By Prem Shankar Jha
The Salafi-engineered uprising in Syria offers a cautionary tale for the rest of the region.
IN COLD countries, spring brings a renewal of hope, even a touch of abandonment. The western media’s christening of the uprisings in the Arab world as an Arab Spring, contains both of these elements: hope that a transition to democracy will automatically bring these countries closer to the West and weaken the attraction of fundamentalist Islam, and an impatience, born perhaps of spring madness, to make it happen as soon as possible. This is the sentiment that made NATO go precipitously into Libya and is now egging it towards regime change in Syria.
In the past three months, the international media has heaped abuse on President Basher al-Assad’s government with a lack of objectivity that has not been witnessed since the buildup to the Iraq War. With few, if any, correspondents in Syria, and almost none in the disturbed areas, the international media has, in the words of al Jazeera, “trawled social networking websites” and used their estimates of casualties and amateur videos with the barest of caveats about the reliability of their sources. They have ignored Syrian assertions that the uprising is not spontaneous but carefully engineered by Salafi Islamist elements spearheaded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood living in exile. And lastly, it has treated Assad’s efforts to meet the demands of genuine civil society activists for political liberalisation as window dressing by a government desperate to buy time in the hope that the movement will run out of steam.
As happened before the Iraq War, the media has again donned the mantle of a crusader for democracy. The Assad regime has been in power for 42 years, so it must therefore be brutal, oppressive and unpopular and therefore has to go. Its messianism is pushing the West towards a mistake that could be even more costly than the Iraq invasion.
The evidence that the Syrian uprising is not spontaneous but engineered has been staring us in the face from the beginning. It is the long gap between the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, and the first trouble in Dera’a. From the death of Mohammed Bouazzizi, the roadside vendor who immolated himself in Tunis on 4 January, it took only 21 days for the popular upsurge to spread to Egypt, only one more day to spread to Jordan and another to spread to Yemen. By contrast, nothing at all happened in Syria until 18 March. This was a full 10 weeks after the start of the Tunisian uprising.
A second indication is the location of the protests. Insurgencies need publicity to thrive. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, the Arab Spring began in the capital. But in Syria, virtually all the protests have occurred in towns and villages at the edges of the country — in Dera’a on the Jordanian border, Tel Khalaf on the Lebanese, Deir Ezzor on the Iraqi border and Baniyas, Lattakia and Jisr Shugour, close to the Turkish border. The lone exception, Homs, is also located a stone’s throw from Lebanon at a point where a gap in the ante-Lebanon mountains makes access easy. By contrast, Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, the second largest city, have remained calm.
But what is most important is that there is an abundance of evidence that while the Assad regime is authoritarian and rife with cronyism, it is not unpopular. The Bush administration was the first to learn this. In January 2005, President George Bush withdrew the US ambassador from Damascus, imposed a number of unilateral sanctions and started a $5 million programme to activate opposition groups within Syria. But a year later, the US embassy was forced to report, in a cable posted by WikiLeaks this year, that it had found no “legitimate groups” within Syria that were prepared to take the money.
Undeterred, it shifted money to exile groups outside Syria. In 2007, the State Department gave $6.3 million through a series of dummy foundations to a London-based expatriate Syrian organisation called the Movement for Justice and Development (MJD). This, in turn, set up a TV station called Barada TV (after Damascus’ fabled river), which began beaming anti-Assad programmes to Syria in April 2009, and is now a principal source of ‘information’ on the current uprising.
What the Bush administration chose to overlook was that few of these exiles were externed democrats. According to a US embassy cable hacked by WikiLeaks, they were “moderate members of the Muslim Brotherhood”. To Indians, the wording should have a familiar ring, for it is identical to that used by the State Department to justify military aid to Pakistan.
The US continued to fund the MJD and Barada TV even after Barack Obama was elected and reversed Bush’s policy towards Syria. In all, it has spent an estimated $30 million on the project. This is the money and moral support that the Muslim Brotherhood uses in its attempt to stage a comeback in Syria.
IS THE uprising in Syria a Salafi plot? Or are the bearded Muslim men and hijab-covered women visible in the cell phone videos being aired by YouTube and other websites part of a much more broad-based protest against autocratic rule? A day-by-day analysis of the Syrian uprising suggests that while a demand for democratic reform is still embedded within the protests, it has been overwhelmed by a carefully programmed Islamist upsurge that is led by the Muslim Brotherhood, but almost certainly includes Salafi elements. Indeed their hand is visible in the uprising from its earliest sprouting.
First, Anas al-Abdeh, the head of the MJD, and many of its directors, are what a State Department cable called “liberal, moderate Islamists who are former members of the Muslim Brotherhood”. Second, Malik, the news director of Barada TV, is Anas’ brother and presumably also a sympathiser, if not supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Third, the administrator of the Facebook site, The Syrian Revolution 2011, which is the undisputed leader of the Internet campaign against Assad, is the head of the Swedish chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
With the onset of the Arab Spring at the end of January, it would have been surprising if these and other Islamists had not concluded that their moment had at last arrived. As in Egypt, the Islamists hid their agenda behind the veil of democracy. They felt that with five droughts in succession, rampant youth unemployment and a 100 percent rise in the price of wheat in the previous year, conditions in Syria were no different from those in Egypt. Therefore, they gave their first online call for a protest demonstration in Damascus before the Parliament building in mid-February.
Ironically, this had been made much easier by Assad’s decision to legalise many websites, including Facebook, less than a month earlier. Within days of the Tunisian uprising, Assad had convened a high-level meeting within the government and decided that the reform process that he had been promising since 2000, but had repeatedly postponed because of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the turmoil in Lebanon and the Israeli invasion of that country in 2006, could not be postponed any longer. The freeing of the Internet was his first step.
But the call failed because no one turned up. On Facebook, the organisers maintained that this was because of a heavy security presence and called for another demo on 15 March. This one too was a failure for, as numerous journalists reported, the turnout was “a few dozen people”. The police contented itself with arresting six of them.
This second failure forced the Salafis to separate themselves from the civil rights activists and come out into the open. Their next call for a demo in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Dera’a, Deir-Ezzor and Hama came hard on its heels on 18 March. Not coincidentally, it was a Friday and, as YouTube videos showed, the demonstrations took place outside large mosques after the noon prayers.
Still, despite the exhortations of the imams, the turnout was again measurable only in hundreds. YouTube videos of the protest in Douma showed that the slogans being chanted were not for democracy but for the installation of an Islamic regime, and that many in the street were not part of the demo but were looking up in enquiry at the protesters.
But the change of strategy served its purpose. Three persons were killed in Dera’a on 18 March, and another six were killed six days later when police stormed the Omari mosque, the nerve centre of the Salafi upsurge. Authorities claimed that the police had been forced to open fire by ‘saboteurs’ (they probably meant agents provocateurs) who had crossed into Dera’a from Jordan and had attacked government buildings, including the Ba’ath Party headquarters. The claim was barely reported by the western media, but was not implausible, because Dera’a is on the Jordan border and the Muslim Brotherhood has a strong presence in Jordan: indeed the Jordanian papers already reported a seizure of arms headed for Dera’a.
After Dera’a, nearly all the protests have taken place on Fridays and the slogans shouted by the demonstrators have uniformly called for the replacement of Assad by a president who would follow the tenets of Islam. Slowly but inexorably, the death toll has mounted, although it may still be well short of the insurgents’ claim of 1,500.
Assad did his best to limit the damage caused by the deaths in Dera’a. On 23 March, within hours of the attack on the Omari mosque, Assad sacked the governor of Dera’a, Faisal Kalthoum. On 26 March, following another round of Friday violence, his government released 260 prisoners and 16 clerics in Dera’a. On 31 March, he announced more relaxations of the emergency laws and made a commitment that they would be lifted by 25 April.
He was as good as his word, for in an attempt to head off the regular Friday carnage, he repealed the emergency laws four days earlier on 21 April, abolished the much-feared security courts and guaranteed the right to peaceful demonstration. But all to no avail.
THIS HISTORIC change of a 50-yearold law was not only ignored by the Islamists who were, by now, scenting victory but also by the bulk of the international media that was now, inadvertently, egging them on. Even The New York Times only reported that the “renewed protests amounted to a rejection of concessions outlined by Assad in a televised address, notably lifting the state of emergency by the end of this week”. One suspects it was only then that Assad realised that his reforms were not only not working but empowering his enemies.
As I write, President Assad has again addressed the nation, announced a general amnesty for all prisoners and committed himself to a phased transition to democracy. But all that the international community has had to say is that his speech “lacked specifics”. This must have come as music to the Salafis’ ears, so the struggle will continue.
Syria is not only a textbook case of how a small band of fanatics can trigger the destruction of a country in order to seize power, but also a warning of where the Arab Spring is most likely to end. In Egypt and Tunisia, all the problems that gave birth to it — hunger, unemployment and endemic corruption — have grown worse. The street Arabs in Cairo and Tunis have already begun to feel the consequences, for investment is down, prices and unemployment are rising, and the demand for casual labour in the informal sector, on which most of them subsist, has plummeted. The beneficiaries there too are likely to be the Muslim Brotherhood. As disillusionment sets in, the Arab Spring could easily turn into an Islamist Winter.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist.