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Why Daraa? Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, said that the agricultural town has “long been a center of restiveness and upheaval.” He further noted that a five-year long drought and an increase in the price of gasoline necessary to fuel the pumps that bring low-level water to the surface have resulted in severely declining levels of crop yields and income for the region’s farmers. People in the area were already angry at what they saw as an ineffectual government response to the crisis, and the anger was exacerbated by the arrest of 15 local teenagers for writing, ”The people want the regime to fall” on a wall. Those words have been used as the slogan for uprisings across the Middle East.
The events occurring in Daraa are the biggest challenge to the authoritarian government of Syria since the 1970s. And much like their benefactors in Iran, the repressive regime of Bashar Assad, like his father, Hafez before him, has met those challenges with deadly force. One can only speculate whether Mr. Assad, who, as recently as two months ago, told the Wall Street Journal that, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, his country was “stable,” will continue using deadly force to suppress his own citizens.
Despite that reality, some of the demonstrators apparently sense a weakening in the regime. They have presented the government with a list of demands, something that might have been considered unthinkable prior to the other uprisings in the region. Those demands include lifting the 1963 emergency law and releasing all political prisoners. Assad has countered with the release of the 15 teenagers and the sacking of Faisal Kalthoum, the provincial governor who ordered them thrown in jail. He has also reduced the reviled two-year period of compulsory military service by three months and, like so many before him, has promised to tackle corruption.
Gerges explains that such small steps are unlikely to achieve the desired result. ”Assad is still not dealing with the root causes. Syria is facing a crisis, a crisis of government, society and politics, ” he explained. The protesters apparently concur. They have warned government officials that unless Assad submits to their demands, Dignity Friday could evolve into the “Friday of Martyrs,” with multiple uprisings occurring throughout the nation.
Can Assad be toppled? Such a scenario is highly unlikely. Assad and all of the country’s top government officials, as well as the military and security forces, belong to the same Alawi sect of Islam, and odds are, such tight-knit relationships will help greatly in successfully repelling any challenge to their authority. Yet Gerges believes such success will only be temporary, and that Syria is “not immune” to the toppling of authoritarian regimes occurring throughout the Middle East.
The United Nations, along with France and the United States, has condemned the violence that has already taken place, with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for ”a transparent investigation into the killings.” The U.S. State Dept. is urging the Syrian government to ”exercise restraint and to refrain from violence.” ”We are deeply concerned by the Syrian government’s use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights. We condemn these actions,” said State spokesman Mark Toner.
We’ll soon find out if the Assad regime is listening.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.
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