In a speech made by US President Barack Obama last Monday evening on the situation in Libya, he alluded to Syria without explicitly mentioning the country, when he stressed the necessity of avoiding sectarian unrest, and the importance of instigating economic and social reforms. This reference came after he condemned the repressive regime in Iran.
Last week, the situation in Syria was further strained following what happened in Latakia, which was far more serious than the events in Deraa. Some Syrian figures have blamed President Bashar al-Assad’s hesitation in dealing with the phenomenon of Islamist militants in Syria, who seemed to have played a key role in recent events. These figures indicated that al-Assad, prior to these events, told his aides that now was not an appropriate time to address the Islamist militants phenomenon in the country, because it may lead to conflict in Syria. This was a “grave mistake”. It seems that the entity most concerned about the recent events is the Hamas leadership in Damascus, which has begun to discuss leaving the country and setting up its political headquarters elsewhere, according to an informed source.
In January 2011, Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, an advisor for political and media affairs to the Syrian presidency, submitted a report to the Syrian President, prepared at her request by one of her aides, a professor of social sciences at the University of Damascus. The report warned of growing Islamic extremism in the country, and the figures confirmed what had earlier been indicated in a report drafted by Syrian intelligence, which was severely critical of the weak response of the regime, with regards to reducing the spread of extremism.
The Syrian President read the report but asked for it to be shelved, saying that he did not intend to adopt harsh measures, because he did not want to incite civil unrest. There were also rumours that the author of this report was later placed under house arrest.
According to the report, the regime did not make an effort to stop the spread of fundamentalism, and the president is concentrating on foreign policy rather than trying to suppress Islamist groups, including Shiite groups, which are effectively dominating people’s lives in Syria. The current trend in Syria is for many citizens to embrace the Shiite sect as a result of Iranian activity, and we have seen the spread of “Hussainiyat” [Shiite Cultural Centers]; the reason that the Syrian regime has not confronted any of this is because it does not want to damage relations with Tehran.
As for the spread of Sunni religious extremism, the report said that the Syrian regime has failed to confront this because it does not want to damage relations with the wider Islamic world. This has resulted in Islamic Dawa [missionary] groups being able to recruit effectively in some regions of Syria, particularly the city of Aleppo and the surrounding areas.
The report highlighted the pressure placed upon Syria by officials in many Islamic states to give up its hard-line policy, and its pursuit of Islamic organizations. Therefore, all the procedures that were effective in the past against radical elements, including covert surveillance in mosques via hidden cameras or undercover security official, all ceased last year. As the report highlighted, this is due to agreements between Syrian – Iranian agreements on the one hand, and agreements between Syria and major figures in the Sunni Muslim world on the other.
The report said that as long as Iran remains the strategic ally of Syria, and as long as Syria considers Lebanon one of its major problems, the phenomenon of radical Islamic movements will continue to grow, particularly as the Syrian President is investing a large portion of his time and focus on the Lebanon issue. Indeed, al-Assad is particularly focused upon the pending indictments of the International Tribunal, which is tasked with investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and which may result in unrest in Lebanon.
The report assesses that the balance of power between different ethnic groups in Syria may be the main factor behind the regime’s decision not to strongly combat the spread of extremism in the country.
Sources close to Bouthaina Shaaban, who have been briefed on the contents of the report, pointed out that it was clear that the Syrian President was concerned about a potential uprising due to a number of grievances regarding the situation in Syria today. Here, Bouthaina Shaaban was critical of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who – via the Al Jazeera satellite television channel – urged the Sunnis in Syria to revolt and take power.
The report claimed that all the apparent procedures taken by the regime to tackle the spread of Islamic extremism in Syria were superficial, aimed at improving the relationship between secular Syria and the West. In reality, these measures were extremely mild, as harsher measures might have proven detrimental to Syria’s domestic and regional interests.
On the other hand, the report indicated other factors may have been responsible for Syria’s muted response, most notably the deteriorating economic situation, and the failure of the regime to develop a plan to improve the living conditions of its citizens.
Even as little as a week ago, the poor economic situation that threatens the survival of the regime was not apparent to everyone, due to the lack of civil unrest. Nevertheless, the economic situation in Syria is very difficult.
The official unemployment rate for 2010 was 8.3 percent; however unofficial data indicates that the actual figure is far higher, approximately between 17 and 20 percent. A report on poverty in Syria, prepared by a UN representative to the country in September 2010, revealed that between 2 and 3 million Syrians are living in extreme poverty. Syria has reduced subsidies on fuel, and as a result there was a rise in prices of oil-based products (as indicated by an International Monetary Fund report in March 2010). In order to compensate for the subsidy reduction, vouchers were distributed to citizens; however these were only distributed in a limited manner, and only to the most poverty-stricken. This cannot be compared to the subsidies which the state used to provide for all its citizens.
There is another reason for the spread of Islamic extremism, according to the report, which relates to Sunni al-Qaeda supporters, and their acts of provocation. Incitement against the regime and against the West is increasing in the mosques, inspired by the teachings of Osama bin Laden and the beliefs of Syrian Takfirist movements, who consider “everyone else” to be infidels.
These groups carry out their activities in public, and it is not clear why the regime has been hesitant in dealing with them. There has also been a gradual rise in the number of Syrians who travel to Yemen to pursue their religious studies, or to Shiite centers in Iran and Iraq.
The regime imposed some constraints, but they were limited – such as the ban on wearing the veil in public buildings, and taking action against teachers who wear the veil in schools and colleges. President al-Assad said that wearing the veil [in school] “contrasted with academic values and traditions” and that it could be used for other objectives like violence or terrorism.
We should also consider the reactions to the Syrian television series “Ma Malakat Aymanukum” [what your right hand possesses], during the month of Ramadan. This was heavily criticized, and a number of clerics demanded that it be removed from the air, including Mohammed Saeed Ramadan Al Buti, a cleric close to the regime. Yet every episode of the series was broadcast and it was ultimately a success, which eased criticism.
The steps that the regime intends to take, according to Bouthaina Shaaban, need to be quickly implemented, particularly the abolition of the state of emergency. The situation cannot withstand more maneuvers or procrastination. The recent events may provide the President with a historic opportunity to get rid of the entrenched mindsets which surround him, and also significantly tackle the greed of his corrupt associates.
The people believe that the Syrian regime needs to rid itself of the heavy burdens of its past, in order for country to truly be how al-Assad’s wife portrayed it, in an interview with “Vogue” magazine this month.