By Arab News
Syria continues to hurtle down the precipice. The more the Baathist regime in Damascus tries to rein in the widening anti-government protests using the heavy-handed tactics, the more intense they become. At least 17 people were killed in the city of Homs on Monday when the security forces opened fire on demonstrators protesting against those killed on Sunday, taking the toll to more than two hundred. The killings come two days after President Bashar Al Assad promised to lift the infamous Emergency law imposed 48 years ago after the Baathist revolution in 1963, a key demand of the protest movement.
However, the government move is clearly seen as too little too late. More important, many fear, and perhaps not entirely without basis, that by lifting the draconian Emergency law and bringing in another one in its place, the regime is taking away with one hand what it’s offering with the other. Most of the sweeping, extraordinary powers that the security forces and the governing Baathist officials currently enjoy under the Emergency law are likely to be retained under the proposed new law.
Not only is the Emergency law seen as violating internationally recognized fundamental rights and the UN Human Rights Charter, it overrides many rights guaranteed under Syria’s constitution. As had been the tradition in many former socialist and communist states, under the Emergency law anyone could be arrested and detained incommunicado for long periods on catchall charges such as “working against the goals of the revolution.” Detainees are often tried in military courts or the Supreme State Security Court with no access to a lawyer.
The Emergency law also restricts public gatherings and the free movement of individuals. Security forces can enter private homes at any time or tap phones and e-mails. People need security approval for such ordinary and mundane things such as becoming a schoolteacher or setting up a small business. Of course, Syria is not the only country in the region to have such arbitrary laws. Many of the Arab socialist republics have had such laws in place for decades.
Clearly, though, it is time to move on. The mounting pressure and widening protests in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere suggest that half-hearted and half measures or cosmetic gestures are not going to check the unprecedented unrest. People want real change and genuine comprehensive reforms. Change or be ready to be changed. That appears to be the stark choice before the countries facing the long pent up anger and frustration of their people. So instead of blaming outside interference, which is an increasing possibility with the United States acknowledging its support to opposition groups in Syria and elsewhere, regimes concerned would do well to address the genuine concerns and aspirations of their people before they are hijacked by external players.
Because of its size and strategic eminence, Syria is as crucial to the Levant, the region stretching from Jordan Valley and Palestine-Israel to Turkey in the north, as Egypt is to the Maghreb or North Africa. Any instability in Syria could affect and unravel the whole region. So big powers must desist from playing with fire in this crucial Arab country. And the regime in Damascus should avoid offering them ready excuses or opportunities to do so.