By Radwan Ziadeh
In a much-publicized interview with The New York Times on May 10, Rami Makhlouf, the influential cousin of Syrian President Bashar Assad, acted as the spokesperson for the Syrian regime, and for its ruling family.
He announced that the regime would fight until the end against the protests taking place throughout in the country. “We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end,” Makhlouf declared.
The regime in Damascus is facing a major crisis today, and it is behaving much in the same repressive way that the regime of the late Hafez Assad did during the 1980s, when it fought the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time Assad ran political affairs, while his brother Rifaat was in charge of leading the bloody military crackdown. Today, those roles are being played by Bashar Assad and his younger brother Maher. Similar to then, institutions such as Parliament and the Cabinet effectively have no authority, with all power concentrated in the hands of the inner circle around the president.
However, there are four differences today in Syria when compared to what happened three decades ago. These involve fundamental transformations that are preventing the same outcome as then.
First, there is the breadth and multiplication of demonstrations. The demonstrations today are not focused in one or two cities as during the 1980s. Instead, they have spread to many dozens of towns and cities throughout Syria. As a consequence, the regime’s ability to crush the discontent has grown increasingly limited.
Second, the demonstrations have been largely peaceful since they started on March 15. The protesters have carefully avoided resorting to violence, in spite of the enormous amount of violence that that has been visited on them by the army and the security forces. Indeed, according to estimates by activists, some 1,200 people are believed to have been killed in just two months of demonstrations.
Third, the role of media is very different than what it was previously. Media is one reason why we know more or less the number of casualties in the ongoing protests. In contrast, to this day we don’t have an official count for those killed in Hama in 1982, with estimates varying between 20,000 and 30,000. At the time access to information was restricted, which is no longer possible. Today, events can be documented immediately. The revolution in technology and communications, like Internet sites and social networks such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, is critical in disclosing what is going on, and in allowing protesters to communicate between themselves.
And fourth, the behavior of the international community has changed. During the 1980s the Syrian regime benefited from the protection of the Soviet Union. While the United States condemned the massacre in Hama, it was very difficult then to know precisely what had happened. And when Hafez Assad joined the coalition against Iraq in 1990, this improved Syria’s relations with Washington and other countries. Today, in contrast, global condemnation of the Assads is rising, particularly in light of the international community’s outrage with the brutality of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya.
The international community also pushed recently for an important decision by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, which sent an international commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations by the Syrian authorities. Until now, Damascus has refused to allow the commission to do its job.
More is needed. It is necessary for the Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the violence used by the Syrian army and security services against the demonstrators. The U.N. must impose sanctions against individuals and institutions responsible for the violent repression of the protests. These sanctions should be similar to those adopted by the European Union and the United States, and action should be taken by the Security Council to place the Syrian file before the International Criminal Court, as was done in Libya.
The four basic differences, when compared to the events in the 1980s, must convince Bashar Assad that a reliance on violence cannot succeed in the way that it did under his father. The world is a different place today. Daily, the Syrian people are becoming more powerful.
Radwan Ziadeh is director of Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and a visiting scholar at George Washington University. His most recent book is “Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East” (I.B. Tauris, 2011). He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.