Syria’s Tide Turned?

Pro-Assad demonstrations in Latakia

The protest movement in Syria seems to have quieted down recently. After the Syrian military put down both armed gangs and civilian demonstrators in the north of the country, leading to thousands of Syrians fleeing into Turkey, the daily protests across the country have been arguably quieter than before. Ironically, the first meeting of opposition members in Damascus in over a decade could be a sign that the opposition is fracturing in the face of a durable regime that is making noises of reform.

Syria remains clouded by question marks as foreign press has only recently been allowed back into the country (though still limited), but it is clear that the Assad government has reached out to the opposition with several concessions. In addition to considering a new party law that would allow opposition parties to challenge Assad’s Ba’ath party’s monopolistic hold on power (for an analysis of this potential reform see Sami Moubayed), the regime has also permitted various domestic opposition members to meet in order to discuss strategies to bring peace and stability back to Syria. Many opposition members have completely dismissed the opposition conference as a PR stunt by the ruling regime as only independent members of the opposition were invited to participate.

Many who were present at the conference called for democratic change in Syria and an independent investigation into the deaths of nearly 1,400 Syrians over the last few months. Opposition members also reiterated support for the protest movement and pushed for foreign journalists to be fully allowed back into the country. This opposition conference is being perceived by many as proof of a fractured opposition. The Syrian opposition abroad are predictably more open about their desire to see the end of the Assad regime whereas the domestic opposition that attended the conference seemed more moderate. With a struggling economy and a long history of dealing with refugees from Iraq, many inside of Syria are concerned that overthrowing the government could result in chaos and sectarian violence. Many Syrians, then, favor the national dialogue that the regime has offered as an alternative to true revolution, arguing that the success of the protest movement has created an environment where real change is inevitable.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime has scored a number of small victories, giving the regime an extra boost. The government has been able to organize several well-attended demonstrations in support of the Assad regime (see pictures here) and many seem to be taking Assad’s promise of reform fairly seriously. Interestingly, US representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) recently visited Syria and met with President Assad. Afterwards, Kucinich said that Assad “is highly loved and appreciated by the Syrians.*” The protest movement, on the other hand, has not been as strong lately. Sky News, one of the few foreign media outlets that has been given permission to recently said that while the protests are still a minority in Syria. Meanwhile, reports of armed opposition groups attacking and provoking the Syrian army has damaged the protest movement.

For now it seems as though the Assad regime is regaining some of the momentum that it had lost when the protest movement was at its strongest. However, it is far too soon to predict the continued rise in popularity of the government. The protest movement is still strong throughout the country and the military has not given up on its violent crackdown. Moreover, the Syrian economy is showing serious signs of strain. The IMF has announced that the country’s growth rate has decreased from 5% to 3.3% and the GDP could contract by 3%. The Syrian pound is also under serious pressure as many Syrians are switching their savings to foreign currencies, causing the central bank to raise deposit rates to 3% and to open a bank account at that Bank of Lebanon. Should the economy continue to falter, the recent shift in momentum towards the government could be reversed.

Momentum in the conflict in Syria has oscillated between the protest movement and the government. Lately, the opposition has suffered from open disagreements and rumors of armed gangs provoking the army. The government has taken advantage of weaknesses of the opposition by pushing the idea that the government is serious about real reform. It will be a while before there is a decisive end to the Syrian showdown, but it would seem that, for the moment, that the Assad government is taking control of the Syrian conversation

*Rep. Kucinich has released a statement saying that the Syrian press mistranslated what he said concerning Assad’s popularity. However, he has not critiqued the government and the original quotation is very similar to some of his previous statements. Moreover, Kucinich spoke about the Assad regime in English and the original report was in English, meaning there was no room for translations or ‘mistranslations.’

Photo from Syria News

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