Bad Reviews for Assad's Efforts to Win Hearts in Syria: World View

By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad


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.


Elias Harfoush, a columnist for the London-based Al-Hayat, a daily owned by a
leading member of the Saudi royal family, took issue with Assad’s assertion
that Syria has been infected by “germs.”


  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


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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