The Syrian government has announced the lifting of the 39-year old Emergency rule amid widespread riots against the regime of Bashar Assad. The lifting of the rule did little to quell the ongoing protests across the country, calling for regime change.
Hundreds of protesters were killed in protests in the southern city of Deraa and other cities across Syria, as security forces were reportedly responding with greater force than before the lifting of the emergency law. Thousands of people were reportedly arrested or missing.
In response, the US further strengthened its sanctions that have been in place against Syria by freezing the assets of Assad’s brother and other relatives, as well as the Syrian intelligence agency. The US and other states called on the regime to stop the crackdown and instigate immediate reforms.
In another significant development, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Syria, strongly came out in support of the protests for the first time since they started. The highly influential International Union of Muslim Scholars, headed by Muslim Brotherhood de-facto spiritual leader Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, condemned the action of the Syrian regime.
April 17-30, 2010
Analysis and Forecast: Increasing Risk
The lifting of the emergency laws in Syria was not unexpected. Although they were initially part of the protestors’ demand, Political Capital predicted that lifting them at this late stage of the riots would not be seen as sufficient. Indeed, the riots intensified after they were lifted, with the bloodiest day of the unrest so far occurring immediately after the lifting, with over 80 killed.
The other key demand by the protestors is the repealing of Article 8 of the constitution, which explicitly mentions the ruling Baath Party as the main party of the state. Although the country has other political groups that stand in parliamentary elections, almost all are in alliance with the Baath. If Article 8 was repealed earlier, it may have resulted in the calming down of the situation. However, with the number of fatalities rising dramatically, and the crucial public backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not clear that revoking Article 8 might be seen as sufficient. The demonstrators are calling for entire regime change.
Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, the problems facing Egypt have traditionally been internal. The regime’s foreign policy was largely popular not only in Syria, but among other Arab populations. Syria is host to the Palestinian movement Hamas which, together with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah of Lebanon, provide Syria with a PR image that makes the regime popular amongst many Arabs. With the recent escalation of riots, the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is a member, and the Sunni population of Syria have largely turned against the regime. This foreign policy fig-leave can no longer be used by the Syrian regime to garner support internally or externally. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has also accused the regime of bringing in Hizbollah fighters to quell the riots, with strong anti-Hizbollah chants heard in demonstrations across the country. So far, however, the demonstrators also made clear in their demonstrations that they were not supports of the Muslim Brotherhood, and emphasized national unity amongst the country’s population.
The regime therefore faces a serious problem not only internally, but externally as well. The regime may resort to increased brutality against the rioters and may indeed succeed in quieting the unrest down for limited periods. However, with the large number of fatalities and the fact that the regime has made enemies with key supporters, more troubles for the regime are likely to come.
Separate, whilst the US sanctions are largely token and may not have a massive impact on Syria, the riots, combined with the sanctions will make it exponentially difficult for Syria to attract the badly needed foreign investment, particularly for its infrastructure upgrade. Over US $55 billion were needed over the next five years as estimated by the government before the riots. With the current unrest, it will be even more difficult for the regime to attract any investment.
Syria therefore faces threats on both the economic fronts as well as a sustained threat of civil unrest.