Belfast Telegraph

Syria's president should get out ... while he still can

By Adrian Hamilton

The Syrian government has announced the ending of the 48-year-old state of emergency and says that new laws will be introduced to allow a greater diversity of political views.

But it also says that no demonstrations, however peaceful, are to be allowed at this time and calls the uprising in Homs an "armed insurrection".

So what are the Syrians meant to make of this? The answer, if you are a protester, is to dismiss it all as just a ploy to buy time for a regime under siege.

The hope, if you are an ordinary citizen hoping for change, is to pray that it does mean something - that a young president is going to push ahead with reforms. If only it were so. Syrians are such a warm people and minority rule, however awful, has at least allowed a multi-ethnic society to survive there.

After decades of ill-judged isolation from the West, disingenuous peace offers from Israel and an economic system that is as sclerotic as it is corrupt, the Syrians deserve a decent break.

Many had hoped it would come with the presidency of Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, 11 years ago, but it hasn't happened.

And if anyone had thought it would, then Bashar's speech before parliament last month - when he described the unrest as a "foreign plot" - put paid to that.

Bashar's problem is not so much clinging to power, but weakness.

If he had wanted to modernise the country, as he and his wife clearly hoped at the beginning, he needed to have used his decade as president to build up a constituency around him.

Instead, he has done very little except to talk the talk.

The mass uprisings of the past few months undoubtedly represent the greatest threat to the regime in a generation. But they are disorganised and peaceful.

Their only hope is if they become too large or too persistent for the security forces to control and the soldiers or police sent to repress them refuse to fire - as they did in Tunisia and Egypt.

Does one feel sorry for Bashar in all this? Not in one sense, given the nastiness of his near-relations and the history of thuggery of his family. But, assuming that he is as well-intentioned as he purports to be, the only personal advice can be to get out now before he gets locked inextricably in the cycle of revolt and repression.

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