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More Empty Promises Will Not Appease Syria's Protesters

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

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The Syrian president Bashar al Assad is facing the most serious challenge to his rule since he inherited power after his father's death in June 2000. Mr al 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 Friday, Syria witnessed the largest demonstrations yet, as tens of thousands of protesters marched from several suburbs into central Damascus.

Mr al Assad has responded with a violent crackdown and token concessions - such as appointing a new cabinet - that failed to appease Syrians seeking dramatic change after 41 years of rule by the Assad family. While he appeared to go further on Saturday, announcing his intention to repeal the emergency law within a week, protesters remain understandably doubtful.

Expectations have been dashed before. In a much-anticipated speech on March 30, Mr al Assad did not lift the state of emergency in place since 1963 that grants wide authority to the secret police, or loosen his Baath Party's monopoly on power. Instead, he dismissed pro-democracy activists as "dupes" or saboteurs in a plot hatched by "foreign agents" to weaken Syria.

Mr al 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 risks squandering this political capital as his crackdown intensifies and he continues to ignore the need for fundamental change.

In resisting serious concessions, Mr al Assad is relying on a tactic that pervaded his father's rule. The Syrian regime does not respond to pressure, whether external or internal, and this principle has served it well in times of crisis.

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