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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Syrian killings: Is this the tipping point?


Syrian protesters stamp on a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration. (AP photo)

Syrian protesters stamp on a poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration. (AP photo)
At the time of writing, the death toll of those killed in Good Friday protests is rapidly rising. As images of violence, protests and calls for freedom flash across screens, Twitter had a message being re-tweeted: “[this is Syria’s] tipping point and there’s no going back now.”

A “tipping point”? What happens next? Is the beginning of the end for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime? Or will he be able to withstand international outrage and carry on? Will his security forces overwhelm protestors with bullets? Tough questions, few answers.

Until now, President Assad’s strategy to quell anti-government protests against his regime appears to consist mostly of sticks with few carrots. Mr. Al-Assad has lifted the 48-year old state of emergency in Syria. He also issued a decree setting out rules governing the organization of demonstrations.

The president further abolished the Supreme Security Court, which long served to put his opponents behind bars, but maintained the country’s military court system employed to imprison thousands of minority Kurds and Islamists. 



Mr. Al-Assad’s moves look good at first glance, but closer analysis shows that much of the powers he derived from the state of emergency remain in place embedded a plethora of constitutionals clauses, the penal code and numerous separate laws. These laws criminalize acts described with catchall phrases such as weakening of national sentiment, dissemination of false news and membership in a secret society.

Mr. Al-Assad furthermore remains head of the six-member Supreme Judicial Council, which effectively subjugates the judiciary to the control of the ruling Baath Party and the country’s 15 security services. 



Moreover, the new rules governing the licensing of demonstrations are heavily slanted towards the government and designed to complicate rather than ease the organization of protests. 



Implementation of the new rules was certainly put to the test on Friday. Anti-government protesters promised to organize demonstrations in scores of Syrian towns and cities and march on the capital Damascus—and they delivered on their promise.

The demonstrations would legally be considered riots under the new decree, which defines any non-licensed demonstration as a riot irrespective of whether it is violent or not. 



In a sign that security forces continue to take a hard line toward protesters, they fired tear gas on Friday afternoon to disperse a large pro-democracy protest in the historic Midan district in central Damascus, the capital city of Syria. Security forces also fired on unarmed demonstrators in other cities. As of 10 p.m. GMT, more than 75 protestors were reportedly dead, and the death toll appeared to be rising.

Syria’s legal labyrinth also casts a shadow over the recently adopted law that allows for the formation of political parties. Syrian law continues to make membership of the Muslim Brotherhood a crime punishable by death and retains the position of Mr. Al-Assad’s Baath Party as “the leading party of state and society.”



Similarly, Syrian law continues to make “working against the goals of the revolution” a punishable offense. This last clause like the classification as riots of non-licensed demonstrations is in principle applicable to all intending to take to Syrian streets today to demand an end to the Assad regime. 



No less significant is the fact that Mr. Al-Assad refrained from altering the status of his omnipresent security services that under a decree issued in 2008 operate with impunity. The decree puts the security services above the law and declares them immune from prosecution. 



The new demonstration decree appears designed to give the interior ministry and the security services effective control and far-reaching powers to stop protests. The decree grants the right to organize demonstration to what it describes as “duly licensed citizens,” a nebulous, undefined term. 
Under the new law, organizers of demonstrations have to apply at least five days in advance in a request that stipulates timing, route, goals and slogans to be used during the march. The interior ministry has to reply to the request within one week, which means effectively that the application period is seven rather than five days. 



Organizers must also accept legal responsibility for any damage to private or public property caused by demonstrators—a demand that puts an unfair burden on organizers who may not be able to control everyone participating in the demonstration. The ministry retains the right to unilaterally change the timing or routing of the demonstration up to 24 hours before it starts if it perceives a threat to state’s interests or public safety and property. 



The decree holds organizers responsible for maintaining order during the demonstration but grants them the right to seek the assistance of the police if they deem that necessary. The ministry is authorized to revoke the right to demonstrate if a demonstration goes beyond the terms of its license or if riots erupt or crimes are committed that disturb the public order or obstruct government work. 



The position of the security forces is likely to be the ultimate litmus test of the degree to which Mr. Assad intends to bow to protesters’ demands. In an apparent olive branch, the government this week dismissed the chief of security police in the northwestern city of Banias after five people died in a crackdown on protests in the city. 



The move is, however, unlikely to prove sufficient. The experience in Egypt and Tunisia, whose authoritarian rulers were toppled by mass protests, shows that concessions by an authoritarian ruler constitute the beginning of the battle for the creation of a freer, more liberal society rather than the end. Said one Syrian protester: “Decreeing reforms is not enough. We will never get what we want if we do not maintain continuous pressure.”

The killings in Syria on Friday may or may not be a “tipping point.” They may or may not be a game changer. But President Assad has a whole new crisis on his hands. How is he going to handle it? 



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