Geopolitics

Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad Down To His Final Card

Op-Ed: Afraid that the fall of Bashar Al-Assad could result in a civil war, the Western powers continue to play a wait-and-see game, even as the Syrian regime continues its bloody repression of anti-government protestors.

Alain Frachon

Not a week goes by without new names being added to the regime's already long list of victims. In Syria, each additional death is like a somber litany of the events of the past three months. Bashar Al-Assad's regime is surviving through terror and destruction. The president is waging war against his own people. Nearly 1,500 were killed and thousands more injured.

"We've never seen such horror," Human Rights Watch recently wrote. But Syrians keep taking to the streets. They want a change of regime. Repression doesn't stop them, it only fuels their rebellion. Of all the Arab uprisings, this one has been the most ferociously repressed. Nevertheless, international reactions are nowhere near what we've seen with Tunisia, Egypt or even Libya.

The United States and the European Union (EU) imposed sanctions, but in the United Nations, China and Russia are blocking any real pressure. The reason for the international community's cold feet is that there's so much at stake in Syria. For complex reasons as diverse as the mix of Syrian communities and the regional alliances, what's being played out there affects the future of the entire region.

First there's a 30-year-old strategic pact between Damascus and Tehran. A type of insurance policy for a Syrian regime led by the minority Alawis. These dissident Shia make up about 12% of the country's 22 million people. Fat outnumbered by the Sunni, Islam's majority branch, the Alawis rely on the country's other minorities – especially Christians and Druze.

Syria is the only Arab country to have allied with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shia country. Iran, with its strange mix of Persian nationalism and revolutionary proselytism, is feared in the mostly Shia Arab world. Other Shia countries feel threatened by the old Persian enemy and its imperialist tendencies.

Iranian influence in the Arab world goes through Damascus. Without its alliance with Syria, Iran's goals in the region are untenable. It's through the Syrian regime that Tehran funds and gives missiles to its other Arab allies in the region: the Libanese Shia Hezbollah. And it's through Hezbollah that Syria consolidates its grip on Lebanon.

Damascus and Tehran have long cultivated another Arab protégé, the Palestinian Hamas. As a Sunni group, Hamas is now running away from the instability of the Syrian regime and is looking toward the Gulf and Egypt.

Syria and Iran are tied together in a marriage of convenience, a bond between dictatorships. On one side, the Syrian Bath party, the quintessence of secular Arab nationalism. Its partner is a Shia theocracy with totalitarian tendencies.

Recently, the United States and the EU have tried to lure Bashar Al-Assad away from Iran in the hope of changing the face of the Middle East. In Lebanon, for example, democracy might just have a chance if Hezbollah were to lose the support it receives – via Syria – from Iran. Without Iranian backing, it would not be the intimidating army it is now in Beirut.

Without Iran, the Syrian regime will return to its traditional Arab sphere, meaning it could start negotiating with Israel. In return, without Syria, Iran loses its door to the Arab world and with it its ability to be a regional nuissance.

The fall of the Syrian Bath party would also put the Sunni majority in power. The Sunni-Shia conflict is such that one of the first decisions the new leadership would have to make is to distance itself, if not break its ties with Shia Iran. The Middle East would change for the better.

So why isn't there more support for Bashar Al-Assad's possible demise? In Europe, in the United States, in Israel and even in the Arab world, the reaction is the same: they wait, worried that the only organized underground force, the Muslim Brotherhood, will seize power in Damascus. Post-Assad Syria, they fear, will mean chaos or Sunni Islamists – or both!

Iraq is still on everyone's mind. The fall of Saddam Hussein's minority Sunni regime in 2003 triggered a horrible seven-year civil war in a country that is as ethnically and religiously diverse – and as divided – as Syria. Recent events in Syria have raised the specter of just such a civil war. The regime is exploiting that fear.

The United States is worried that the Syrian troubles will have negative consequences on Iraq and further complicate the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Israel got used to the stability of the Alawi regime and found a modus vivendi with the Assad family – which it definitely prefers to the Muslim Brothers.

In May, the Washington Post revealed that Mohsen Chirazi, an Iranian, was on the list of those falling under the U.S. sanctions against Syria. Chirazi is one of the leaders of a special force team known as the Quds Force, created by the Revolutionary Guards, the military arm of the Islamic Republic, to protect Iran's interests abroad. The Quds Force trains Hezbollah and sent dozens of advisors in Damascus to help the regime crack down on the "Syrian spring."

The fall of the Assad clan would be a strategic disaster for Iran and a severe blow to its regional ambitions. It is a scenario, therefore, that Tehran wants to avoid at all costs. Willing to pull out all the stops, Iran could end up ordering Hezbollah to provoke Israel, triggering a new Israel-Lebanon war and thus diverting the attention of the West. The final card in Bashar Al-Assad's hand, in other words, is himself. "It's either me," he warns, "or regional chaos."

Photo – syriana2011

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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