x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Assad's speech was intended to assure his supporters

The Syrian president is adamant against change because he has learned nothing, an Arabic-language observer writes. Other topics today: Hamas and the Strait of Hormuz.

President Al Assad's speech rejecting change was addressed mainly to his supporters

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's speech on Tuesday came to complement and clarify what he said in his previous speeches, noted Abdullah Iskandar, the managing editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat.

This means that the authorities' reaction to the Syrian crisis since it began more than 10 months ago is justified and doesn't need any modification now.

Mr Al Assad summarised the essence of his regime's modus operandi, emphasising that "the important priority now is to restore security which we have been enjoying for decades, and this can only be achieved by striking with an iron fist against terrorists and murderers."

The editorialist said that "everything that has happened since the onset of the crisis, the peaceful protests, the killings, the opposition committees' specific demands, the regional and international initiatives, the Arab and international sanctions and especially Syria's approval of the Arab League initiative, all that wasn't sufficient to influence the official interpretation of the protest movement and the authorities' vision of a peaceful way out".

As for the proposed referendum for a new constitution and a national government that would include independent figures, these are matters that would have to be relegated to an undetermined date in the future as long as the first priority is security, which means cracking down on the protest movement.

"This speech comes at a time where Syria sees its circle of friends narrowing down and where even its allies have started to complain of the lack of official initiatives. The armed forces deployed throughout the country have been stretched to the limit amid growing criticism over violent measures."

Multiple military and administrative defections, that have increased in frequency in recent weeks, show that the wider circles in the military and administration are debating the feasibility of the security solution and the way the country is run.

The Arab observers' mission is revealing more of the state's oppressive practices and its disrespect for the provisions of the Arab initiative regarding the withdrawal of armed forces from the streets and releasing prisoners among other terms.

All of these circumstances add to the fragility of the Syrian official position before the ever-expanding internal, regional and international fronts that are pressuring Damascus to take a more serious initiative and prevent the slide into a civil war.

"The Syrian president was most probably addressing his speech exclusively to his supporters," opined the writer. "He has repeatedly reiterated his disregard for the positions of others. It is for this reason that he chose to focus on strengthening the internal front, that is his supporters and those directly linked to his regime."

Too soon to say Hamas is really changing

Some are quick to reach the conclusion that Hamas, the ruling Palestinian faction in the Gaza Strip, is undergoing a "strategic makeover", columnist Mohammed Barhouma wrote in the West Bank newspaper Al Quds.

Hamas's political bureau chief, Khaled Mashaal, said several weeks ago during a short-lived détente with Fatah, the ruling faction in the West Bank, that Hamas is close to making a big shift from "armed resistance" to "a people's resistance".

"But we haven't really sensed in previous months that [Hamas] was undergoing a period of ideological revision that would then lead to a change in its political orientation," the writer said.

Just recently, Hamas barred a senior Fatah delegation from entering the Gaza Strip - a clear sign that Hamas has not yet resolved its internal power struggles.

True, by distancing itself from the Syrian regime, its one-time strong ally, Hamas has avoided making "a huge mistake", probably equal in proportion to the gaffe made by the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat when he sided with Saddam Hussein during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Also, the fact that Ismael Haniya, a leading Hamas figure, skipped Syria and Iran in his recent regional tour (Libya, Tunisia and Turkey) is not without symbolism, the writer went on.

But more time is needed to determine whether Hamas is earnest or simply using tactics.

Iran's Hormuz threat is 'playing with fire'

"The Iranian regime is restless. It suffers from the constant illusion that it is under some ominous threat. It believes that it has no friends in this world and that everyone is bent on destroying it," wrote Emirati journalist Mohammed Al Hammadi in yesterday's edition of the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper Al Ittihad.

Iran's nervousness in a super-tense Middle East may be understandable (especially since losing its key Syrian ally is becoming a probable outcome), but its recent threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf are out of line, he noted.

A vital portion of the global oil trade depends on stability in the Strait. "By threatening to close it, Iran is playing with fire - the kind of fire that hurts the juggler."

Legally speaking, the Strait of Hormuz is an international waterway that tankers are allowed to use regardless of their country of origin, as per the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The fact is, Iran is feeling the pinch of economic sanctions. "Merchants are feeling it. The economy is receding and the currency is losing value," the writer said. "So to distract its domestic audience, the Iranian regime is trying to … foment an issue in the Strait of Hormuz."



* Digest compiled by The Translation Desk