, the Syrian government announced that it was permitting a UN fact finding team to visit the country to check on the humanitarian situation in the country. A Syrian government spokesman said that the government “is not worried as it had done nothing wrong”. The opposition has alleged that more than 300 people have been killed by security forces. The UN Human Rights Commission had on May 6 passed a resolution criticising the Syrian government for using excessive force against protestors.     




In the last week of April, after failing to get the UNSC to condemn Syria, the Obama administration issued more stringent sanctions against Damascus and called on its European allies to follow suit. In his latest speech on West Asia, Obama once again threatened the Syrian government. He said president Assad has only two options – “either lead a transition” to democracy “or get out of the way”. He announced more punitive sanctions on the Syrian government. Earlier, in a strongly worded letter to the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Obama said that Syria’s “human rights abuses constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States, and warrant the imposition of additional sanctions”. Obama even dragged Iran into the picture by accusing its government of being a party to the suppression of the democratic rights of the Syrian people. Obama’s language was similar in tone to the order he had issued against Libya in late February. A few weeks later, American planes were in action against Libya. Britain, France, Germany and Portugal had circulated a draft resolution similar to the one that was passed against Libya in the UNSC in the last week of April. The draft was opposed by Russia and China along with most of the non-permanent members of the Council.


Though the calls from the western capital for Assad to leave are getting louder by the day, the facts on the ground so far show that the secular Baathist government in Damascus is on the verge of overcoming the most serious challenge it has faced since coming to power in 1963. The Baath Party, the army and the security apparatus remain united behind Assad. Even Rifaat al Assad, the exiled uncle of Bashar, has called for unity among Syrians at this critical period. Rifaat for some time had become an outspoken critic of the government after he was exiled to France, following a political fall out with the then president, Hafez al Assad, thirty years ago.


Influential countries like Russia too have a stake in the stability of Syria. The Russian president Dmitry Medvdev, had visited the country last year. The long standing defence and strategic ties between the two countries remain strong. The Russian naval fleet uses the Syrian port of Tartus in the Mediterranean, helping it to significantly upgrade its operational capabilities. In an arms deal signed during the Russian president’s visit, Russia agreed to sell Mig-29 fighters, Pantsir short range surface to air missiles along with anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Syria still has friends in the international community.