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Spring to Winter ~I

Without civil society and political institutions, without a system of education that encourages critical thinking, democracy is an alien sapling yet to take root in this world. Nothing much has changed here during the decade except for the worse

GOVIND BHATTACHARJEE | New Delhi |

Ten years ago, on 17 December 2010, a Tunisian street hawker named Muhammad Bouazizi set himself ablaze when a policewoman confiscated his fruit cart and slapped him. To take such an extreme step, he must have reached the end of his tether with nothing more to lose, including hope. His death ignited the spark of a collective rage that quickly became revolution and promised to usher democracy into the Arab world by overthrowing the dictators who had ruled people with an iron hand. However, ten years later, the Arab spring that swept the region with the force of a gale and kindled hearts with the hope of freedom is all but dead, and the spring of discontent has vanished into the Arab winter of despair and despondency. The world let the day pass almost unnoticed, not even bothering to write an obituary.

The Arab Spring did unseat dictators who seemed invincible till then ~ Tunisia’s Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar al- Qaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. But except in Bouazizi’s Tunisia, democracy has remained elusive in the Arab world which, as The Economist has observed, is less free today than perhaps it was then. Egypt’s brief sojourn with democracy was ended by a military coup in 2013, and the country under General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi toady is certainly much more authoritarian and oppressive than it was under Mubarak. Qaddafi is dead, but Libya remains as dysfunctional as Syria and Yemen are ~ they descended into chaos and are being torn apart by civil wars that have killed half a million people and displaced 16 million more. In Syria Bashar al-Assad is still in the saddle ~ proposed up by Iran and Russia, but Syria is one of the most violent places in the world today. It has also become the chessboard where foreign powers ~ USA, Russia, Turkey, Iran and others are playing their own geopolitical games.

Twenty-two African and Gulf countries ~ members of the Arab League ~ constitute the Arab world. Most are still dictatorships, and the rest, with the sole exception of Tunisia, are either failed states that lock up and kill their critics, crush civil society and muzzle their press, or are ruled, under the garb of fragile democracies, by dictators who have clawed back most of their powers and are now sitting secure on their thrones.

As Merc Lynch wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Autocrats have learned how to co-opt, disrupt, and defeat challengers. Domestic unrest or regional contagion is unlikely to catch regimes offguard, and governments are less likely to refrain from using force in the early stages of protest.” Reinforced in their belief that repression works, they continue to deny their citizens any freedom to debate and criticise, often by using coercive state power riding piggyback on Islam and jihad.

Without civil society and political institutions, without a system of education that encourages critical thinking, democracy is an alien sapling yet to take root in this world. Nothing much has changed here during the decade except for the worse ~ it is the same tinderbox of poverty, corruption, inequality, unemployment, failed governance, abuse of human rights and political oppression that is probably waiting for another spark to get ignited.

Nowhere is the situation worse than in Syria. Following the Arab Spring, Syria has descended into utter chaos which indeed has proved a boon to its dictator, but a nightmare of misery and bloodbath for its people. What began as a peaceful movement against Assad has morphed into a protracted sectarian conflict that provided fresh blood to the Islamic Jihadists and resulted in a never-ending trail of horror and depressing images of an endless stream of refugees trying to flee from violence. The heartrending photo of the three-year old Syrian boy Alyan Kurdi, lying dead, face down in sand on the Turkish shore, has been a defining image of this conflict and its terrible humanitarian cost.

Syria was the seat of the Umayyad Empire ~ the first Arab dynasty after Muhammad, and no stranger to bloodbaths, being the arena for the nearly 200 yearlong conflicts of Crusades between the Muslims and the Christians. As Robert Kaplan wrote in The Revenge of Geography, Syria will continue to be the “epicentre of turbulence in the Arab World.” It is a multi-faith, multi tribal state with a population of 20 million of which Sunnis constitute about 70 per cent but is ruled by the minority Shiite Alawites or “Followers of Ali”. Alawites are a hill tribe who constitute only 12 per cent of the Syrian population, but were placed by its erstwhile rulers, the French, in the army and the police in which they entrenched themselves.

After the French left in 1946, they further consolidated their power. The Alawite Hafez-as- Assad assumed power in a coup in 1970. His rule was unpopular and in 1982, he ruthlessly crushed a Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored uprising in Hima ~ killing an estimated 30,000 people. As Tim Marshal reminds us in Prisoners of Geography, the Sunnis have never forgotten or forgiven the Alawites for this massacre. They got their chance for revenge during the Arab Spring in 2011. Lebanon was a part of Syria till 1920 when the French separated it as a separate nation, cutting Syria’s only outlet to the Mediterranean. Desperate to restore Lebanon to itself, Syria intervened during the Lebanese civil war in 1976, sending 25,000 soldiers to prevent the defeat of right-wing Christian militias. It still remains heavily engaged in Lebanon ~ both militarily and politically along with its Shi’ite ally, Iran which backs the Hezbollah militants in Lebanon with arms and funds. Sunni Jihadists, supported by Turkey, hate the Alawite Bashar.

Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez in 2000. After a brief initial romance with democratic reform, in 2001 he cracked down brutally on opponents, imposing pervasive censorship and surveillance. He liberalised Syria’s state-controlled economy only to benefit the crony capitalists close to his regime. Inequality and corruption became as endemic as the poverty and deprivation of the vast multitudes and devastating droughts in 2006 and 2010 had reduced hundreds of thousands of farming families to abject poverty.

It was in the impoverished drought-stricken rural province of Daara in southern Syria that the first major protests erupted in March 2011. The trigger was the arrest and torture of 15 schoolchildren for writing Arab Spring graffiti; one child was killed. Security forces responded by unleashing unrestrained firepower on unnamed demonstrators, killing many and provoking nation-wide protests. It seemed that the regime’s days were indeed numbered.

As the protests intensified, the regime responded with heavier force, using tanks, artillery and even attack helicopters, forcing some groups of protesters to take up arms against the security forces.

By late 2011, combat between poorly organised rebel militias, many armed by foreign powers, and government troops were erupting all over. This was when the initial trickle of refugees fleeing violence became a flood; they sought shelter all over Europe and forced European countries to erect barriers to their entry. As rebels seized key cites like Aleppo in the north, Iran stepped in, sending Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and its own Revolutionary Guards as military advisors to prop up the beleaguered Assad government.

Within Syria, as the sectarian divisions hardened, by the summer of 2011, its regional neighbours and global powers had both begun to split into pro- and anti-Assad camps. The USA and the European Union (EU) and the Arab League wanted Assad to step down, while Syria’s longstanding allies, Iran and Russia and Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, continued to support the regime, later enlisting China in their support. There was also a regional anti-Assad bloc of Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia which was supporting the opposition to Assad, with each supporting a different opposition group.

Funds and arms ~ and sometimes fighters ~ flowed freely into Syria to the respective forces from their backers, making it one of the most dangerous places on earth. Involvement of Iran drew Israel into the conflict, which targeted Iranian military infrastructure within Syria in 2018 prompting Iran to respond by shelling Israel’s Golan Heights.

The battle fortunes oscillated wildly between the government and rebel forces. In August 2013, chemical weapons attacks using rockets filled with the lethal nerve agent sarin in the suburbs of Damascus killed hundreds of civilians, prompting the US led coalition to call for international military action against Syria which was opposed by Russia, China and Iran. Eventually, an agreement between Russia, Syria and the USA placed all chemical weapons under international control which were finally removed by 30 June 2014, but that did not eliminate the future use of chemical weapons in the conflict. (To be Concluded)

The writer is a commentator, author and academic