The Day of Martyrs Answers No Questions

Can Assad calm the wave of protests in Syria?

Seven more Syrians died yesterday at the proclaimed ‘Day of Martyrs’ throughout Syria, bring the total number of dead to 75 since the clashes began in earnest two weeks ago. Yesterday, protests were held in the Damascus suburb of Douma, Al Sanameen, Daraa, Latakia, Homs, Baniyas and Kamishli. Meanwhile, for the first time, the Kurdish communities joined the protests, demanding not only “citizenship but freedom as well.” The capital witnessed a number of pro-Assad protesters under the careful watch of the Syrian state police, demonstrating the polarization of the country. Despite the unrest in Syria, Assad is still an immensely popular leader around the region and domestically.

Like in Egypt at the beginning of the uprising there, the United States is attempting to monitor the situation in Syria by playing both sides of the coin. Following Secretary of State Clinton’s announcement that America has no intention of intervening in Syria due to Assad’s status of a ‘reformer,’ the Obama administration backed the protesters. White House spokesman Jay Carney applauded the courage of the protesters and condemned the ‘brutal repression’ of the Syrian government.

In Syria, though, the situation is awfully complex. Assad has the support of the Christian community in Syria as well as the Sunni elite that benefited greatly from the gradual opening of the Syria economy since 2000. Moreover, many Syrians are uncertain of what would followed a toppled Assad, with comparisons being made to Iraq under Saddam Hussein and the sectarian chaos that followed the removal of the Iraqi leader from power. Indeed, the opposition movement is not united in calling for the fall of the Assad regime; some protesters (particularly in the southern city of Dara’a) are calling for revolution, while others are simply looking for reform. From Al Wafd newspaper:

There is no consensus among Syrians that the Assad regime should be toppled. Rather, the demands of the Syrian demonstrators are (confined) to big changes in the government and its practices, as well as changing the security apparatus and increasing civil liberties… Just as Assad benefited from the experience in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian people also benefited from the experience in Libya and Yemen.

Regionally, there are few actors who are willing to risk the fall of the Assad regime. As the above article mentions, Syria is the best Arab ally of Iran and its link to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Meanwhile, it is unclear what the fate of Hezbollah would be without Assad; some predict the collapse of the resistance group while others see a closer relationship between Hezbollah and Iran. Israel and the United States are concerned about the political vacuum that would be created by revolution in Syria and are – hesitantly – supporting reform by and survival of Assad. Turkey has also backed the Assad regime (albeit with reservations). Despite all the signs that point to the survival of the regime, the bungled response to protests by the government is creating more questions than answers:

I think we saw evidence yesterday that the state has a depressingly limited repertoire of responses to crisis, and a basic inability to adjust course to insure at least grudging consent of its majority.

It seems as though Assad can still escape the growing protests in Syria by reigning in his security forces and implementing some basic, but drastic reforms. Many thought that when the President addressed the country on Wednesday, he would be announcing – at the very least – the end to emergency rule (an Assad aide had already promised such a step was in the works). Yet with the emergency law still in place and government snipers allegedly taking out protesters from rooftops, some are really doubting Assad’s ability to be the reformer that some thought he was:

Assad, in contrast to the image of him that some Western leaders have developed, is not a reformer. He can better be described as a modernizer. When he inherited power from his father in 2000 he set out to modernize the system — the economic and technological foundation as well as the political, security and bureaucratic elite on which he bases his power.

He allowed archaic economic and trade regulations to be shelved, private banks to operate, foreign investments to come in, mobile-phone companies to operate. And, starting with regional party leaders and governors, then ministers, and finally the top echelons of the security apparatus, he managed within only a couple of years to remove his father’s old guard and replace it with people loyal to himself.

In doing so, he gave Syria a more modern face and made some things work more efficiently, but he also made sure that the basic system — which relies on the heavy hand of the security services, on personal ties, and on a form of tolerated corruption that allows loyalists to enrich themselves — remained intact.

I find it difficult to believe that the Assad regime will be brought down by protests characterized by mixed signals and opposing demands. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, there is enough pro-regime support to make a peaceful resignation unlikely. Meanwhile, thanks largely to the revolutionary violence in Libya and Yemen as well as the sectarian strife that now defines neighboring Iraq, the Syrian opposition is unlikely to see armed revolt as beneficial. As protests grow, Assad will be more pressured to make real reforms – particularly in the economic sphere that will placate a large portion of the protesters – that will weaken the movement and ensure the stability of the government. Yet if Assad refuses to implement reforms and continues to violently repress demonstrations, the President will only be strengthening the call for his removal. Of course – as has been shown time and again in region and time when one event can change an entire movement  – predictions are more often wrong than right.

Photo from CNN

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