Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

In Syria, is might right?

28 APRIL, 2011: As the Syrian military continues its crackdown on public demonstrations calling for the end of a decades-long political straitjacket, international opinion is largely sympathetic to the protest cause. In Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Gwynne Dyer observes that “the Syrian people, without distinction of ethnicity or creed, are moving towards a non-violent revolution aimed at overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad and the whole Baathist apparatus of power.”

Indeed, there were initial signs of success, with the cessation of the 48-year old emergency law enacted on 21 April, 2011. “The only hope for the Assad regime to save itself was… through rapid and far-reaching reform,” writes Brian Whitaker from The Guardian, “[but] in the absence of a political solution, it now has only one course left: brutal repression.”

This prediction came true the following day when, unappeased by Assad’s promises of change, protesters held the biggest demonstrations to date. The military opened fire, resulting in over seventy fatalities. However, “no foul volley of bullets,” New York Times writer Roger Cohen opines, “can stop young Muslims demanding freedom, representation and the rule of law.” Tom Nagorski from ABC News adds, the all-pervasive fear that held the population in thrall for so many years “may be eroding”.

There are justified concerns for Syria’s future. In the event of a collapse, there is no clear indication of how the subsequent political system might be instated. “[The Syrian people] should stop short of toppling a structure with no promise of a replacement [by a system] even remotely more sympathetic,” emphasises Shahab Jafry from Khaleej Times. “Undue persistence, especially if it brings the government down, will not benefit the people,” he argues.

The government has already promised reforms such as the end of the Baath party’s monopoly on power, freedom of the press, and a campaign against corruption. In theory these “meet most of the demands of reformers and activists”, states Jim Muir of BBC News, “but if President Assad’s Syria does manage to foster enough peaceful internal change and reform to defuse a popular uprising, it will be a first [in the region].”

The outcome of Syria’s struggles not only affects internal structure, but also has regional and international repercussions. For Western powers, which have a long history of involving themselves in political conflicts in the area, this is no longer a time for heavy-handed action. “The West has to accept that it is not the central player any more” cautions Jean-Marie Guehenno in the Khaleej Times.

No one can deny that Syria plays a central role in Middle Eastern affairs, with its ties to all the political actors in the region. “Regime overthrow in Syria will trigger significant, cumulative and long-lasting repercussions in the Arab-Israeli, Arab-Iranian, inter-Arab and Arab-Western relations, with winners and losers all around” concludes Rami G Khouri from Middle East Online. Regardless of the outcome, Syria’s civil society had made sure its voice is heard. – Tenzing Y Thondup