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On April 21, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared an end to 48 years of emergency law. Protests escalated despite this effort to quell them. And today, Damascus is in a higher state of emergency than ever before. The course of Syria’s protests has taken many observers by surprise. I argued on ForeignAffairs.com in March 2011 that the regime’s “credible threat to use force” and the alliance that the country’s anti-American, minority ruling cadre had built with the military and elite to sustain its rule would “prevent oppositional forces from gaining a critical mass in the near future.” The fear of brutal repression and sectarian tensions, I wrote, would encourage Syrians to “pin their hopes on a slow but stable process of reform.”
These factors have indeed delayed pro-democracy activism. Whereas social networks mobilized hundreds of thousands of demonstrators quickly in Egypt and Tunisia, in Syria the momentum has been building slowly. Protests have erupted nationwide, but some would-be activists remain deterred by the military’s threat of force. Calls for a nation-wide general strike remained largely unanswered this week. At the same time, the positive examples of change in Egypt and Tunisia further infuriated the thousands who did decide to take to the streets. And the regime’s violent reaction to the demonstrators’ initially modest demands has hardened their resolve. As time has gone on, they have moved from calling for the end of Syria’s emergency law and condemning the regime’s corruption to calling for the outright dismantling of the country’s system of government. Momentum has shifted against the Syrian regime, and Assad has proved unable to escape the demand for political change sweeping the region.
Repeating the failed approach of his ousted counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, Assad has responded to the protests both by attempting to delegitimize them as a “foreign conspiracy” and by offering limited concessions in the hopes of subduing the masses. His promises to lift the ban on teachers in public schools wearing Islamic headscarves, to grant citizenship to stateless Kurds, to dismiss the government, and to end the unpopular emergency law might well have appeased calls for change had they been offered at the outset. But given the regime’s delayed response these steps were seen as disingenuous.
Moreover, Assad’s concessions lack sincerity. After he dismissed the government on March 29, he formed a new one, in which 9 of 25 ministers had previously served on his cabinet. And when the emergency law was lifted, the government announced its intention to introduce an “anti-terrorism” law with similar, if not identical, stipulations. These haphazard measures have only fanned the flames they were meant to smother. The Assad regime spent considerable political capital on empty declarations, missing opportunities to defuse the conflict with genuine reform.
As I predicted, Assad’s response to growing calls for regime change has been ruthless. In late April, he dispatched waves of heavily armored troops to centers of opposition -- Deraa, Douma, and Banias -- resulting in scores of civilian casualties. Last Friday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cited reports according to which up to 800 people have been killed since mid-March. Thousands have been arrested and are currently being held in makeshift prisons. In this respect, Assad’s approach mirrors that of Muammar al-Qaddafi, whose violent response to protests in Libya did not quell the opposition but bolstered it, not least by compelling the international community to act. Although pressure mounts for the international community to intervene in Syria, Syrians remain highly opposed to outside help -- a remarkable and fundamental difference from the Libyans.
Many now question just how long the Syrian military will continue to be loyal to Assad. The opposition has reported sporadic military defections and mutinies, but these are difficult to substantiate given the virtual absence of objective reporting from the country. For its part, the elite Republican Guard still appears ready and willing to stop the uprising with force, but it is an open question whether the military, which is largely made up of conscripts, will continue to serve as a willing tool of oppression. Although widespread mutiny or a coup d’état seems unlikely at present, prolonged bloodshed may very well make this scenario a reality. The regime’s attempts in the last few days to counter protests with less-than-lethal force, such as widespread arbitrary arrests, and its orders that troops not fire on protesters after Friday prayers indicate that it is well aware of the possibility of defections. Until now, however, the violent crack-down continues in parallel.
Despite the surge in protests, Assad still enjoys relatively strong support among minorities such as the Alawi community and the influential Christian community. Indeed, the regime may yet be able to save itself by embarking on a fast and comprehensive opening of the political system -- including constitutional change and new party laws that reduce the ruling Baath Party’s monopoly on power. More important than further promises of change, however, would be clear steps toward the actual implementation of reform -- which, as of yet, have been missing. Assad might take a page from Jordanian King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein’s skilled maneuvering. He faces a similar set of challenges. As in Syria, protests initially focused on social issues and widespread corruption but ultimately culminated in calls for constitutional reform. Yet King Abdullah has addressed pressing issues more convincingly than his Syrian counterpart, reaching out to tribes, engaging Palestinian refugees, and visiting marginalized regions. He has personally overseen royal committees on reform and national dialogue. It is unclear how fundamental his reforms will actually be, but his approach has proven more fruitful than the Syrian combination of ambiguous promises and Qaddafi-style oppression with dubious chances of success. The fact that last Friday’s announcement to implement “a comprehensive national dialogue” in Syria was not issued by the President but merely by a government minister again indicates that presidential interest in reform is still largely lacking.
Although British Foreign Secretary William Hague was certainly correct in noting in April that it was not too late for Syria to “do the right thing” by embracing reform, Assad’s window of opportunity is rapidly closing. With each week of continued violence and increasing numbers of civilian casualties, it is more uncertain whether the Syrian people will continue to agree with Whitehall’s assessment.
Enthusiastic calls to “cheer as Syria’s people shake the House That Assad Built,” as Jeff Jacoby argued in The Boston Globe on March 30, in reference to my ForeignAffairs.com article, are certainly understandable. But the need to support the courage of protesters must be balanced against the remaining -- yet increasingly unlikely -- hope that reforms could work and against plausible reasons to fear a violent collapse of authority in an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous society such as Syria. After all, given Syria’s lack of a unified opposition, the regime’s collapse might result in an explosion of sectarian conflict. Jordan and Turkey’s attempts at the end of April to push Assad toward a radical, last-minute change of course were not coincidental. Ankara and Amman are increasingly skeptical about the regime’s readiness to reform, but they understand what the Assad regime’s implosion would mean regionally.
Beyond a fear of the unknown, stretched Western military capacity and the nature of the Syrian uprising put hard limits on what Western powers could do to bolster the opposition. The sanctions that Europe and the United States imposed this week on Syrian leaders are important symbolic steps but do not provide protesters with tangible support. Likewise, imposing a no-fly zone was crucial to stop Qaddafi’s air attacks on Libyan rebels, but would be ineffective against Assad’s favored tactic: mass arrests of activists, as was carried out in Damascus, Homs, and Latakia. As unsatisfactory as it may sound, change in Syria cannot be attained with a quick-fix military intervention. The House of Assad must continue to be shaken from the ground.