Why Has the Syrian Opposition Failed to Grow? Interview with Bassam Haddad

Paul Jay: So, first of all, talk about what happened on Friday.  The protesters, the opposition, were hoping for a big turnout, and apparently they didn’t get it.

Bassam Haddad: On Friday, a few hundred people, in some places more than a thousand, came out in protest, to continue the string of protests since last week against the Syrian regime, calling for freedoms in various regards.  The significant thing about this is that not as many people turned out as was hoped by the protesters, and this is a departure from earlier trends in various other regimes including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and so on, where, the moments the presidents or persons in charge spoke, we noticed a couple of things: first, they made concessions quickly; and secondly, they basically assumed that the next step would be also one that is guided by the protesters.  In contrast, what President Bashar did is that he did not make any major concessions, at least not in any concrete form.  There was talk about lifting the emergency law and the formation of a committee.  Yet another committee, which is a very sensitive word in Syria because there are committees everywhere and very little gets done; but another committee is supposed to be formed to discuss the question of the emergency law.  In other words, there were no concrete declarations.  The second thing is that President Bashar made it clear to whoever was listening that the initiative is not with the protesters, the initiative is with the Syrian leadership, in terms of what happens next.  That was certainly a departure.

Paul Jay: So this is where he says: We’re planning reforms anyways, we didn’t need you to come out into the streets to make us create reforms.

Bassam Haddad: He was careful in wording this.  He did admit that they were late in actually formulating and implementing reforms.  The speech was certainly not something that the protesters were looking for.  It was disappointing.  It could actually backfire on the Syrian leadership in the long run, although in the short run it seemed to satisfy a segment of the population that was concerned about the impending chaos.

Paul Jay: That’s the questions: Did the masses of people not hit the streets Friday because they were somewhat satisfied with the speech or because they were afraid of repression or both?

Bassam Haddad: A lot of analysts have been emphasizing and waiting for the speech and the after-speech effect.  I think this is a mistake.  In the Syrian case, if we know what has been happening, we notice the following: First, the protests, before this speech, began to subside, in terms of intensities, in terms of numbers, and in terms of clashes with the state.  Not that there weren’t any, but, statistically speaking, we saw a decline in all of those variables between the moment the protest flared up and the moment before Bashar gave the speech.  Secondly, the other issue is that, right before he gave the speech, the day before, there were hundreds of thousands of people all over Syria, out in the streets, supposedly supporting the regime.  Of course, the schools were closed, of course a lot of this was orchestrated, and certainly the regime had a role to play, but it is not a function only of regime orchestration, it is also a function of a desire among a large segment of the Syrian population to avert crisis, catastrophe, chaos, and sectarian strife.

Bassam S. Haddad is Director of the Middle East Studies Program at George-Mason University.  This video was released by The Real News on 2 April 2011.  The text above is an edited partial transcript.  Cf. “It is mistaken to believe that street riots can create a leverage of pressure against the system.  It is wrong to think that the officials of the system will concede out of expediency.  (Chants in support from the congregants.)  Giving in to demands under pressure is itself tantamount to the start of dictatorship” (Ali Khamenei, Friday Address, 19 June 2009).

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