While the Syrian president predictably blamed 'them' - the Lebanese, the Saudis, the U.S. and Israel - for troubles at home, PA President Abbas made it clear that there is no time to lose when it comes to Jerusalem's renewal of talks with the Palestinians.
By Avi Issacharoff
RAMALLAH - The Syrian media are serving as the mouthpiece of their regime and of the Ba'ath Party, and the international media are having trouble reporting freely about events in Syria. Furthermore, the rate of Internet use is low in Syria and though it may seem as if social networks are penetrating every household in the world, this is a country that remains isolated from the international community. Information about what is happening in Syria only arrives at international media outlets in a trickle, if at all. Indeed, the authorities have succeeded in blocking completely the entry of journalists into cities like Daraa and Latakia, and only a very few videos uploaded to YouTube are managing to give any sort of inkling as to events there.
Nevertheless, it can be said with near certainty that many of Syria's citizens were very disappointed following President Bashar Assad's speech on Wednesday. Not that there were great expectations of a dramatic announcement presaging a regime change in Damascus, but one can presume that after the long silence the president had imposed on himself in the wake of fierce demonstrations around the country, the people of Syria were hoping for more.
This has been the largest wave of protest in Syria since Assad succeeded his father as president in 2000. More than 100 people have been killed and hundreds have been wounded or arrested in recent weeks. The Syrian military has been deployed throughout the large cities. At the same time, the economic situation in the country, which was grim in any case, is expected to become even worse in the face of the violent demonstrations and the retreat of foreign investors.
Bashar Assad's speech this week brought to mind the hallucinatory statements by other Arab leaders shortly before they were deposed. The president accused the entire world of an evil conspiracy against Syria, aimed at toppling the regime. He explained that the opponents to his rule are trying to force an Israeli agenda on Syria.
"First, they incited against Syria for weeks on the satellite and Internet channels but they did not succeed. They falsified information. They falsified everything," he said. "After that they tried to take the ethnic route. By means of instant messages on the mobile phones they called for each of the ethnic groups to take to the streets."
A day earlier a Lebanese newspaper had reported that Damascus suspects that the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance in Lebanon is spearheading the unrest. By contrast, this week Haaretz's Zvi Bar'el reported on documents shown on the Champress Internet site - which is identified with the regime - ostensibly proving the involvement of the Saudis and the United States in the protests in Syria.
Assad's "they," it would appear, is a constantly changing entity: "They" could be the Lebanese, the Saudis, the Americans and/or the Israelis. The most important thing, from that perspective, is that the roots of the protests are not Syrians' frustration with the tyranny in their country, or with the backwardness or the absence of democracy there, but rather lay with "them."
From Assad's speech, it can be understood that for the moment at least he does not intend to respond to public pressure by instituting reforms that might calm things down. Indeed, in his remarks he confined himself to promises of changes and reiterated the details of the so-called conspiracy.
"We have not yet uncovered the whole plot," he said. "We have discovered only part of it, and the whole thing is organized. There are cells of people who helped in more than one province. There are communications cells, a forgery cell and cells of eyewitnesses. These cells were organized in advance."
The Syrian president's outbursts of laughter during his comments against the media and, in particular, the satellite television channels (remarks that were similar to the accusations made recently by the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya ), were perhaps also testimony to the magnitude of his distress. The man who succeeded in ruling Syria for over a decade, who put down the riots in the Kurdish part of the country and proudly told The Wall Street Journal that "Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt" (Muammar Gadhafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen said the same thing ), has discovered that the Spring of the Arab Nations has come, if not yet in full force, then at least to many large and small cities alike in his country.
However, it is also possible that Assad has realized the future of the country is no longer in his hands. Or as Prof. Eyal Zisser, dean of the humanities faculty at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Syrian affairs, put it so well at a conference this week at the university's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies: "Syria's future has passed into the hands of the country's young people, people in their 20s and 30s, who constitute more than half the population. They - members of the Sunni community and of the other ethnic groups, from the periphery and from the major cities - are the ones who will determine the country's path and future."
Meanwhile at the PA
While Bashar Assad was delivering his "j'accuse" against the media and the world, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' people were sitting in their headquarters in the Muqata in Ramallah, listening attentively. Perhaps they will not admit this, but Assad's situation in Damascus has clear and immediate ramifications for Hamas in the Gaza Strip and its willingness to make amends with the PA.
A few rooms away from his aides, Abbas was ending a meeting with members of the Council for Peace and Security, a group of former senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces and other Israel security organizations. As the Syrian president was trying to calm things down in his country, the Palestinian president was enjoying the fact that the West Bank is virtually the quietest place in the Middle East these days.
Quite a number of right-wing politicians and some journalists have argued that in light of current changes in the Arab world, it is not possible to trust Abbas and therefore it is necessary to postpone negotiations on any final-status agreement and monitor events on the ground. However, the reality in the West Bank (at least until press time yesterday ) proves the extent to which Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are succeeding in maintaining security and order throughout the West Bank, demonstrating remarkable governance and also winning popularity among their people.
Abbas told the senior Israeli reserve officers (majors general, brigadiers general and colonels ) that it is now forbidden to set off fireworks or firecrackers in PA-held territories, "not even at celebrations." (One of the Israelis present said jokingly that maybe it would be worth bringing the Palestinian police into Israel next Purim. )
Abbas' remarks made a deep impression on the visitors because it is clear that time is working against Israel. The PA's plan as he presented it is that, if in the coming months there is no Israeli diplomatic breakthrough in the form of renewed negotiations and a settlement freeze, in September the PA will ask the United Nations General Assembly - where the United States does not have the power to impose a veto (as it does in the Security Council ) - to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. According to Abbas and his people, about 150 (out of 192 ) countries are expected to vote in favor. This would be mainly a symbolic resolution and the Palestinians will have to formulate it in a moderate way in order to ensure the support of a large majority .
The State of Israel's biggest problem is what will happen in the West Bank following the UN resolution. Abbas hinted at this week's meeting that it is not his intention to remain president after September if there is not a breakthrough in talks with Israel. In such a case, one can only imagine what could happen here.
It is hard to say when exactly the third intifada could erupt, about which much has already been said (immediately after the Third Intifada Facebook page was closed, a new one with the same name was opened ). Right now the month of September promises to be a problematic and explosive one, a fact that apparently is not recognized by those Israelis, including the prime minister, who think it is necessary to take a wait-and-see attitude.
Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a top Fatah person, sat next to Prof. Zisser at the Dayan Center conference this week. Abu Zaideh, who was incarcerated in an Israeli prison when the first intifada broke out, offered a survey of the present situation. He explained that in September demonstrations and marches are expected throughout the territories. When the protesters arrive at the roadblocks, he said, they will have two options: to shoot or to flee.
In 1996 it was the decision by the young prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, to open the Western Wall tunnels that sparked the wave of riots that cost the lives of 17 Israelis and 17 Palestinians. This time, it will be the absence of a decision by Netanyahu, and especially the maintenance of the status quo - which apparently is seen at the Prime Minister's Bureau as a blessing - that are likely to compel the State of Israel to deal with another wave of riots.