Presidential panic as Syrian revolution spreads

Syria's President Assad is clinging to power by announcing huge reforms at the same time as cracking down on dissent. And yet the protest continues to grow.

The Syrian government yesterday announced a decision to end 48 years of Emergency Law in the face of continued protests and violence sweeping the country.

At the end of a weekend of chaos – including the shooting of dozens of anti-government demonstrators, the burning of ruling Baath Party offices, the funerals of hundreds of recently-killed protesters and another surge of public anger across towns such Dara'a and Latakia – the government apparently caved in to the key demand that it remove hated emergency laws.

These laws effectively suspend most political rights in Syria including public gatherings, and authorise the arrest of 'suspects or persons who threaten security'. Any individual can be interrogated, the media is officially controlled and surveillance is permitted on all personal communication.

Syria-watchers said it was part of a desperate two-pronged survival strategy by Bashar al-Assad, the president, to give concessions with one hand while sending his special forces with the other to repress ruthlessly any uprisings. They have been firing with live ammunition straight into the crowds.

Along with Bahrain and Yemen, many now predict Syria will be one of the next Arab countries to see its government forced out of office.

Protesters, largely from the 74% Sunni Muslim majority, are specifically demanding action on poverty, state corruption and political repression after 41 years of rule by members of the tiny Alawi Muslim sect and the al-Assad family, origin of both the current president and his father, Hafiz, who took power in 1970.

Global concern over Syria, source of one of the world's oldest civilisations, is huge. The country is a buffer between United Nations member and EU candidate Turkey to the north; recently-invaded and occupied Iraq to the east; and constantly beleaguered Israel to the south. Given the sensitivity of its position, few were surprised yesterday when America announced it had no intention of being drawn into a Libyan-style military intervention on behalf of the protesters.

Survival
The unrest in Syria has not yet reached the tipping-point that led to the downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian rulers earlier this year and looks now set to topple Libya's Colonel Gaddafi with a little help from NATO. Yet neither the peace-making measures announced yesterday, nor the security crackdown of the past few days has managed to stifle dissent or diffuse the crisis.

The question is whether President Bashar, a shy optician thrust into leadership 11 years ago at the age of 34 when his older brother died in a car accident, can lead effective reform swiftly enough to translate rule by decree into rule by popular support.

You Decide

  1. What are the differences between the protests in the Arab world and this weekend's protests in London?
  2. Do you think a tyrannical ruler can change into a decent, democratic one in order to save his skin?

Activities

  1. Write a timeline of ten of the most important dates in Syrian history
  2. President Assad was a shy optician. Try to research and find out four other odd facts about him.

Some People Say...

“Some countries are so divided and complex that only a dictatorship can hold them together.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So what's civilised about Syria?
Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of a brilliant culture rivalling those of Mesopotamia and Egypt in and around the ancient city of Ebla. Later Syrian scholars and artists contributed to hugely to Western culture: Zeno of Sidon founded the Epicurean school; Cicero was a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon at Athens; and the writings of Posidonius of Apamea influenced Livy and Plutarch.
And 'the road to Damascus'?
Yes – Damascus is the capital and one of the oldest cities in the world. The scholar Paul of Tarsus was walking there from Jerusalem in around AD 36 when 'suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven' and he was converted to Christianity, making Damascus one of the most famous cities in history.
And today?
Syria, when peaceful, is a fabulous country to visit with delicious food due to the mixture of Arabic, Persian and Turkish cuisines.

Subjects

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