Anybody who predicted that Syria would remain immune to the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world since last December was in for a big surprise last week as violent demonstrations ripped through the southern town of Daraa, near the border with Jordan. It immediately snowballed into other towns and cities throughout Syria, reaching the port city of Latakia, Homs in the Syrian midland, and Damascus.
In most places, the demonstrators were chanting, “God, Freedom, Syria.” Demonstrating peacefully is a constitutionally guaranteed right, and nobody knows how effective it can be better than the Baathists themselves, who used street power back in the 1950s (before they came to power) to bring down one government after another, literarily leading Syria towards union with Egypt in 1958.
One needs to differentiate, however, between peaceful demonstrators demanding legitimate political change, and violent ones creating nothing but chaos. In some parts of Syria, the demonstrators were indeed peaceful and legitimate. Opening fire at them was a grave error that needs to be punished.
In Homs and Latakia, however, the demonstrations were violent. There were no legitimate political demands in those two cities, but rather, nothing but the mob taking to the streets, eager to strike, loot, and vandalise.
That too is a crime that needs to be punished — and international media has sadly not differentiated between the two kinds of demonstrators. Even countries with the healthiest democratic systems do not tolerate street violence and mob rule.
When it comes to politics, the list of demands is long and legitimate: Lifting martial law that has been imposed on Syria since the Baathists came to power in 1963, allowing for political pluralism, ending arbitrary arrests, releasing political prisoners, calling for a free press, combating corruption, and changing the unpopular cabinet of Prime Minister Naji Al Otari, which has been in power since 2003.
Next summer there will be parliamentary elections in Syria and people are demanding that these elections be free and democratic, regardless of who wins a majority of seats. The pre-set quota of the Baath Party and its sister socialist parties in the National Progressive Front (NPF) needs to be cancelled, and similar transparency needs to prevail in the upcoming municipality elections. Additionally there needs to be a major face-lift of the judiciary and in the educational system.
Last Thursday, President Bashar Al Assad’s senior political adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said that the political demands were legitimate, stressing that peaceful demonstrations will be tolerated — but not violent ones. All political topics were up for discussion, she added, noting, however, that debating them had to be in an orderly, civilized, and legal manner.
She revealed a basket of reforms that included releasing all detainees arrested in the Daraa events, raising wages by up to 30 per cent, and promising to do away with martial law. She emphasised that Al Assad had given strict orders not to shoot at peaceful demonstrations, offered condolences for the senseless loss of life in both camps, and literarily, asked Syrians to give their government and president, the benefit of the doubt.
According to sources in Damascus, martial law will indeed be lifted soon, the Al Otari cabinet will be changed, and serious debate is under way about the future role — if any — of the Baath Party. Political parties, even those opposed to the Baath, will be allowed within the next 30 days, and a new media law allowing for more freedoms will also go into effect next April.
The people of Syria now have two paths ahead of them. One is that of Al Assad, which calls for calm, and offers far-reaching reforms that would completely face-lift and revamp the entire composition of the Syrian regime.
This path promises to maintain the security, secularism, and stability of Syria while championing an Arab nationalistic hallmark that upholds the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine — two topics that are dear to the hearts of grass roots Syrians.
This path promises democracy via the British model, through evolution not revolution. Understandably, many are restless and claim that some of these promises are not new and have been heard before during the Baath Congress of 2005.
Among other things, this path promises to grant citizenship to the hundreds of thousands of stateless Kurds who have lived and worked in Syria for decades, and pledges to continue combating extremist groups like Al Qaida. All of this needs to be done this week — not in the open-ended future.
The second path is that of chaos and a very uncertain future at the end of the tunnel. It calls for bringing down the regime, shattering Syria’s tranquillity, and thrusting the nation into a very murky future.
Syrians have two roads to choose from — both being calculated gambles. In the first, they would be betting on Al Assad — who remains immensely popular among young Syrians — and it requires giving him the benefit of the doubt. The second path would be betting on the unknown — a street movement that doesn’t have a clear command, vision, or agenda.
As a Syrian writer who has family in Syria I would take the first option and encourage others to do so. Al Assad should get the benefit of the doubt because I wish to see a Syria made politically, morally, economically and educationally better.
This article appeared in Gulf News on March 28, 2011.