There have been numerous comparisons made between the now successful Libyan revolution and the ongoing Syrian uprising, even though the two scenarios are wildly different. The Syrian opposition cannot look to Libya for tips in how to topple a dictator. Mass defections in the military and NATO intervention can’t be expected in Syria.

But Syrians will be looking back at the early stages of the Libyan campaign, in particular at that crucial moment when the until-then peaceful protest movement took up arms and turned itself into a violent rebellion. With hindsight, that decision seems to have paid off. After only 6 months, the rag-tag rebels have put an end to over 4 decades of brutal and mindless repression. It is also possible that the opposition had little choice but to arm itself. When an already violent and unpredictable despot promises to hunt you down like “cockroaches”, grabbing your gun seems like a logical course of action.

But in doing so the opposition also alienated large parts of the Libyan population that would have otherwise been willing to join the cause. It’s a lot easier to take part in non-violent street protests than it is to reconcile with the possibility of killing someone.

We should also remember that the Libyan uprising enjoyed several successes before it took up arms. Massive, unarmed protests shut down most of the country and encouraged the defection of several high ranking military and political figures. Incredibly, they even took the city of Benghazi with little blood spilt.

If the early Libyan opposition campaign had any weakness it wasn’t that it was unarmed but that it focused too much on a single tactic – protests. When movements rely exclusively on protests they become extremely vulnerable to the state security apparatus. An opposition campaign should instead combine protests with strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and go-slows. Even the most well organised security services can’t handle such widespread civil disobedience and the effect on the national economy will eventually drain the regime’s available resources. Continue Reading »

A different set of colours has been hoisted above the Libyan embassy in Damascus. The Libyan ambassador and diplomatic staff in Damascus announced on Sunday that they had changed loyalties and were now supporting the opposition National Transitional Council and so the red, green and black of the old Kingdom of Libya flag is now flying proudly over the diplomatic mission in Roudah. The propagandist pictures of Libyan children killed by NATO air strikes have also been ripped off from the display boards.

The development actually made the front page of al-Watan, one of the largest state owned Syrian newspapers, alongside a picture of a burning poster of Muammar Gaddafi. Unsurprisingly, the regime controlled media has jumped on the ‘people power’ bandwagon, recently championing the cause of the plucky rebels in the face of a demented and ruthless dictator. One headline relished in the fact that “The rebels are searching for him [Gaddafi], alley by alley… house by house”, a jibe at one of the Colonel’s rants early in the revolution.

The Syrian propaganda machine took a similar stance after the Egyptian revolution, suggesting that Arab leaders must listen to their people. Of course Syria would never have to worry about disgruntled citizens; Mr President Bashar al-Assad understands the wishes and desires of the Syrian people.

As Libya’s merry band of rebels rushed into the streets of Tripoli, sending the Colonel scurrying off into hiding, many were wondering how the events were being viewed from Damascus. Was Mr Assad glued to al-Jazeera like the rest of us, nervously fidgeting as yet another Arab dictator faced an inglorious ousting from office? Libya is a long way away from Syria and the uprising here is a far more complex affair than the civil war in the deserts of North Africa; but I would guess that Assad and his regime goons would have been quietly drawing parallels. Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gadhafi; will the young Syrian dictator soon be joining that list?

If President Assad had experienced any anxiety it wasn’t on show Sunday night when he gave an interview to two reverent state television employees. Mr Assad most likely lives in the same ‘sea of quietness’ in which the Egyptian writer Mohamed Heikel believes all nut-job dictators reside and in the interview he reassured his subjects that “things are better now. I am not worried”.

True to form, Bashar rambled on about foreign meddling and armed terrorist groups in his country, whilst dismissing the international community’s calls for him to step down. “This cannot be said to a president who was elected by the people”, referring to the occasional elections where he is the only candidate.

If Assad continues to sound defiant in the face of the Libyan example, as well as growing international condemnation, perhaps he is justified. Although Obama has recently called on Assad to “step aside”, the American president as well as various other honourable heads of state asked the same of Gaddafi 6 months ago and he has only just been shaken from his little dream world in Tripoli. Furthermore, that came on the back of a NATO air campaign, something that has been ruled out unequivocally for Syria.

It would seem that Assad is even mocking the growing concerns of human rights abuses in Syria. No sooner has Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, demanded an end to “all military operations and mass arrests” than Assad tells him that “military and police action” has stopped. Meanwhile, in the real world, more Syrians are killed and arrested.

The Syrian opposition may have been encouraged by this weekend’s events – witnessing the humiliating downfall of a mad despot is always satisfying – but they certainly shouldn’t get ahead of themselves. Assad won’t be buying a plane ticket to Saudi Arabia just yet.

While  the wave of anti-regime protests spreads across much of Syria, central Damascus remained quiet and under government control. This is life inside the Damascus Bubble.

Democracy was the order of the day as the tanks rolled into Baghdad in 2003. No matter how many died in the initial attack and the ensuing years of bloody sectarian warfare, democracy – that golden ideal – would justify it all.

Nouri al-Maliki, the democratically elected Shia president of Iraq, and his government are supposed to be the standard bearers of that democracy. Unfortunately, their response to the Syrian uprising has been far from golden. Despite Mr Assad’s inexcusable use of violence, the Iraqi government continues to maintain a friendly relationship with the Syrian regime. Since the unrest began 5 month ago, Iraq has received numerous official Syrian delegations, agreed to an Iran-Syria oil pipeline across Iraq, and publicly supported the regime crackdown. In a television interview, Mr Maliki urged the protestors not to ‘sabotage’ the Syrian government.

The 2003 invasion was meant to plant a seed of democracy in the Middle East, providing an example for other nations in the region blighted by autocratic regimes. Unfortunately for that argument, none of the recent revolutions in the Arab Spring were even remotely inspired by the Iraqi model. And while Iraq’s attitude to the Syrian protestors has further refuted that claim, it has also shed light on Iraq’s own position. Heavily dependent on Iran for fuel, it has gradually shifted into an Iranian led axis and will now feel compelled to tow the official party line coming from Tehran.

The Syrian crisis has also revealed, even exacerbated, ongoing sectarian tensions within Iraq. While the Shia majority government, allied with Shiite Iran and the Alawite regime in Damascus, has thrown its support behind Assad, the Iraqi Sunni leadership have backed the protestors demanding change.

The Iraqi Shiite government’s attitude to democracy in the region seems to be sharply drawn along sectarian lines. It’s nonchalant attitude to the increasingly violent government crackdown is in sharp contrast to its reaction to the Shiite led demonstrations in Bahrain. Reacting to the Bahraini monarchy’s brutal response, Mr Maliki’s allies walked out of parliament in protest, sent an aid ship to the demonstrators and called on the Bahraini ruling family to step down.

Iran’s creeping influence on Iraq has long been suspected. But President Maliki’s actions on Syria certainly don’t do his pro-democracy credentials any good. He has distanced himself from US concerns, based Iraqi foreign policy on sectarianism and openly supported a brutal dictatorship. Not a great result for the US invasion.

I met a couple of young Syrian guys last night over an Iftar meal and the topic of conversation inevitably turned to politics. One of them compared the Syrian uprising to the recent spat of mindless looting and rioting in London. He asked if it was the beginning of a revolution; were these the first signs of open protest against the British government? I laughed until I realised he was being sincere. No, I explained, they were just criminals causing chaos. They weren’t demanding anything, just availing themselves of high-end electronics.

One of these chaps, an 18 year old who has been protesting in Douma on a regular basis, interrupted me and remarked, quite astutely, that I sounded just like SANA. Being likened to the Syrian state media service, a factory of clumsy propaganda, was somewhat insulting but I got his point. The state media had said exactly the same things in reference to the protest movement in Syria: They’re not protestors with legitimate demands, just violent criminals. It’s easy to understand that for much of the Middle East, suspicious from years of state lies and propaganda, it would have been natural to assume that the media was lying.

Unfortunately, the BBC isn’t covering up a popular uprising emerging from the streets of Hackney. It’s just good, ol’ fashioned rioting.

The Assad regime has been far from delicate in it’s handling of the protests but when it employs gunboats to subdue the unrest you know that things have taken a turn for the worse. Navy ships started shelling the port city on Sunday in coordination with an attack by tanks, soldiers and paramilitary troops.

This is a worrying escalation of violence, especially as Syrians and foreign observers had hoped that the recent international pressure, including a visit by the Turkish Foreign Minister and ambassador recalls by several Gulf states, would at the very least bring a temporary respite from the government violence.

The assault came after large-scale protests in the city on Friday and followed the same less-than-subtle pattern as previous attacks on dissenting populations: deployment of tanks, cutting of water and electricity, all followed by sweeping arrests and random gunfire.

Unsurprisingly, SANA has denied that Navy ships were used in the attack: “The [SANA] Correspondent refuted some satellite channels’ claims of bombarding the mentioned neighbourhood from the sea, indicating that what is really taking place is a pursuit of gunmen”.

I’m guessing that this latest round of violence will leave many diplomats and foreign politicians wondering what to do next. The recent visit from the Turkish Foreign Minister and the emergence of a loose anti-Assad bloc in the region has so far done little to deter the regime from its violent rampage across Syria.

Smoke rising from Latakia on Sunday