At the end of March, Syrian President Bashar Assad stepped before Parliament in Damascus among growing protests that have rocked Syria for weeks. Many expected Assad to announce serious reforms in an effort to quell the demonstrators, much as Mubarak and Ben Ali had done prior to their political demise in Egypt and Tunisia. When Assad spoke, though, he unveiled a number of simple reforms that targeted certain sections of the population – some Kurds were given citizenship and several measures benefiting the religious Sunnis, such as a reversal on the niqab ban and the creation of a religious TV channel. These reforms do nothing to meet the demands of the general cadre of protesters, but represent a carefully calculated strategy by Assad aimed at strengthening his already significant base and fracturing the opposition without weakening the regime. Unfortunately, Assad’s plan – which very well could still work – is being undermined by the violence the regime uses to quell protesters.
Assad’s regime has worked strenuously over the past decade to gain support from the Sunni elite, mainly through enacting a number of economic reforms that have greatly benefited and enriched the urban Sunnis. Consequently, there is has not been as unanimous calls for the fall of the regime as there were in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In these three countries, rulers maintained power by favoring their families, tribes and sects while leaving the vast majority of the populations behind. In Syria, however, Assad is part of the minority Alawites – a sect of Shi’a Islam, which make up only 13% of Syria’s population while 74% of of the population is Sunni. By reaching out to the Sunni elite, then, Assad has created an unlikely alliance that has greatly strengthened his base. Yet, the military apparatus in Syria is almost completely controlled by the Alawi sect.
By economically pleasing the Sunni elite and forcing complete Alawi control of the security sector, Assad has a wide base of support and has helped ensure against defections from the armed forces. Together with international concerns – from the United States, European Union and Israel (ironically) – of what would replace a disposed Assad, the regime placed itself in on more solid ground than the rulers of countries experiencing unrest. Concurrently, though, Assad has inextricably linked his fate to the support of the Sunni elite. It is of no surprise, then, that the most significant of reforms announced by the Syrian leader were those demanded by the Sunnis.
Likewise, granting citizenship to the Kurdish community is an attempt to pry apart the opposition. Initially fractured, the protest movement has become increasingly unified as the protests continue. The Kurdish community only joined protests a week before Assad’s speech and – while representing a mere 9% of the Syrian population – are geographically concentrated. If Assad is able to win over the Kurdish community, he will have dented the growing unity of the protesters while geographically limiting the protests.
Such a strategy, considering the demographics and alliances specific to Syria, is undoubtedly better – for the regime – than the reactionary moves enacted in Egypt and Tunisia before the fall of those regimes. Certainly, Assad and the regime will be able to survive for the near future, riding on the support of many Syrians across the demographic spectrum. The concessions to the Sunnis and Kurds demonstrate an understanding of the political balancing act in Syria as well as an attempt to use the current political situation to the advantage of the regime.
Unfortunately for Assad, making concessions to strategic groups is not the only strategy being employed by the regime. Characteristically, the regime has not reacted pacifically to the growing unrest. The most recent wave of protests last Friday left 37 demonstrators dead throughout the country, with most violence contained to the city of Dera’a where 30 people were killed. The city has been completely shut down by government forces who have moved to prevent all dissent coming from the southern city.
The growing death counts is severely undermining the regime and uniting the protest movement. With each funeral another martyr is born, further turning the Syrian people against the regime. Indeed, the evolution of the protests from demanding reforms to demanding the end of the Assad regime has accelerated with the rising number of murders. It seems as though the goal of the regime is to stay strong in the face of the largest popular discontent since 1982, though the strategy of violently dispersing crowds is producing counterproductive results as the protests have only grown.
Yet even with the intensification of protests, there are very few cracks in the Assad regime. Although 19 police officers were killed in Dera’a this weekend, there are no signs of defection from among Assad’s supporters. Indeed, the defection of members of the predominantly Alawi security forces seems unlikely. It is still unclear whether this dual strategy of selective, targeted reforms and hard-line response to protesters will ensure the survival of the regime. In the longterm, the excessive force used by the regime could do no more than harden the resolve of and ensure the success of the protest movement. In the interim, though, Assad seems confident of being able to whether the storm by moving neither to the level suppression used in Libya nor make the concessions as his counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia had done.
With strong support still with the regime, it seems unlikely that the regime will fall very soon and while there is every indication that the protests will become more violent, this violence has the potential to crush the opposition or bring down the regime.
Photo: pro-regime demonstrators in Damascus gather in support of Bashar Assad. Photo from a friend in Damascus