Will Assad Fall?

Assad is facing a challenge, but he is far from gone

In the western media, the uprising in Syria is getting very little coverage. Partly due to the strict domestic situation in Syria in which the state is to some extent able to control the flow of information; partly due to the mass of attention devoted to the ongoing war in Libya; and partly due to western fears about what would follow a complete revolution. As Brian Whitaker notes, the situation in Syria is much more important to western interests than Libya is. Yet as the revolution grows, more people seem to be calling Assad’s ouster a matter of time. Yet, barring any major violence on the part of the regime, it seems far more likely that Assad will remain in power.

Predictions for the fall of Assad are coming from very predictable corners. Ammar Abdulhamid has been keeping close track of the protests, noting the number of deaths and compiling an impressive list of Youtube clips revealing the brutality of the Syrian regime. Among other remarks targeting the regime, Abdulhamid remarks that:

The Twitterverse became abuzz by statements of bafflements and amazements from Assad sympathizers, lending credence to assertions by Syrian activists that the ranks will swell with new recruits and that the revolution will continue.

Indeed, Abdulhamid is doing a wonderful job compiling evidence of crimes by the regime. Yet, he is hardly unbiased in his reporting: Abdulhamid was exiled from Syria in 2005 for advocating against the regime. This does not mean that his writings should be dismissed, as they are clearly an accurate portrayal of the violent means that Assad’s security services are using. But considering that he has been advocating for the fall of Assad for at least 5 years, one might be tempted to believe there is a bit more to the story. Likewise, Ya Libnan – a Lebanese paper that has consistently pushed against Libya and is allies in Hezbollah – runs innumerable stories each day detailing the violence in Syria and highlighting the strength of the protests. The Guardian slams Assad as well, noting that:

The youth’s civil resistance is unfettered by ideology – what they want is simply that democracy be consolidated and that the resources of the country be used for the good of its people – without exception, exclusion, marginalisation or discrimination.

Of course, all that is written is true. None of the authors fabricated and very little of it can be considered some type of propaganda to influence western readers. Assad has promised change repeatedly and failed to deliver; Syrian authorities have been killing civilians peacefully protesting; and the protest movement is not some ideological movement who desires anything but better rights. Unfortunately, none of these sources details the support for the Assad regime within Syria. Assad, for now at least, has maintained strong support from the Sunni population within Syria. While it is clear that this support is based on economic advantages that were accrued during the liberalization of the Syrian economy at the expense of the poor that make up most of the protest movement:

By granting Sunni urbanites significant leeway in the economic sphere, and also avenues for advancement in the state structure, a tacit Alawite-Sunni contract was formed. In addition, as a secular Baathist regime, the Assad regime has avoided playing the “religion card” too much.

In addition to his Sunni support, Assad is also widely admired for his foreign policies. Of course, positioning the  country against American actions in the region and standing up to Zionism can only buy a leader so much support, but it highlights a major difference between Syria and Egypt, where protesters also despised Mubarak’s alliance with America and Israel. In other words, the protests are ‘only’ of a domestic nature. While the protesters are looking for reform and change in the domestic sphere, most Syrians are happy with the international orientation of their country.

Meanwhile, Jonathon Cheng, at the Australian, believes that the memory 1982 massacre in Hama – in which the government killed upwards of 40,000 to suppress a Muslim Brotherhood uprising – will prevent many from participating in any mass uprising. Certainly, that mass atrocity is in the minds of the Syrian protesters as the security services cracks down; however the fact that Syrians have already broken what many are calling the ‘fear barrier’ and the unlikelihood of a repeat massacre neutralizes Cheng’s point.

Cheng is right however – as is Whitaker – in noting the international fear of change in Syria. The western powers – notably the United States and Israel – would not be happy with a Sunni majority government in Syria. Ironically, those  countries that Assad has defied are the same ones that are looking to prevent his fall. Whitaker writes:

Paradoxically, Syria’s strategic importance also helps to explain the lack of attention it is getting. Interested parties – the US, Israel, other Arab regimes, etc – would much prefer that the problem went away. Some of them recognise that Syria will have to change eventually but they are fearful of the possible outcome and don’t really want any more uncertainties just at the moment. While they probably won’t do much to prolong Bashar’s stay in power, they won’t try to tip him over the edge either – at least, not at this stage.

Naturally, support from western governments hardly prevents revolution (see: Egypt), however western support for Assad (or rather, fear for an alternative) is only one piece of the Syrian puzzle. The leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were disliked by nearly their entire populations, whereas Assad retains respect amongst a good piece of the Syrian demographic. Moreover, with mixed signals coming from the opposition, Assad still has the ability to negotiate an end to the protests by enacting real reforms. This window, though, could be closing rapidly. In his speech to the nation, Assad was expected to announce major reforms, including an end to the emergency law and a revision of the country’s political participation laws. Unfortunately, for the regime, Assad did neither.

Each of the authors mentioned above has accurately and honorably made note of the contempt that the Assad regime has shown for the Syrian people. Yet while the president has done very little to appease the will of the protesters, he – or perhaps his hard-line security forces – have attempted to fight their way out of this hole. It is very possible that the Assad regime falls soon, but that would require further blunders and more violence against the Syrian people. Assad has a tight path which he can take to escape the fate of other recently deposed leaders, but he must do everything that they didn’t and nothing that they did.

Photo from The State

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