COUSIN OF SYRIAN PRESIDENT WARNS WINDOW FOR REFORM IS CLOSING AS REGIME LOSES GRIP
Ribal al-Assad, the cousin of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, calls for significant change in Syria from his self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom. Al-Assad is the director of a group calling itself the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, whose platform calls for ending Syria’s Emergency Law which has been in effect since the early 1960s and the peaceful transformation of the Syrian state through reform, creating a government of national unity and perhaps reconciliation. Ribal, 36, is an Alawite, Syria’s obscurantist Islamic sect often considered to be an offshoot of Shi’ism. He is the son of Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of the late Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad, and “butcher of Hama” – the 1982 massacre in the northern Syria city of Hama directed against the Muslim Brotherhood which killed an estimated 20,000. In early February, just days away from the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Ribal spoke to a prominent Saudi news site strongly recommending ending Syria’s state of emergency that has existed since 1963, which the regime has just announced will happen (Day Press [Damascus], March 27), and that Bashar al-Assad would be prudent to enact real reform to before a violent upheaval could begin, a prospect for which it is now too late (Elaph.com, February 5).
In a recent editorial in a Lebanese English-language daily, Ribal stated that the protests in his native Syria were driven primarily by economic causes rather than political ones but that conditions related to massive economic stagnation, rising food prices, and overall improvements in quality of life would eventually merge with desires of political openness to evolve into an uprising against the regime of his cousin, Bashar al-Assad (Daily Star [Beirut], March 3). Ribal holds that the Ba’ath Party’s inherent intransigence may likely be its downfall and though it has ruled Syria since 1963, it has shown difficulty in adapting to serious changes in both regional and internal dynamics. “You have to move very quickly. This is a very small window of opportunity… Otherwise things will happen like in neighboring countries,” according to Ribal (Gulf News, March 23).
Weeks before the Ba’ath regime’s violent reaction to protests in the southern city of Dera’a, Ribal posted an interview with Portugal’s Lusa news agency on his organization’s website outlining his manifesto for change in Syria. He wishes to avoid a “revolution” that would create space for heavy-handed tactics by Ba’athist apparatchiks that would inevitably take the lives of Syrian civilians. According to Ribal: “Nobody wants a popular uprising in Syria; the last thing that people want is a revolution in Syria, as this would lead to disaster and chaos, that nobody wishes” (www.odf-syria.org, February 5). By the end of February, activists began to stir in Syria as waves of popular revolt spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. By mid-March, Ribal’s optimism was undermined by an anxious regime’s desire to assert its authority. Ribal’s wish for an orderly transition out of Syria’s Ba’athist isolationism may very soon be relegated to wishful thinking as security forces have begun to kill protestors. In response to the purported killing of civilians in Dera’a, President Bashar al-Assad issued a one-line press release via SANA, the state news agency, that the governor of Dera’a, Faisal Ahmad Kolthoum, had been summarily “dismissed.” In a separate statement, Bashar indicated that he was immediately increasing the salaries of both civilian state employees and the military while concomitantly reducing their tax burden to the state (Syrian Arab News Agency, March 24). In a March interview with Voice of America, Ribal al-Assad emphasized that he felt an uncoordinated revolt in Syria would be disastrous in part because of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity which includes its majority Sunni Arabs, his minority Alawites, Druze, Circassians, various ancient Christian sects and, most notably, Syrian Kurds, who have a recent history of restiveness in the country’s northeast. Ribal warned his cousin, “Change or you will be changed” (VOA, March 21).
SHIA OPPOSITION LEADER RETURNS TO BAHRAIN AMID UPRISING, ONLY TO BE DETAINED AGAIN
Hassan Mushaima, the formerly exiled Shia Bahraini opposition leader, returned to Bahrain only to be detained in the wake of the Persian Gulf statelet’s which began on February 14, 2011. Mushaima, who leads the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, was allowed to return to the Kingdom after he was assured charges against him would be dropped. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa initially sought to calm the political temperature on the Sunni-minority ruled island by allowing Mushaima to reenter Manama under the guise of peaceful dialogue aimed at quelling protests there. The Bahraini uprising began on February 4, 2011 with a demonstration in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Manama espousing solidarity with democracy activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Bahrain is typically viewed as a battleground between the Gulf heavyweights of Shia Iran and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. Until the entry of Saudi troops, at the invitation of King Hamad, into the crisis, this proxy struggle in vulnerable Bahrain had been comprised of words rather than deeds. Following the detention of Hassan Mushaima, the Najaf, Iraq-based Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the Shia world’s most prominent thinkers on jurisprudence, weighed in on the matter, stating through a spokesman that the Bahraini crisis must be resolved “through peaceful means” (Mehr News Agency, March 17, 2011). Sistani’s statement is a passive way of letting his followers in Bahrain know that the entry of Saudi ground troops there was unacceptable.
Bahraini security forces rearrested Hassan Mushaima along with Ibrahim Sharif al-Sayed, the Sunni leftist leader of the National Democratic Action Society, Wa’ad, on March 16, 2011, just after a 90-day emergency law, called State of National Safety, was imposed in the country (Bahrain News Agency, March 21, 2011). The Bahraini government subsequently described the two as conspirators in a “sedition ring” after a call for their release was made by Shaykh Ali Salman, chief of the mainstream, Shia-led al-Wefaq party (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 21, 2011). The Bahrain uprising endorsed by Mushaima has roiled the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with sizeable Shia minorities whose exposure to Iranian influence terrifies their respective monarchies.
In response to the intense agitation fostered by Mushaima and other protest leaders, GCC members have deployed troops in Joint Peninsula Shield Force (JPSF) at the request of Bahrain’s embattled government. The actions of forward deployed troops in the JPSF have led Ali Akbar Saleh, Iran’s Foreign Minister, to boldly state, "Iran will not stand by idly in the event of any Saudi intervention to eradicate the Shiites of Bahrain" (Asharq al-Awsat, March 15, 2011). The Kuwaiti Navy is now in Bahrain’s territorial waters as a contingent of the JPSF in an effort to restore “stability” (Bahrain News Agency, March 21, 2011).
The United Arab Emirates, which Western powers have been trying to enlist in their war against Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s troops in Libya, has sent 500 police officers to Manama. According to Iranian state media, Bahrain’s opposition leaders have called this move by the UAE a possible “occupation” (PressTV, March, 14, 2011). Arab columnists are highly skeptical of Mushaima’s motives and have accused him of being a lever of Iranian power in tiny Bahrain. Many believe he seeks objectives well beyond the Pearl Square roundabout protestor’s original calls for transforming the Kingdom into a constitutional monarchy and now intends to overthrow the monarchy entirely (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 21, 2011). Hassan Mushaima announced the formation of a coalition movement calling itself “Coalition for a Bahraini Republic,” composed of his Haq Movement, the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, and the al-Wafa Islamic Society (Xinhua, March 10, 2011).
“We hereby declare a tripartite coalition between al-Wafa, al-Haq and [the] Bahrain Freedom Movement that have chosen to fight for a complete downfall of the regime, and the establishment of a democratic republic in Bahrain,” Mushaima stated (PressTV, March 9, 2011). Now that Mushaima and other Bahraini leaders are currently detained and allegedly brutal security crackdowns are taking place throughout the country, Bahrain’s protest movement, while certainly not crushed, is in retreat, and the Kingdom of Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa is showing few signs of morphing into Hassan Mushaima’s wished-for republic. King Hamad’s Gulf Air has suspended travel to Iraq and Iran as well as Lebanon in an attempt to punish those states economically for their political figures’ rhetorical support for Hassan Mushaima and other like-minded Shia opposition leaders (Reuters, March 23, 2011).