Change in Syria can only come from bravery within

(Huffington Post) The Syrian protestors, whether they be characterised as 'pro democracy' or 'anti regime', are dangerously isolated and very much in the tank sights of the regime. The promised 'iron fist' is being deployed. Over the past weeks over 400 people have reportedly been killed. Daraa has been quarantined and had its electricity and telephone lines cut, even those with satellite phones are finding it hard to recharge them. The Western press has been barred from the country and joins the rest of the world in depending on amateur YouTube clips to work out what's going on. 

Assad's regime, sensitive to the fate of Mubarrak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi, whilst also mindful of their Iranian ally's success in dealing with the Green movements protestors, is attempting to reimpose its monopoly on fear.

Concessions towards the Kurds, the conservative Sunni mercantile elite, abolition of the emergency law and the sacking of parliament have emptied the Syrian political cupboard of all its carrots and all that appears to be left is the trusted stick that saw the regime through the years of internal conflict in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

While Washington and European capitals have gradually increased their criticism of the regime's actions, with talk of further US sanctions and the UN Security Council becoming involved, Damascus is unlikely to lose sleep over it. The regime is an old hand at withstanding international pressure, having survived being in the epicentre of US pressure from 2005 to 2008. US tanks did not ever make it to the lawns of the Assad palace in Damascus, however the country was both economically and diplomatically delinked from much of the rest of the world and found solace in its deepening relationships with Tehran and Ankara.

Today the regime's greatest concern is halting the gathering momentum of protest. In their eyes the key to this will be ensuring that the silent majority amongst the 21.9 million strong Syrian population who have remained on the sidelines of events so far, stay there. A regime whose high per-capita numbers of secret policeman and draconian judicial system has spawned a population whose capacity for friendly welcome to tourists is matched by their complete silence over the red lines of dissent, is reliant on fear. The fear is not just of the security forces and their casual use of deadly force and torture, but also of the alternative to the decades old rule of the Assads. The Syrian people are regularly reminded of the alternative scenarios enjoyed by their neighbours in the region, whether it be sectarian carnage in Iraq, civil war in Lebanon or the continued occupation of Palestinian land.

The Arab revolts that have swept the region have inspired bravery amongst tens of thousands of people who have refused to be scared into acceptance of an unjust status quo. In Syria the regime has also faced the blowback from decades of extolling the virtues of resistance and martyrdom. Damascus's lead role in the narrative of resistance against Israel, embodied by its enduring alliances with Hezbollah and Hamas, is now coming home to roost. Amongst the powerful footage coming from the region was civilians throwing stones at tanks, a poignant parallel to the Palestinian intifadas that the regime has celebrated in order to boost a popular legitimacy that is hemorrhaging away as I write. As in Gaza, funerals of those slain in the non contest between man and war machine have become catalysts for more to join in the protest and sometimes literally put their bodies in the line of fire.

Alas the bravery of the protestors may not be enough when coming up against the limits the regime is willing to go to in ensuring its continued rule. The loyalty of the army is a critical component in the success or otherwise of the revolutions to date. In Egypt the army abandoned its own son Mubarak to a revolution whose limits remain to be seen, meanwhile the division of the army's loyalties in Libya  led to a civil war with foreign intervention simply supporting a bloody stalemate. Whilst there have been reports of some defections amongst the Syrian army, its praetorian role, best characterised by 4th Armoured Division being led by Bashar's younger brother Maher, remains fundamentally intact.

Although a mutiny within the Syrian security forces seems unlikely at present, the one thing that the events of the past four months have taught us is that nothing in the Middle East is predictable any more. The key to change in Syria will be if the Syrian army can find the bravery not to fire on their own people. 



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