“Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives,” wrote Mark Twain after visiting Syria’s capital in the 1860s. “She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”
The turmoil in Syria, where hundreds of unarmed protesters have been mown down by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, who comes from the country’s Alawi minority, is much more menacing than the generally peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, from which the Syrian protesters drew their initial inspiration. The regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia capitulated in the face of spontaneous demonstrations sparked by the self-immolation of a twenty-six-year-old man who had been reduced to scratching out a living as a humble street vendor. Ben Ali, along with his hated wife and family, chose to go into exile before a single shot had been fired.
In Egypt, if press reports are to be believed, the generals unseated President Hosni Mubarak after tank commanders refused his orders to fire on civilians. The Egyptian revolution, which has seen some resistance from the military and police, has now taken a constitutional turn, with the country approving a series of amendments that could lead to the emergence of a parliamentary democracy. Much will depend on the willingness of the military to allow an open political process to take place.
The Syrian government’s response to the Arab world’s turbulent spring, by contrast, has been both violent and vacillating. Its initial response was to characterize the protests across the country as the result of a global conspiracy fomented by a clutch of unlikely allies, including the US, Israel, and Arab enemies in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, working with former regime officials and homegrown Salafists, or fundamentalists. Then President Assad tried to defuse the opposition by receiving protest delegations and announcing the lifting of long-standing emergency laws, apparently acknowledging the existence of legitimate grievances. But this proved no more than a gesture. In effect the government’s response has been contradictory to the point of incoherence: as the Brussels-based International Crisis Group points out in a report released on May 3:
The regime has lifted the emergency law but has since allowed the security services to conduct business as usual, thereby illustrating just how meaningless the concept of legality was in the first place. It authorises demonstrations even as it claims they no longer are justified and then labels them as treasonous. It speaks of reforming the media and, in the same breath, dismisses those who stray from the official line. It insists on ignoring the most outrageous symbols of corruption. Finally, and although it has engaged in numerous bilateral talks with local representatives, it…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.