I spent Friday night watching the TV footage from Syria. We are after all in the Twitter, Youtube, Facebook era. Everything is live. In 1991, during the Shiite and Kurdish uprising in Iraq, there was only one satellite dish, and that was in Baghdad. Nobody watched Saddams massacres.
Now we have footage from Damascus, Deraa and across Syria. Syria is rioting. The crowds in Deraa have turned the Baath regimes slogan of God, Syria and Bashar into God, Syria and Freedom. The fact that the city of Hama is rioting is a very important sign. In 1982, President Bashar Assads father Hafiz Assad quashed an uprising there with such force that some say 10,000, others, 20,000 people were killed.
I went to Hama in 1982 via Damascus and Aleppo. The Damascus-Aleppo highway passed through Hama. I will never forget what I saw. The city center looked like Dresden or Berlin during the Second World War. Burnt out buildings, water seeping everywhere from burst pipes... As we approached the military checkpoint, the Syrians in the shared cab couldnt stop crying.
Hama has always been a pious city. It is an important Sunni center. Because it has been blacklisted by the Baath regime I anticipated that with the winds of freedom sweeping the Middle East, any uprising there would be put down with a force comparable or perhaps stronger than Gaddafis.
The revolutionary wave reaches Syria
It is hard to tell what developments in Syria will bring; whether it will be a repeat of the situation in Libya, or Iraq in 2003. How far will it go? That is the question. A friend asked me this yesterday and I replied: I dont know. Whats happening in the region confounds all predictions. Analyses based on the past simply dont work.
But there are some yardsticks we can use to predict what might happen. For example, the Syrian regime will undoubtedly resort to force to stop what is happening. The political-economic leadership, which is based on the Assad-Makhluf clan and the Alawite religious minority, has no choice but to use disproportionate force to remain in power. (Makhluf is the family of the presidents mother. Assads maternal cousin Rami Makhluf is Syrias richest man. Ramis brother Mahir and sisters husband are the countrys top security and intelligence chiefs.)
Will Syria do what Tayyip Erdogan suggests?
Will the Bashar Assad regime act on the recommendations of his close friend, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, and start reforms? This is a serious subject of debate. Whether he has the ability to carry out reforms, most of the promises Bashar made over the past 11 years in this area have been on paper only. Thats because if Syria were to seriously pursue democratization, it would be impossible for the current mainly Alawite power structure to remain. Were talking about a country that is 75 percent Sunni and whose traditional merchant class based in Damascus and Aleppo is Sunni. Syria is much more important than Libya due to its geopolitical position, its population and the possible consequences of what happens there -- that would directly affect Iran, Lebanon and Israel.
For the past two years Turkey has emerged as an active regional player and power on the international stage, and Syria is a cornerstone in its new Middle East policy. For this reason, what happens in Syria, how it happens and what path is chosen or not - will have a far greater impact on Turkeys near and medium-term foreign policy than anyone elses. The events in Tunisia, and in particular Egypt, further polished Turkeys international profile. Libya tarnished that somewhat. Just when the governments Libyan policy was coming together, Syria could really give Turkey a headache. My friends no doubt will have more questions for me in the coming days.
Photo - Michael Thompson