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Gathering Clouds for Syria's Assad

Author: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
April 18, 2011

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is facing the most serious challenge to the Ba'athist regime since the 1980s. Assad's security forces have been unable to quell a wave of protests that began last month in the southern town of Deraa and have since spread across the country. On April 15, Syria witnessed the largest demonstrations yet, as tens of thousands of protesters marched from several suburbs into central Damascus.

Assad initially responded to the country's protests with a violent crackdown and token concessions--such as appointing a new cabinet--that failed to appease Syrians seeking dramatic change after forty-one years of autocratic rule by the Assad family. On April 16, Assad promised to lift the state of emergency in place since 1963 that grants wide authority to the security forces. But protests erupted again the next day, as thousands took to the streets across Syria chanting: "The people want the overthrow of Bashar!"

Assad enjoys greater popular support than other Middle Eastern rulers ousted by recent uprisings, such as Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. But he is squandering this political capital as his crackdown intensifies and he continues to ignore the need for fundamental change.

In his April 16 address, Assad tried to strike a conciliatory tone after an earlier speech in which he dismissed pro-democracy activists as "dupes" or saboteurs in a plot hatched by "foreign agents" to weaken Syria. Aside from his pledge to repeal the emergency law within days, he vowed to fight corruption, reduce unemployment, and to "study" new laws that would allow the formation of political parties and guarantee the right to peaceful assembly. But repealing the emergency law would do little to restrict the power of various security agencies because Syria has other laws that guarantee members of the secret police immunity for virtually any crime committed in the line of duty.

Assad also warned that these concessions would be followed by a crackdown. Once these changes are in place, he said, "there will no longer be a need to organize demonstrations in Syria." He added ominously that the government would not "tolerate any act of sabotage."

These measures did not appease the protestors because Assad failed to loosen the Ba'ath Party's monopoly on power. In refusing to make substantial concessions, Assad is relying on a tactic he learned from his father: The Syrian regime does not respond to pressure, whether external or internal, and this principle has served it well in times of crisis. While this approach worked for Hafez Assad during the three decades he ruled Syria, it is unlikely to succeed over the long term for his son, as he confronts a different and unprecedented type of pressure rooted in deep popular grievances.

[M]any secular Sunnis, especially in Damascus, are still on the sidelines. If these Sunnis take to the streets in sustained, large-scale protests, then Assad's government will face a grave danger.

The unrest shows little sign of letting up. Over the past week, protests spread to several coastal towns, Damascus, and Aleppo--one of Syria's largest cities that was once a center of resistance to the Ba'ath Party. Human rights activists estimate that more than two hundred demonstrators have been killed and hundreds arrested since protests began in Deraa, a Sunni town near the border with Jordan that has suffered from economic neglect by the central government.

It is especially troublesome for Assad that the unrest started in Sunni areas that traditionally supported the Ba'ath Party and have provided recruits for the Syrian military. On March 6, the police arrested fifteen teenagers who had scrawled anti-government graffiti on several buildings in Deraa. The arrests set off large demonstrations, which led to clashes with security forces and dozens of casualties. Assad and his advisers bungled the initial response: The president failed to offer condolences to the families of those killed or to visit the town, setting off a new round of protests that spread to other areas. As the crackdown intensified, demonstrators also honed their rhetoric from demands for "freedom" and "dignity"--and an end to abuses by the security forces--to calls for Assad's overthrow.

Assad's main goal is to preserve the rule of his Alawite regime in a Sunni-dominated country. (The Alawites, who make up about 12 percent of Syria's population, are an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.) Unlike the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, it is unlikely that the Syrian military leadership would abandon Assad. Most of the country's generals and top security officials are Alawite, and their fortunes are tied to Assad's survival. Syria is also home to Christian, Druze, and Shiite minorities--about 15 percent of the population--and they tend to support the Alawite regime. Along with many secular Sunnis, these minorities look to Assad as a source of stability, and they fear that his fall could precipitate a civil war.

The Ba'athist regime has a history of using extreme violence to suppress opposition. In 1982, as the Muslim Brotherhood carried out attacks against military and civilian targets in several cities, Hafez Assad dispatched troops to the city of Hama to put down an Islamist uprising. Assad's forces leveled sections of the city, killing an estimated twenty thousand people. Since then, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood has been punishable by death.

While the current wave of protests has been partly inspired by Sunni preachers in some cities and towns, Syria is not facing another Islamist uprising. Like other rebellions in the Arab world, the largest protests have taken place after Friday prayers. But many secular Sunnis, especially in Damascus, are still on the sidelines. If these Sunnis take to the streets in sustained, large-scale protests, then Assad's government will face a grave danger.

For an oil-poor country that has little economic clout, the Syrian regime derives its power from its strategic position and carefully nurtured alliances. Syria has played the role of a regional spoiler and Arab nationalist standard-bearer since 1970, when Hafez Assad rose to power in a military coup. He perfected the art of shifting alliances, stirring up trouble in neighboring countries, and keeping his enemies mired in costly battles.

When Hafez died in 2000 and was succeeded by Bashar, many believed the soft-spoken ophthalmologist could never balance the regional cards as masterfully as his father. But it is clear that the younger Assad has grown comfortably into the role of a strongman who must adapt to shifting Middle East realities.

Assad did not have much time to master regional dynamics before he confronted a serious external challenge. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration turned its attention to Damascus as another candidate for "regime change." Syria meddled in Iraq, nurtured Palestinian militants opposed to peace with Israel, and dominated its smaller neighbor, Lebanon.

By 2009, Assad had waited out the Bush administration and was maneuvering himself out of international isolation. At the same time that he was reaching out to Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers, Assad maintained his relationship with Iran and its allies in the region: Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iraqi Shiite factions. These moves are a classic example of the statecraft practiced by Hafez Assad.

The younger Assad has been deft at dealing with external pressure on Syria, applying the lessons of his father's foreign policy. But today, he cannot hunker down and wait for the storm of protests to pass. To avoid considerable bloodshed, Assad must move beyond the survival methods and political instincts of his father.

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