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WITH PUTIN’S RETURN, WHERE’S THE CHANGE IN RUSSIA? – Pages 2-3
APRIL 2012 No 1204
Deadlock over Syria
The Syrian people, like the Egyptians and others across the
Arab world, are reviving the desires and ambitions that they abandoned after the Arab defeat in the 1967 war. The outcome, and who will influence it, can’t be predicted
CRISTOF YVORÉ – Untitled (2008)
Sacking Sarkozy won’t be enough
The new French president will have to make a decision about a European treaty that would demand still greater austerity. The choice will affect the future of France, and of Europe
Will the French elect a different president, but leave unresolved all the issues raised in the election of 2007? The French would welcome a change of government: because, apart from President Sarkozy’s egregious shortcomings – his ubiquity, his exhibitionism, his endless capacity to contradict himself, his fascination with the rich, and his tendency to blame all shortcomings on the unemployed, immigrants, Muslims and civil servants – there has been a decline in democracy and the sovereign power of the people during his presidency.
After the May 2005 referendum, the two leading presidential candidates ignored the fact that most French voters were against the creation of a European edifice whose basic flaws have since become clear. Yet the 2005 vote was taken after an uplifting national debate, unlike the current election campaign. And Sarkozy’s presidency, which was supposed to herald the return of voluntarist policies, is ending with some puzzling statements. All the leftwing candidates accuse the banks, but the French finance minister, François Baroin, claims that “blaming finance is as silly as saying ‘I’m against rain’, ‘I’m against cold weather’ or ‘I’m against fog’.” And the prime minister, François Fillon, told the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, that he should “get Standard and Poor’s to rate his election manifesto” (1).
The sovereign power of the people has been undermined by the meek acceptance among the French political establishment of the market democracy mantra of Germany’s increasingly arrogant right wing. This issue is central to the current campaign, and is directly connected with the European debate. The austerity measures so passionately pursued for the past two years have not had – and will not have – any effect on the debt they are supposed to solve. Any leftwing strategy that does not question this financial orthodoxy is doomed. But the current political climate in Europe precludes any possibility of achieving this aim without a struggle.
At present, the general breakdown is contained by floods of money which the European Central Bank (ECB) lends to the private banks at low rates, and which the banks then lend back to the state at higher rates. But this brief respite depends on the whim of the ECB, entrenched in an “independence” rashly specified in the treaties. In the long term, most of the member states have undertaken, in response to German demands meekly passed on by Paris, to take even tougher measures and to impose sanctions on any member that fails to comply, in accordance with the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance (TSCG) currently in the process of being ratified.
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BY ALAIN GRESH
Patrick Seale’s 1965 classic, The Struggle for Syria, describes the battle for control of that country after the second world war (1). It was played out against the background of the cold war, but also within the context of the struggle for hegemony over the Arab world, which pitted Nasser’s Egypt against Saudi Arabia, and extended as far as the Yemeni mountains where Egyptian troops supported the young republic against royalist forces armed and financed by Saudi Arabia. From the 1950s to the 1967 war (2), Syria was the point of balance (or imbalance) in a region marked by coups and military juntas.
Syria was also one of the centres of the social and political ferment of the 1950s and 1960s, when Arab nationalists, socialists and Marxists strove for independence, economic development and a more just and egalitarian society.
But after the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, the Middle East entered a period of stagnation which lasted four decades. Its regimes – whether republics or monarchies – gave up any attempt at reform. They were characterised by authoritarianism, the concentration of wealth in a clique close to the leadership, and endemic corruption. While there were sporadic and spontaneous outbursts of popular discontent, the desire for social change was ignored and governments focused on geopolitical issues, clashing with each other over their policies towards the US and Israel.
Alliances fluctuated. At the time of the first Gulf war in 1990-91, Hafez al-Assad’s Syria was allied to Washington, while Jordan under King Hussein supported Saddam Hussein. Before the 2011 uprisings, the region was divided between the pro-US camp, principally Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the “axis of resistance”: Iran, Syria, Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Syria has a privileged position thanks to its relationship with Iran which has endured for
Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique
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30 years despite their differing views on peace with Israel: Tehran rejects Israel in principle, while Damascus would accept it on condition the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, were restored to Syria.
After the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005, and the hasty withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, Syria’s Ba’athist regime went through a period of isolation that Bashar al-Assad finally managed to end. By withstanding pressure from the US administration (which wanted to remove him), supporting Hizbullah during Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, and supporting Hamas in the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 200809, he bolstered his regime’s image as a centre of resistance. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, impressed by his firm stance, even suspended their opposition, temporarily.
The Ba’athist regime believed Syria’s position within the axis of resistance meant it was safe from the revolutionary movement that engulfed the region in 2011. But that was to reduce the conflict over Syria to its geopolitical dimension, as a confrontation between the imperialist and anti-imperialist camps, and to underestimate the changes brought about by the Arab revolutions and the aspirations of the Syrians. The regime miscalculated, because Syria has the same flaws as others in the region: an authoritarian and arbitrary government, a greedy elite, neoliberal policies that impoverish its people and an inability to respond to the aspirations of the young, who are more numerous and better educated than their elders. The government’s refusal to listen to their demands and the extraordinary brutality of the repression has caused the violence to escalate, and encouraged some protestors to take up arms, even though the majority support non-violence (silmiyya), as in Egypt. The risk of the uprising taking a sectarian turn has increased – something the regime has exploited to frighten the Christians and Alawites (3).
Syria’s opposition – or parts of it – are incapable of offering any serious guarantees for the future. Some of their earlier supporters have even turned away from the opposition. The Kurds, who were among the first to protest (to get national identity cards, which they had been denied), are now keeping their distance, shocked by the refusal of
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