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Syria: Qaddafi’s Death, Mazoot Prices, Opposition – OpEd

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The Syrian opposition has been given renewed vigor following the killing of Qaddafi. Senator John McCain said Sunday that military action to protect civilians in Syria might be considered now that NATO’s air campaign in Libya is ending.

Mohammad Habash, a member of Syria’s outgoing parliament, said such military action “will only bring catastrophes, wars and blood and this is what we don’t wish at all.”  “We believe that the best way to protect civilians is diplomatic pressure and pushing the regime to sit and talk with the opposition and pushing the opposition to sit with the regime,” said Habash, who has been linked to the regime but has recently tried to position himself between the government and the opposition.

President al-Assad has named new governors for the province of Idlib and the Damascus governorate. Assad forces shelled civilian houses in Baba Amr, Homs At least thirty civilians were killed in Homs, Hama, Daraa and Idlib in the last few days.

Qaddafi’s downfall can only be cheered even as one is horrified by his brutal end and the unruly vengeance and looting that has overtaken several towns and parts of Libya. Unfortunately, it is easy to envisage similar destruction and violence being visited on Syria as so many now predict civil war. The government’s primary tactic for regaining control — inducing fear — increases the desire for retribution. Those of us with family in Syria are plotting ways to get them out as the situation becomes ever more violent.

Lest anyone think that revenge is a specialty of the Arab World, it is worth remembering that after the fall of the Vichy government in 1945, the French killed over 10,000 collaborators during the first phase (the épuration sauvage) of retribution. Once France’s provisional government got control of the process many fewer were killed. The commissions d’épuration sentenced approximately 120,000 persons but only 6,763 people were condemned to death (3,910 in absentia) and only 791 executions were actually carried out. Many were given prison terms. More common was “national degradation,” a loss of face and civil rights, which was meted out to 49,723 people.

Economy

Inflation has hit Syria. Nowhere more brutally than the energy sector – the main target of European sanctions. Ehsani writes:

The topic in Syria is mazot (kerosene oil, used for heating) as we enter winter. The official price is syp 15 but no one sells at that price. Families who want to stock up for the winter and who have mazot tanks on their roofs or basements need to pay syp 32-33 to get them delivered. An average house (my sister) consumes 2000 liters a year. Others (like my dad) consume as much as 8000 liters a year. With a price difference of syp 17-18 from official prices, filling up 2000 liter tanks is a hit of syp 35,000. Most don’t want to bite the bullet and pay it for they still hope to avoid the hit and pay the official price of SYP 15. This is the recent major calculation of households. Many cars use mazot too (taxis and service). Those are essentially stranded at gas stations. They wait for hours hoping to fill in at SYP 15 with little luck.

National Budget did not increase by 58% and the missing oil revenue

As many of us were unable to account for the oil revenues, the government is finally trying to explain the discrepancy. In a nutshell, the subsidies of close to $7 billion were never part of the budget. Instead, they were accounted for by lowering the revenues from oil. The budget this year did the right thing. It counted oil revenue correctly and then hit the subsidies as expenditures (rather than lower revenues). This is why the whole budget went up by 58% (both sides went up). If you exclude this accounting change, they claim that the budget is up 15%. This is a significant move in the right direction. The total subsidies now of syp 386 billion of which over SYP 300 are on energy are now fully accounted for. They make up 1/3 of every dollar that the government spends/invests. The subsidies go largely to the rich.

Opposition News

As the situation deteriorates, ever more importance must be placed on the Syrian opposition to see that something good comes out of this struggle and that it proceeds with as much central and rational direction as possible. See this invaluable website on the Syrian parties and currents: http://www.syrianparties.info/

Samer Araabi explains how the Syrian National Council Seeks Legitimacy At Home and Abroad. Western governments seem to be keeping the Syrian National Council are arms length for the time being, fearing that it is heavily tilted toward the Islamic currents.

Here is what Anthony Shadid writes in NYTimes on the National Council:

Unlike with Libya, Western officials have called the council’s formation a positive step but offered little more. “I think we will have to find out a bit more yet,” said Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. (So far, only Libya’s new government has recognized the council as the representative of Syria’s people.)

An Obama administration official was especially critical, saying the council had lobbied the international community more than Syrians themselves, particularly the Christian and Alawite minorities. The official declined to refer to the council as the opposition, but rather as “oppositionists,” in reflection of the body’s embryonic nature.

“It’s a right step, but we’re still skeptical basically,” the official in Washington said. “We’re far from a real body that fully represents the Syrian people.”

Within the opposition, some worry about the disproportionate power of Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, especially given its lack of any organizational presence inside Syria. Others suggest Turkey may seek to corral the opposition, and some activists were opposed to holding the meeting in Istanbul. Though Turkish officials have sought to place themselves broadly on the side of change in the Arab world, they have deep relations with Islamist movements in Egypt, Tunisia and the Palestinian territories.

While Mr. Ghalioun has said the council opposes the intervention of NATO, even if it is not on the table, others have endorsed what they call international protection of protesters, an admittedly ambiguous position, or no-fly zones or havens along Syria’s borders. Inside Syria, some dissidents still caution against the overthrow of Mr. Assad — fearing civil war — and instead endorse gradual reform.

And though this month has witnessed one of the biggest Kurdish demonstrations, the community has yet to forcefully enter the fray on the opposition’s side.

“Things are still very blurred,” said Abdel-Basit Hammo, a Kurdish activist.

Some analysts say the opposition’s biggest challenge in the coming months is to elaborate precisely its vision for a future Syria, beyond a set of principles. Mr. Assad’s government is remarkable for its lack of any ideology; fear of chaos drives much of its support. Most slogans at last week’s pro-government protest paid tribute to the remnants of Mr. Assad’s personality cult, itself diminished by the viciousness of the crackdown.

“The key is whether they can offer a real alternative,” said Nadim Houry, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Beirut. “If they do, they would be setting the agenda, regardless of whether they are in Damascus or not. This is where their true power lies today, if they can set the agenda and define what tomorrow’s Syria will look like.”

Many Syrians are perturbed that not one of the opposition groups in Syria has proposed any economic plan or a new constitution. Indeed, the parties have been very slow to outline the answers they propose to Syria’s main problems other than overturning the regime. The press has been slow to ask such questions to the new leaders that are emerging.

1- what will you do about population growth?
2- what are your plans on subsidies and the public sector?
3- what is your vision of a new education system. How will you change it?
4- women in the region have the lowest labor participation in the world. Do you plan to change this for syria and how (highest correlation with fertility)?
5- what are your plans regarding the Golan?

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis maintains Syria Comment and teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis regularly travels to Washington DC to consult with the State Department and other government agencies. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio.

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