x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Assad shows he is ready to fight the people of Syria

A close look at Bashar Al Assad's speech this week reveals a truly ominous invocation of a massacre in Syria's past.

If there were ever a "zenga-zenga" moment for Bashar Al Assad, it arrived this week with his address to the people of Syria.

On Tuesday, the president gave a 99-minute speech in which he basically denied that there have been any orders to shoot protesters. He also predictably blamed the unrest in the country on foreign agitators.

The following day, he made a public appearance in Damascus in front of a crowd of thousands of regime supporters - albeit without waving an umbrella like Muammar Qaddafi, who declared war on his people while repeating the word "zenga-zenga".

The speech is arguably the most significant one that has been made by Mr Assad to date, and merits a closer look.

Throughout his address, he clearly tried to pit Syrians against each other.

Despite the clampdown by his security forces over the last 10 months, protesters continue taking to the streets (in greater numbers recently, after Arab monitors entered the country).

Mr Al Assad realises that a significant increase in the number of killings could embarrass his Russian and Chinese allies and could even precipitate foreign intervention. With that in mind, he is hoping that his supporters, alongside the limited crackdown and the flow of disinformation, will counterbalance the protests. Furthermore, expanded armed conflict would give him an excuse to step up his military measures.

At the beginning of the protests, Mr Al Assad told the country, some of those who took to the streets were "misguided". Now, with the broad extent of the discontent clearer, he has ramped up the pressure on the neutrals by saying it is inexcusable to sit on the fence:

"There is no grey colour," he said. "Those who stand in the middle in national causes are traitors to their country. There is no choice. We must stand united: all of us are responsible. We should all continue with words, acts, in any way or form."

He cited examples of "good citizens" who provided information to the regime, making it easier for the military to regain control over Bab Amr, which had been under the control of defected soldiers. Other citizens, he said, formed teams to protect the army's flanks or prevent "terrorists" from carrying out acts of "murder and sabotage or sedition".

Later in the speech, he added: "If we stand together and embraced members of the security and other relevant systems, I believe the results will be quick and decisive. There is no place for trembling hands and frightened hearts."

His new tone is even more threatening than his earlier one, and there is a danger that many Syrians will now be bullied into siding with his regime. The crowd he addressed on Wednesday went as far as chanting that they would turn into "thugs" to defend the regime. "Shabbiha (thugs) forever, for the sake of yours eyes, Assad."

Another dangerous aspect of his speech was his comparison between the current situation and that of the early 1980s, when the regime fought the "devil's brothers" (the Muslim Brotherhood). That conflict ended with the 1982 Hama massacre.

This tasteless comparison bluntly indicated that the son is willing to follow in the footsteps of his father to overcome challenges to his rule. In the example he invoked, a whole city was rased and tens of thousands were killed. What more then can the world expect from Mr Al Assad?

He was, however, correct on one thing: there is no grey area. Those who had hoped he would stop the killing on his own must now realise this will not happen. And those who give him time are complicit in the murders. Syrian people are being slaughtered because they simply want to live in accordance with modern ideals.

Russia and China seem undeterred by the rising death toll, and continue to offer Mr Assad support. In his speech, delivered one day after a Russian aircraft carrier docked in the Mediterranean port of Tartus, Mr Assad appeared to be relying on the world's reluctance, or inability, to intervene.

"If the West closes its doors, we can still breathe," he said. "It is not the lifebuoy without which we drown. We can swim on our own and with our friends and brothers, and there are plenty of them."

Besides the support of his allies, Mr Assad is emboldened not only by the indecisiveness of the international community but also by the lack of unity and leadership among the Syrian opposition. Relations between the two main opposition blocks, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, are at their worst for months. This friction helped explain his daring tone.

"My confidence is inspired by you and the men of our armed forces, the men of living conscience and strong resolve," he told his supporters.

That confidence could be dealt a heavy blow if the Arab League succeeds in bringing the Syrian opposition together and ultimately recognises them as representatives of the people. Without this unity, however, there is no reason why the regime should be worried.

Also, sectarian violence is increasingly likely. It is being deferred, as Syrians still have hopes the Arab League and the international community can help them. But as the unrest drags on, divisions are likely to deepen.

The Assad speech falls exactly one year after ousted Tunisian leader Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali gave his last speech.

Mr Assad in effect declared a decisive battle against his people. The world can only hope Syria will not face a repeat of the 1982 scenario, the 30th anniversary of which arrives in just 20 days.



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