Independence Day in Syria Brings More Bloodshed
(CNSNews.com) – As Syrians marked their country’s independence day on Sunday, continuing anti-regime protests and the government’s violent response suggest that a series of concessions offered by President Bashar Assad will not easily defuse the escalating crisis.
At least five more deaths were reported in fresh demonstrations in Homs and another four in the coastal city of Latakia, a day after Assad pledged to end 48 years of emergency rule within days.
Hours after Assad made the announcement in a speech to government ministers, more demonstrations were reported in Damascus and in the southern city of Dera’a, which has been a hotbed of unrest since mid-March. Further protests were reported Sunday in other cities including Suweida, Aleppo and Banias.
The ruling Baath party and state media used the occasion of Syria’s 65th independence anniversary to repeat allegations that the Arab country is the target of a foreign plot.
“The Syrian people are exposed to a big conspiracy hatched against their security and stability and to an attempt of instigating sedition targeting the exemplary coexistence prevailing in Syria,” the SANA news agency said in a commentary.
Party officials tried to focus the attention away from internal grievances, pointing to the traditional enmity with Israel and the national duty to “liberate” the Golan Heights, the disputed strategic ridge which Israel has controlled since 1967.
The month-long protests have challenged Assad’s earlier assertions that the wave of protests in the Arab world would bypass Syria because the government’s ideological positions were in line with those of the people, unlike the case in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.
Even though the Syrian opposition is divided, Assad has not succeeded in ending the protests despite the deployment of plainclothes militia members accused of intimidating and attacking demonstrators.
His speech Saturday was the latest attempt to quell the unrest. Tellingly, Assad acknowledged that a “gap” had developed between the government and the governed, and said it needed to be filled.
He drew a distinction between what he called “the conspiracy” against Syria and calls for reform.
He then announced plans to end emergency rule first implemented in 1963 and to enact a law to regulate demonstrations, but added a warning.
“We draw a line between reform and sabotage, and there are clear differences between the demands for reform and the intentions of creating chaos and sabotage,” he said. “We want the law to be implemented immediately, and we don’t want any sabotage or any undermining of the security of Syrian citizens. The Syrian people are civilized, committed to law and order and do not accept chaos and demagoguery.”
Assad also announced the government would study a long-delayed initiative that would allow the establishment of parties of various political tendencies – but said nothing about changing the controversial provision in the Syrian constitution that upholds Baath supremacy.
Article eight states: “The leading party in the society and the state is the Socialist Arab Baath Party. It leads a patriotic and progressive front seeking to unify the resources of the people's masses and place them at the service of the Arab nation’s goals.”
Unless the article is rescinded, any reform allowing other parties to be established will not affect Baath’s entrenched monopoly.
“Many will brush this speech off as being simply ‘more of the same,’” commented Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“There was no promise of regime-change or of political reforms that could be tantamount to regime change, such as deleting article 8 of the constitution that would eliminate the Baath party’s monopoly on power,” he said. “It will not be enough to head off new protests.”
Still, for Syrians favoring reforms rather than regime change, Landis said the speech “may keep the silent majority from joining the protesters – at least for the time being.”
Despite the report of more protests after Assad’s speech, SANA reported Sunday that the calm observance of independence day in most places “reflects the citizens’ satisfaction over the comprehensive reform process adopted by the government.”
Kerry ‘disturbed’ by violence in the light of Assad’s personal assurances
A day before the speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Assad for not addressing “the legitimate demands of the Syrian people,” saying during a visit to Berlin that it was “time for the Syrian government to stop repressing their citizens.”
There was no early reaction to the speech from the administration. British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Assad to lift emergency rule as promised and to hold accountable those responsible for civilian deaths.
Human rights groups report more than 200 deaths in the political upheaval since mid-March.
The Baath party has ruled Syria since a 1963 coup. Assad’s father, Hafez, seized power eight years later in a purge of the party and ruled until his death in 2000, when Bashar Assad took over.
The younger Assad presented himself as a modernizer, but his promises to reform did not bear fruit.
Washington-based Freedom House, which grades countries each year based on scores for “political rights” and “civil liberties,” ranked Syria in its bottom 17 in 2010. Historical data show a very small improvement since 2007 – when Syria’s score for civil liberties moved from the worst possible grade to the second worst. Its lowest-scoring grade for political rights remains unchanged since 1989.
Under Bashar Assad, Damascus’ long-standing alliance with Iran has strengthened, despite efforts by the Obama administration to engage Syria and draw it away from Tehran’s influence.
A key player in that strategy, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), has met with Assad at least six times, most recently last November.
In contrast to his strong public views on Muammar Gaddafi’s crushing of anti-regime protests in Libya, Kerry had little to say about the situation in Syria in the early weeks of the unrest there.
In a March 16 speech in Washington on developments in the Arab world, Kerry mentioned Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Lebanon – but not Syria.
Syria only came up when an audience member asked a question after the speech, and then Kerry voiced optimism about the direction of bilateral relations, but without referring to the need for reforms.
On March 31, Kerry issued a brief statement on Syria, urging the government to “refrain from using violence against its own people.”
Last Thursday, he released another statement, referring to the possibility of large protests after midday prayers on Friday
“I have been particularly disturbed by the violence in Syria, given my visits there, and the private statements of President Assad that he wants to bring Syria into modernity and begin a new relationship with the community of nations,” Kerry said.
“None of that will ever be possible unless President Assad’s government immediately ceases using violence against its own people and instead acts to address their concerns.”