Time to shift gears

Syria's Vice President Farouk al-Shara (2nd L), Prime Minister Riyad Hijab (5th L), Assistant Secretary of the ruling Baath Party in Syria Mohammed Saeed Bekheitan (4th R), current Defense Minister General Fahad Jassim al-Freij (L) and other senior officials. (REUTERS/Sana/Handout)

The surprise defection of Syria’s prime minister Monday provides a stark lesson of the disintegration at the highest levels of the regime in Damascus.

Not surprisingly, the Syrian authorities reacted in their customary way, by claiming that Riad Hijab had been fired and that nothing was truly amiss in the country. In fact, the incident offered the latest proof, as if any were needed, that the regime truly does not understand the situation that it is in.

Hijab, and a number of family members, fled Syria in what was obviously an operation that required considerable time to plan and execute, leading to speculation over whether the prime minister had been preparing to leave during his entire two-month tenure.

Moreover, according to an aide, the prime minister was presented with a dramatic “take this job or else” ultimatum when he was first appointed.

While Hijab’s post in the Baath regime does not mean that his departure will deal a serious blow to the military campaign underway against Syrian rebels and opposition activists in the streets, it is nevertheless a sign that the Syrian state’s prestige is at an all-time low.

Diplomats, military figures and politicians have been steadily jumping ship, and all available evidence indicates that they would be joined by many more of their colleagues, were it not for the terrible retribution that awaits their families should they choose to make such a decision.

In short, the individuals at the top of the Syrian regime have never thought to ask themselves, over the course of a bloody, 17-month uprising, whether there was another way to approach the crisis.

Their stubbornness and their total lack of respect for what wide segments of the population have been telling them have put them in the corner they find themselves in.

The simple fact is that the regime should have seen the revolt coming and dealt with it, instead of claiming that “Syria is not like” country X in the wave of Arab uprisings.

On the other hand, Syria is turning out to be unlike other countries. Nowhere else have so many people been so determined to risk their lives, day after day, against a brutal, authoritarian regime. Their readiness to die for their cause – and the sheer fact that they risk death and suspicion even when carrying out orders – has completely stymied the authorities, who remain intransigent in their pursuit of their “security” approach to the crisis.

Do the rulers in Damascus believe that their regime is more durable than the empire of the Soviet Union, which collapsed when several thousand people began a mass flight across the Iron Curtain?

It is time for the regime to leave the stage, and the world community must drop the refrain of “its days are numbered” and instead take concrete action to reduce the number of days in question.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 07, 2012, on page 7.




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