Bad Reviews for Assad's Efforts to Win Hearts in Syria: World View
June 27 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must have hoped that his third speech to his nation in as many months would be well-received by commentators in the region. It was not to be.
Assad constructed his June 20 address to be conciliatory, offering an unprecedented "national dialogue" with the opposition and a committee to consider amendments to the constitution, which forbids competition with his ruling Baath Party. But regional commentators largely judged those gestures insincere, or too little, too late -- all the more so given that Assad deemed the recent political protests "vandalism," and those who carried them out "saboteurs" and even "germs."
"Whoever looks into the reactions to President Bashar al-Assad’s last speech would find it hard to find even one positive statement in its favor since almost everyone found it negative on all levels," wrote columnist Mohamed Krichen in Al-Quds al-Arabi, a Palestinian-owned daily published in London that was previously friendly to the Assad regime.
Concluding that the Syrian president had “wasted another opportunity,” Krichen wrote, “It is not shameful for a leader worthy of that title to show a little modesty, retreat or recognize the mistakes he committed while saying he is willing to assume his responsibilities in full.”
Krichen cited the example of Tunisia in 1984, when riots erupted over rising bread prices following the full lifting of government subsidies.
Dead and wounded fell and the army took to the streets before leader Habib Bourguiba came out -- maintaining his statesmanship despite his old age -- to say, in an improvised speech less than a minute long, that he had restored the old prices for bread and that he would hold those responsible for misleading him in this regard accountable. Within a few minutes, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to raise slogans in his favor! This type of Arab leader no longer exists.
Apparently, al-Assad’s treatment is not one that merely consists of an amputation, as is the method of the Libyan leader who vowed to chase down his ‘rats’ in ‘every street and every home.’ Instead, in line with the Hippocratic oath, it includes some mercy and humanity, since it combines surgical treatment in the cases where this is an absolute necessity, along with treatment through medication and pain killers, which needs some time to produce results.
Harfoush noted that Assad, a physician, originally gave the wrong prognosis for Syria in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, saying the country would avoid the Arab uprisings since it was part of a “resistance Axis” against Israel. "There is a feeling that the doctor has been late to prescribe the treatment since he previously misdiagnosed the disease when he considered that the Syrian body is immune to the ‘germs’ that hit some of its neighbors."
Yasir al-Za'atrah, a columnist for Jordan's pro-monarchy Ad-Dustour daily, wrote that al-Assad proposed nothing more in his address than the same kind of “sham democracy” that existed in Egypt and Tunisia before the recent revolts. Protests, he predicted approvingly, would continue until the Assad government was overthrown.
In Egypt's conservative Al-Jumhuriyah newspaper, columnist Sumayah Ahmad wrote that “it was clear President Bashar al-Assad is still unaware of what is going on in his country in spite of the 10,000 refugees who fled to Turkey and the other 15,000 who fled to the border area and in spite of the 1,800 martyrs.” The most comical thing about Assad’s recent speech, Ahmad added, “is when he said that instead of drawing lessons from the region, we will give the region those lessons. The question is: Why do our rulers understand after it is too late?”
Of course, Assad did have some supporters, and other, more circumspect voices were wary of the pile-on against the regime by regional and global parties.
Said columnist Muhammad Sharif al-Jiyusi in Ad-Dustour:
Those who believe the anti-Syria version of the story and welcome the threats of the West do not even want to know the other version of the story. Whenever Syria achieves an important step, they carry out another escalation both internally and externally.
The capitals of "the old and the new colonialism" (Western powers and Israel), he asserted, have over 11 years, “hindered attempts by the Syrian regime to implement an ambitious reform program as they always kept Syria preoccupied with national and external problems.” This was a reference, presumably, to the beginning of George W. Bush's presidency and to issues such as the Syria-Israel peace process, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and Syria's relations with Iran and neighboring Lebanon.
Writing in Al-Hayat, columnist Husayn Abd-al-Aziz wrote that most Syrians disliked the government but were “not averse to al-Assad personally” and were keeping off the streets, which they left to “sectarian” government partisans and opponents. For this reason, he minimized chances that the protests would either escalate to Egyptian proportions or die out, suggesting that a low-level conflict would continue to burn in coming weeks and months.
Ibrahim al-Amine, chairman of the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar daily, was less restrained, writing scathingly of the criticism of Assad:
'He ran out of time. He missed his chance. He should have said all this months ago. There is no more use to what he’s saying. Developments have overtaken him. Al-Assad must leave.' This is a sample of the comments made by various thugs concerning the speech of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Because Assad refuses to change his positions on the big, contentious issues of the Middle East, Amine argued, outside powers led by the U.S. are desperately hoping for regime change in Syria but don’t want to pay the price for a military intervention, the costs of which would likely far exceed even the increasingly controversial one in Libya. Had these actors truly wanted reform in Syria, they would have “pushed the man towards additional practical steps instead of insisting on empty positions whose only aim is to spill more blood. Alain Juppe for instance, believes that a Western army will be ready to intervene in order to save the Syrian people. Apparently, this idiot does not know that Jacques Chirac and George Bush are now back in their homes.”
With the discussion focused on the Syrian government's longstanding opponents, however, little attention was given to the internal dynamics within Syria, which more than anything will probably determine the future of the country.
And many actors in the Middle East -- even the most powerful -- may not have much say about that.
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(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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