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Assad in the firing line on the road to Damascus

The turmoil that has been sweeping Syria since January, when demonstrators caught the fever of the Arab spring revolutionary movement, is reaching a climax.

On Friday, tens of thousands protested against President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Aleppo, Suweida, Deraa and near Damascus on Syrian Independence Day. At least 22 are said to have been killed when security forces opened fire in Deraa.

The anti-government movement has deepened the crisis of the 40-year-old Assad dynasty. It is disrupting the mosaic of national, religious, ethnic, and oil politics together with big power interests. In response to the power of Friday’s Day of Rage, al-Assad promised to lift Syria’s emergency laws which have been in force since 1962.

To add to complexities, yesterday saw the publication of US embassy cables, released by WikiLeaks .They reveal that the US State Department has been promoting various “civil society strengthening initiatives”, such as the Movement for Justice and Development to the tune of $12m between 2005-2010.

The US has had an on-off relationship with Damascus over the decades, partly because of its anti-Zionist stance and partly because it is viewed as a cat’s paw for Iranian interests in the area. At the same time, the Bush administration used Syria to torture people as part of its “extraordinary rendition” programme. The US re-opened relations with Syria in 2010, appointing a ambassador to Damascus for the first time for five years.

In a desperate measure to satisfy protesters, al-Assad promised to lift the emergency laws that have ban gatherings of more than five people by Monday 25 April. Assad took over after his father Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000, continuing the “hereditary dictatorship” that has kept Syria under the grip of state security forces. Amongst other authoritarian measures, the regime banned Facebook in attempts to stop anti-government blogging. In desperate moves to cling on to power he has been firing ministers and making promises and concessions (at least on paper) over the last couple of months.

But even while pledging to lift the state of emergency, al-Assad threatened: “We will not tolerate any attempts at sabotage.” So far over 200 people have been killed during the unrest, including four in the last 24 hours. Many were murdered by pro-regime thugs wielding revolvers, stun guns and batons.

Al-Assad and his brutal secret police will no doubt seek to exploit the WikiLeaks revelations to discredit those seeking reforms and/or to topple his regime. Like his fellow tyrants in the region, Assad seeks to rally support against his opponents by painting them as agents of foreign oppressors.

But rather than revealing the power of US imperialism, WikiLeaks cables actually show the state of disarray within Washington’s ruling circles, the divisions between the presidency and covert operations machinators. The US wants to maintain its cosy relationship with the feudal Saudi monarchy and keep the oil flowing, but at the same time manipulate the rulers of less powerful states like Syria, which they see as unreliable and too close to Iran.

It is not an unwillingness to sacrifice and even risk death that holds back the the hundreds of thousands who have espoused the cause of the Syrian revolution. They include, amongst others, the Youth of 4-5 February movement, the Syrian Days of Rage and the Syrian Revolution Facebook which has nearly 120,000 followers.

US support for the anti-regime movements in Syria as elsewhere in the Middle east and north Africa has produced a sorcerer’s apprentice. No one is truly in control. In Egypt, the army has arrested former president Mubarak in a desperate bid to retain control of the revolution. In Libya, the West’s intervention has helped create a stalemate and tainted the opposition to Gaddafi. The challenge for revolutionary forces is to create a secular Pan-Arab leadership that can unite the masses and build for the next stage of the Arab Revolution, whose aim has to be social revolution.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
18 April 2011

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