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Implications Of The Violent Anti-Government Protests In Syria

Speaker: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow For Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Presider: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR:  Excuse me, everyone.  We now have our speakers in conference.  Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode.  At the conclusion of the presentation we will open the floor for questions, and at that time instructions will be given if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Bernard Gwertzman.

You may begin, sir.

BERNARD GWERTZMAN:  Hi, I'm Bernard Gwertzman.  I'm a consulting editor at the Council on Foreign Relations.  I work on the website, and I interview experts on various subjects.  And one of those I've interviewed several times is our guest today, Mohamad Bazzi, who's an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the council.  He's also a journalism professor at New York University, and for many years was the distinguished Middle East correspondent for Newsday, the newspaper in Long Island.

And Mohamad, let's start with a discussion of what's going on in Syria right now.

MOHAMAD BAZZI:  Thank you, Bernie.  So the latest news from Syria is more protests today, especially in the city of Homs.  But probably the larger question and the larger focus right now is on Friday, where organizers and sort of pro-democracy activists in several cities have called for a very large turnout this coming Friday.  They're calling it "a great Friday."  And it's really setting in motion this potential showdown between the regime and the protesters, because we have Bashar Assad's government that has said that it's in the process of lifting the emergency law -- which has been enforced in Syria since 1963 -- and making some other concessions. 

There's supposedly a law in the works for allowing demonstrators to gather peacefully, with the caveat they need the permission of the interior ministry.  And that -- these concessions really have not pleased the protesters, and the fear is that now the regime has said -- you know, Assad and then several members of his government have said in the past few days that now that they've made these reforms, there's no more reason to protest in Syria and that they won't tolerate any more protests.  So we might see a bloody crackdown on Friday.

GWERTZMAN:  Well, I notice there's a -- as you mentioned, there's a clear ambiguity in the position of the Syrian authorities.  On the one hand, they're offering reforms.  On the other hand, there really has been a severe crackdown.  I noticed in Aleppo, I think, today there was just really a rather bloody confrontation with students at the medical school there. 

If you had to guess, you know, is Assad going to survive this or not?

BAZZI:  I mean, that's a -- that's a very difficult question.  It's been a difficult question to answer about many of these protests and regimes in the Middle East today.

GWERTZMAN:  Right.

BAZZI:  It seems that Assad has decided that he's going to crack down and crack down forcefully, because he perceives this as a -- you know, as the most significant threat to his regime ever since he came into power in June of 2000, and he's been very slow to make these concessions.

And the -- as he's made some of these concessions, as the protests have gone on without him and his security forces being able to suppress these protests, the demands of the protesters -- the ceiling of demands has been raised as time has gone on, and that's a natural phenomenon.  We've seen that in other places.  We saw that in Egypt.  We've seen that a little bit in Yemen.  So it seems that Bashar al-Assad has decided to draw the line now, and he is -- all the rhetoric is indicating from the past two days that the regime is not going to tolerate broad-based protests any more.

Now, will he survive this?  You know, for now the military establishment in Syria is beholden to him and is supporting him.  We haven't seen the kind of splintering between the leadership, the political leadership and the military, that we saw in Tunisia and Egypt.  And Syria is a different case because the military establishment, the leadership of the military and the security forces is largely Alawite, which is the same sect that President Assad comes from.  And they're beholden to him, and many of these generals and leaders of the security forces see their survival as intertwined with Assad's survival.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.

OK, I think we're ready to turn this over to questions from the listenership.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  (Gives queueing instructions.)

GWERTZMAN:  Should I continue?

BAZZI:  Sure, yes, we can continue.

GWERTZMAN:  OK.

OPERATOR:  (Gives queueing instructions.)

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  While we're waiting for questions, I'll continue.  It's interesting to me that ever since President Mubarak stepped down in February, there have been several efforts at overthrowing the leadership, and there were in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, but I guess force in these places has stopped whatever revolutionary impulses there were.  So -- (chuckles) -- in a way did the -- I guess, is there any lesson to be learned?  Does force prevail?

BAZZI:  That's probably one of the things that Bashar al-Assad is looking at.  He's observing what's happened in the past few months and analyzing the response in Tunisia and in Egypt and then comparing it to the response in Yemen and Bahrain and Libya certainly.  And this is a -- this is a regime -- the Syrian regime has a history going back to Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad's father -- it has a history of not making -- or not responding to pressure, whether this is external or internal pressure, and of refusing to make concessions when it is under pressure.

And the lesson that Hafez al-Assad seems to have, you know, sent down to his son is that this principle has served the Syrian regime well in times of crisis, but the problem here is that this approach worked well for Hafez al-Assad during the three decades he ruled Syria; it's unlikely to work for Bashar al-Assad over the long term.  I mean, he might be able to survive weeks, months, maybe a year or two with severe repression.

But ultimately, he's confronting a different kind and an unprecedented kind of pressure that's rooted in these deep popular grievances within Syria.  And if he only resorts to force, I'm not sure that that would succeed over the long term.

GWERTZMAN:  Do we have any questions?

OPERATOR:  We do.  A question from Margaret Warner with PBS NewsHour.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.   I didn't think your question -- star-one was working.  Thanks for doing this. 

If you turn now and look at the protestors -- I mean, if you look at video from all over parts of Syria, is there an organizing force behind this?  Who's really driving this, or is anyone?  Because it's much more disparate than, say, you had in Egypt, where I was, where really, you had Cairo, you had Alexandria, but there was a kind of center of gravity.

BAZZI:  Yes, that's a good question, and I think it's difficult to tell if there is a central organizing force.  It seems from -- as you said, from looking at the footage and looking at the reports that have been coming out of Syria -- and there's very little firsthand news reporting coming out, because the Syrian government has not given any visas to journalists, to foreign journalists, and they've also hounded out a lot of Arab journalists based in Syria and ones that have tried to come in from Lebanon or from Jordan.  So we are seeing these protests that seem disconnected in different cities.  And they are probably locally organized.

What we've had under -- starting with Hafez al-Assad and then continuing under his son is that the political opposition was stifled so badly in Syria.  In a lot of ways, it was stifled even more so than in Egypt.  And it is very difficult for any of the opposition groups. 

A lot of the opposition groups have to go -- and they're small to begin with, but many opposition groups and opposition figures are outside the country.  And so they're in touch with some people, but they've had the operation outside the country.  And then the human rights activists and the democracy activists in the past 10 years or so have spent a lot of time in and out of prison, the most prominent leaders. 

And here, I'm thinking about people like Michel Kilo, who is an intellectual and writer and seen as an opposition figure.  He spent a bit of time in and out of prison.  You know, he does not appear to be someone who is organizing these protests. 

So they seem locally based.  They started in the southern town of Daraa and then expanded.  As they took hold in Daraa and some of the other towns in the south, they began to expand.  There were protests in Latakia.  There were protests in Aleppo and in Homs.  And then this past Friday we saw probably the most threatening protest of the regime, which was tens of thousands of people who marched from several suburbs into central Damascus.  And that seemed to trigger this response from Assad on Saturday, where he announced that he would be lifting the emergency law.

GWERTZMAN:  Is there a next question?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Evelyn Leopold with United Nations Journalist. 

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Is anybody -- is there anyone supporting the Syrian opposition outside of Syria, like we saw -- it's certainly not coming from any of the big powers that I can see, or the United Nations.

BAZZI:  Yeah, I mean, the United Nations has been -- and the Security Council, you know, has certainly been relatively silent on this.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, they couldn't get it together on Yemen yesterday.

BAZZI:  Yeah.  Yes, well, I think a lot of that is the aftereffects of Libya, I'm sure, and the sort of dissension that's been sown within the council because of Libya.

As far as outside protests, you know, this is a double-edged -- or outside influence, this is a double-edged sword, because one of the things that Bashar al-Assad has resorted to, and members of his regime, is to blaming this entire thing on outside agitators, on saboteurs, on American and Israeli spies.  That was the rhetoric we saw in the first two weeks of this.

And if they can use anything tangible that there is outside, certainly Western, support, they will use that rhetorically.  So in some ways, I'm sure that the opposition activists on the ground in Syria are trying their best to keep clear of any kind of Western -- sort of, any kind of Western involvement.  And they don't want to be associated with Western causes because the -- already the regime is trying to make them suspect by saying that this is instigated from the outside.

Now, there are some Syrian opposition groups that function outside of the country.  There's some opposition TV stations.  And we saw a report in the Washington Post a few days ago about this MEPI funding, U.S. funding for one of those stations.  And I think the regime is having a field day promoting that rhetorically, even in the country.

But sort of the bottom line -- you know, people no longer believe this rhetoric that --

QUESTIONER:  Right.

BAZZI:  -- this is all instigated from outside.  I mean, you know, they can't because there's tens of thousands of people out on the streets. 

QUESTIONER:  Right.

BAZZI:  Does that answer the question?

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, no.  I just wondered if the Lebanese or someone were helping them, you know.

BAZZI:  There have been accusations --

QUESTIONER:  Because that would be the logical place, as compared to (Western ?) people.

BAZZI:  The Syrian regime has accused the March 14th movement in Lebanon, the group led by Saad Hariri, of instigating protests.  And they've put out stories in the government-controlled press in Syria about this.  The press in Lebanon has picked up on it.  Some of the -- some of the anti-Hariri newspapers in Lebanon have picked up on this.

But really, the Syrians haven't offered tangible evidence.  You know, one of the people, one of the opposition figures who's currently in Syria is -- I mean, I'm sorry -- one of the opposition figures who's currently outside of Syria, he's in Paris, is Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former vice president who was close to the Hariri family, quite close, and still is quite close to the Hariri family.

So the regime has been putting forward accusations that he's been instigating people, that he's been funneling money into Syria, that the Hariri family has been funneling money into Syria.  But again, they haven't really offered tangible proof.

QUESTIONER:  Right. 

GWERTZMAN:  If, in fact, Assad did have to give up office, would this be a very strong blow to Hezbollah as well as to Iran, as some people have speculated?

BAZZI:  That's a good question.  There's been a lot of speculation on that.  You know, I imagine that any Syrian -- if this regime falls, if Bashar al-Assad's regime falls, any subsequent Syrian regime is going to regard Lebanon in muchthe same way.  A future regime is going to see Lebanon as vital to Syrian security interests and is going to want to have a strong role in Lebanon.

Now, you know, depending on the shape of this regime, it may not be as friendly to Hezbollah.  It might have other sort of favored groups within Lebanon, and the Syrians have a history of keeping many chips on the table and keeping many -- their hand in many different groups that they can help and that they can instigate when the time, you know, is right for them.

So we might see some lessening of support from Hezbollah.  I'm not sure.  That will depend on kind of the shape of a subsequent regime in Syria if we see one.

But I think the central issue, and where some of the analysis has gone astray, is that the Syrians are not going to magically wake up one day and decide that they're not going to have a role in Lebanon and that there won't be Syrian meddling in Lebanon.  I think a future regime, if we have one, is going to be heavily involved in Lebanese politics as much as the Bashar al-Assad regime has been involved.  It might have different favorites, and it might have different players that it supports, but it will want to be involved.

GWERTZMAN:  I thought -- my initial feeling was that if you had a new regime, it might be much more favorable to the March 14th group, instead of funneling arms and money to Hezbollah.

BAZZI:  It might be -- if we have a new regime, it might be favorable to the March 14th group, but it would ask a significant change from March 14th in terms of their rhetoric, in terms of their -- almost their whole outlook on the world and their relationship within Lebanon and outside of Lebanon, because a future regime in Syria is going to want to guarantee Syrian interests above everything else, above Lebanese interests.  And there might still be a conflict certainly between March 14th and the Syrians.

There are leaders -- there are some politicians in March 14th who are hoping this or counting this -- on this who were maybe hoping that Syria would be close to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, you know, especially with the Sunni regime in Syria.

GWERTZMAN:  Right.

BAZZI:  And they might be closer, but I'm not sure if they'll entirely abandon their alliance with Hezbollah and their alliance with Iran.

And we also have to look at a potential future regime in Syria -- what will be their view toward Israel.  And more likely than not, it's going to be also an aggressive view toward Israel, you know, in the same line -- probably along the same lines as Bashar al-Assad's regime.  And Hezbollah is certainly one of those organizations that serves that interest closer than the March 14th movement in Lebanon.

GWERTZMAN:  Another question?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Sean Carberry with the American Abroad Media.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  One of the thing's that a little bit different about Syria than some of the other movements is that polling over the years has shown that President Assad has a much higher level of approval and support than any of the other Arab leaders did.

And so one of the questions that kind of persists in the case of Syria is, where is this protest breaking down in terms of how much popular support does he really have.  How much of the movement is anti-regime, broadly speaking, but might be supportive of him staying in power?  And again, is this something that is as widespread as it seemed to be in some of the other countries in the region, or is this something where there might be much more of a majority that still backs him than some of the other leaders in the region?

BAZZI:  OK, thank you.  Those are good questions.

I think -- I think you're right that Assad enjoys a greater level of popular support than some of the other Middle Eastern rulers that have been ousted during these uprisings.  He has enjoyed more popular support than Ben Ali in Egypt -- than Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt.  But in the past few weeks as this crackdown has intensified, Bashar al-Assad seems to be squandering this political capital that he had built in recent years.  And as he continued to ignore sort of the protest for weeks in the south -- he did not appear on TV; he didn't really reach out to those protesting in Daraa -- it took several weeks for him to make his first statement about this.  You know, he began to squander some of this political capital and support that he had built up.

It's hard to tell right now what -- sort of what this -- let's say the silent majority of Syrians, how they feel, because they're not out on the streets protesting the regime, and it's difficult to tell if they're not out because there's still this wall of fear.  And you know, as the wall of fear comes -- begins to come down, as it did in other places, we might see more and more people out on the streets.  But then on the other hand, if we're headed for a bloody crackdown and if the security forces use tremendous violence, let's say this coming Friday, to suppress the protests, then we might see -- for a while we might see far fewer people on the streets.  We might see a successful suppression of the protests as we saw in Bahrain a few weeks ago.

So far -- I'll try to characterize, I think, some of the main factors that have driven people out into the streets so far.  So this current wave of protests got started in early March after these 15 teenagers were arrested in the southern town of Daraa for scrawling anti-government graffiti on a building.  They were detained.  Their families started to intercede on their behalf, they didn't get very far, and then protests started fairly quickly in Daraa and some of the surrounding towns.

The regime kind of bungled and botched the initial response to these protests.  The security forces were sent in.  They started shooting people.  There was a round of protesters, civilians who were killed.  There were funerals for them as martyrs, and then there was another round of people killed.  And this cycle continued for several weeks, and it began to spread.

You had -- you know, Dara'a is a very Sunni area near the border with Jordan.  Interestingly, it's actually an area that supported the Ba'th Party over the years.  It's also an area that provides conscripts for the military and for some of the security forces.  So this is not an area of traditional resistance to the Ba'th Party. 

And the initial demands were things like freedom and dignity.  And as the regime's crackdown intensified, the demands began to change and the rhetoric began to change and began to talk about bringing down the regime itself and bringing Bashar down.  And then this spread to some of the other cities.

So far, we've seen a lot of protests that have been moved along or instigated by some preachers in mosques, you know, generally in Sunni mosques.  But it's not an -- it's not an Islamist uprising on the whole.  It's taking place a lot of Fridays, but Fridays have become the large day of protest throughout the region.

I'd say the most silent majority right now are the kind of less religious, perhaps secular Sunnis in the main cities, especially in Damascus.  They've been staying on the sidelines.  The Sunnis of Damascus have stayed on the sidelines through most of this.  If they start coming out into the streets in a large and a sustained way, then the regime is in very serious trouble.

GWERTZMAN:  Some people have suggested that the reason it's been quiet in Damascus and other cities is that the Sunnis by and large have a very prosperous middle class that really doesn't want to see the status quo upset.  Is there much of that?  Do you -- do you agree with that?

BAZZI:  There is a prosperous middle class.  And the hallmark of Bashar al-Assad's rule has been stability for Syria.  It was the hallmark for this father before him as well, that this is a regime -- the Assad family guaranteed stability at the expense of any kind of personal or political freedom for Syrians.  It has not done terribly well on economic growth.  It's still a very government-driven economy.  And sort of -- you've had tremendous corruption, especially under Bashar, where you had some privatization and some sort of emerging upper class.  But a lot of that was people around the regime who benefited from being connected to the regime, and that generated and spread some resentment.

I think one of the things that's in the minds of Syrians and this less-religious Sunni middle class in the cities -- in Damascus and other places -- one of the things they're worried about is ending up like Iraq or ending up somewhere similar to Iraq and ending up with this serious civil war or some kind of civil unrest that goes on for months and years. 

And the Syrians really experienced the trouble in Iraq.  They experienced the war in Iraq much more directly than many other countries in the Middle East, because they're literally next door to Iraq.  At one point they had an influx of a million Iraqi refugees -- some of the Syrian government estimates went up as high as 1.5 million Iraqis refugees -- streaming into Syria.  And those refugees -- it created a tremendous strain on the social system in Syria.  And Syrians got to experience firsthand what it was like to have a huge influx of refugees, what it was like to have the civil strife.  And that's in the back of the mind of many people in Syria.  They don't want to risk the stability that's offered by the Assad regime, and they don't want to end up like Iraq.

GWERTZMAN:  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you again.  (Gives queuing instructions again.)

And our next question comes from Jill Dougherty with CNN.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hi.  I would like to ask about the -- something that we heard from Secretary Clinton today -- or actually I guess it was from the briefing -- which is warning both sides to end this violence, to desist from violence. 

Can you explain, you know, the context of what they are saying?  In other words, do they feel that, you know, there is, let's say, violence being perpetrated not only by the regime but by the people who may want to stir up more trouble?

BAZZI:  That seems to be what's underlying this.  I'm a little surprised -- it echoes some of the statements we heard around Bahrain, you know, calling on both sides, you know, to keep calm and not use violence.

In Syria, you know, as was the case in Bahrain, most of the violence is being perpetuated by the state and by the regime that's in power.  So it is -- you know, it's disappointing to hear this kind of rhetoric, and it registers, I think, among people and certainly in Syria and in the region as a whole, you know, of trying to say that both sides are somehow equally responsible for the violence. 

Now the Syrian regime has been saying for weeks that there are saboteurs in the crowds, that there are people shooting at the security forces, and there might be that.  I -- you know, I don't know.  It's such a confused situation, we don't know if there are people who are firing at the security forces.  But most of the shooting seems to be done -- from the footage we've seen and accounts we've read and people on the ground, most of the firepower has been used by the regime and not the protesters.  So it's disappointing to sort of blame both sides equally and call on both of them to show restraint.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

BAZZI:  Thanks.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  (Gives queuing instructions.)

And our next question comes from Jim Awad with Zephyr.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  I'm wondering, how would the process of regime change work?  As hard as it is to understand what the new regime would look like, do we have a situation here like Egypt, where the army would step in and retain stability until the process worked out?  Or is the army too closely associated with the current regime?

BAZZI:  I think the army in Syria right now is too closely associated with the Assad regime.  So Assad -- you know, like his father, his main goal is to preserve the rule of this Alawite minority in this vastly Sunni-dominated country.  So the Sunnis in Syria make up about 70 percent of the population.  The Alawites are about 12 percent of the population, and the Alawites are an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.

And one of the things that Hafez Assad had started doing and continues by his son was to keep a lot of the military, the top military and the top security positions, within the Alawite sect. 

Now part of that was the experienced Hafez al-Assad had in the early '80s, where was a Muslim Brotherhood uprising.  There was attacks that targeted the military, the Syrian military, and also targeted civilians.  There were bombings on buses.  There were bombings within military barracks and this sort of -- it was a campaign of violence.  And you know, Hafez Assad perceived it as the Muslim Brotherhood trying -- the Sunnis, basically, trying to unseat his regime, trying to take over, and he crushed that very brutally.  In 1982 he sent troops to the city of Hama to put down this Islamist uprising.  The estimates of number of people killed go up to 20,000 or even 30,000 people.  The military basically leveled entire parts of that city.

And since then, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood has been punishable by death, and there is a process of purging anyone who's suspected of having Islamist leanings or Muslim Brotherhood leanings, whether in the military or security forces.  And Hafez Assad went about the process of installing in any positions that he had left that were -- that he is unsure about the loyalty of those -- any senior people, he removed them and put his people in.  And Bashar has continued that.  So we're unlikely to see the military leadership give up on Assad.

Now, if it gets to a stage where the military -- and right now a lot of the forces that have been deployed on the streets are the security forces, which are very tied into the regime and tightly controlled by the regime and quite allied -- if we get to see more and more military units out in the streets, you know, we could in certain areas -- and we might see forces -- some military forces refuse orders to shoot -- we don't seem to have gotten to that stage yet. 

And they've been careful, again, to use the security forces instead of the military in a lot of places.  And in some towns and cities where there's been protests, people have actually asked not to have the security forces deployed but to have the military deploy on the ground, because they feel that the military might be more sympathetic to them.  But on the leadership level, I don't think we're going to see a process similar to Syria's.  The process is -- you know, it's much more a contained system within the military and the security forces.

GWERTZMAN:  (Inaudible) -- Egypt's, not like Egypt.

BAZZI:  Yes.  Sorry, not Egypt, yes.

GWERTZMAN:  Any more questions?

OPERATOR:  No, there are no more questions at this time.

GWERTZMAN:  OK, I think -- I had one more question for you, Mohamad about --

BAZZI:  Yes.

GWERTZMAN:  You mentioned Secretary Clinton's kind of silly statement today, but is the U.S. really hoping for a change, you think, in Syria?  Would that make its life a lot easier in the Middle East or not?

BAZZI:  Probably not.  The Obama administration is probably hoping for -- not to have a kind of a regime change in Syria at the moment because of everything that's going on in the region. 

And look, because of these issues with the military, you know, not playing a clear role, the military in Syria not being likely to move over to the side of the protesters, you know, it could get extremely bloody and extremely problematic.  And there are also no clear alternatives on the scene.  And this is one of the things that Bashar al-Assad has used very craftily.  He's used this idea that there is really no one on the scene that would replace him --

GWERTZMAN:  Right.

BAZZI:  -- or no -- even no group of individuals.  And he's basically tried to hang on to power over the years by saying, well, the alternative is much worse than -- the alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood.

GWERTZMAN:  Right.

BAZZI:  The alternative is kind of a radical Sunni regime.  You know, I mean, it may not be.  But certainly there would be elements of the Muslim Brotherhood who are exiled now, who will want to come back and play a role. 

But this kind of secular, liberal, Sunni and intellectual sort of alternative, it doesn't really exist on the ground.  There are individuals, a lot of them have spent a lot of time in prison, but they're not -- they don't have much of a public following.  And they would have to -- you know, ultimately if Bashar falls -- and it's a big if -- but if he does fall, ultimately that kind of leadership would have to make amends with the military and the security forces.  And there's no clear path right now to see that. 

So it presents huge headaches for the Bush (sic) administration, and it also presents the potential for a bloody crackdown.  And it's going to -- politically it's going to become quite difficult.  You know, if Syria gets bloody, it's going to become quite difficult to reconcile the statements that have been made about Libya with what's going to be said about Syria.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.

All right.  I think we're ready to say thank you very much.  And thank you all for listening in, and come back another time.  Bye.

BAZZI:  Thank you.

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