Two months ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad famously told
the Wall Street Journal that he had
nothing to fear from the wave of popular protests convulsing the Arab world
because his government reflects "the beliefs of the people." While his
boast was surely disingenuous, his confidence appeared quite genuine. Notwithstanding the recent spate of mass demonstrations and violent government
reprisals in Syria that have left more
than 100 people dead, Assad's ability to weather this storm should not be
If grievances alone could bring down governments, Assad
would be in a world of trouble. Most Syrians suffer from the same economic hardships
that have fueled popular uprisings in other Arab countries (high
unemployment, rising cost of living, rampant corruption, and so on) while
their political and civil liberties have been violated in greater measure.
Adding insult to injury for Syria's large Sunni Muslim majority, the ruling
elite is dominated by Alawites, an Islamic sect comprising roughly 12 percent
of the population.
The Assad family has produced decades of virtually
unblemished political stability in Syria by denying aggrieved citizens the
resources and structural opportunities needed to mobilize collectively. There
are no independent political parties, labor unions, professional associations,
or other civic organizations through which Syrians can advance their interests.
Of the 183 countries surveyed in the World Bank's 2010 "Doing Business" report, Syria ranked 168th
and 176th, respectively, in access to credit and contract enforcement, the two indices most critical
to the aggregation of economic power independent of the state. All media
outlets are owned by the government or individuals sympathetic to it, while the
Internet is heavily censored and monitored by the mukhabarat (secret police).
This virtually unparalleled dominion of state over society
is integrally linked to Alawite control of the military-security apparatus.
Whereas Tunisian and Egyptian military officers refused to administer the kind
of violent repression needed to keep their recently deposed presidents in power
and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi suffered a rash of security defections
when his people began rebelling, Assad doesn't have to worry that his generals
will hesitate to punish his enemies. Not one of them has a future in Syria if the
Although the fruits of power are distributed among a corrupt
political and commercial elite that is reasonably representative of Syria's
diversity, the perception that Syria has an "Alawite regime" is
widespread among Sunnis, many of whom consider the sect heretical. While Assad
has managed this sectarian resentment by advancing regional causes that
resonate with Sunnis (most notably anti-Zionism and resistance to the U.S.-led
occupation of Iraq), it is never far from the surface.
The regime has compensated for this scarlet letter by
cultivating a kind of "negative legitimacy" deriving from the
undesirability of perceived alternatives. Most Syrian Christians, Druze, and
Ismaili Shiites -- roughly 12 to15 percent of the population, all together -- and
many secular Sunnis fear that the collapse of Assad's regime will lead to an
Islamist takeover or catastrophic civil unrest (or both).
Assad has also managed to convincingly cast himself as the
least nefarious member of Syria's power elite (it helps to have a psychotic
brother). Though he never delivered on the sweeping change he promised when
taking office 11 years ago, many Syrians still credit him with desiring reform, attributing his failures to a reactionary "old guard" within the regime. Even
embittered Syrian exiles often acknowledge that the Assad regime would be more
repressive without Bashar in it. So while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
served as a lightning rod for demonstrations by uniting otherwise disparate
groups to demand his ouster, Assad's image discourages mobilization against the
government, as nearly everyone has some grounds for fearing what comes
next. Similar considerations have contributed substantially to Western tolerance of Assad's excesses.
The proliferation of uprisings around the Arab world nevertheless
pose an acute challenge for Assad. The demonstration effect of common people
toppling tyrants live on Al Jazeera has helped persuade his ordinarily
fatalistic subjects that they have the power to shape their future. Equally important is what one might call the "coordination effect." Most
citizens will abstain from banned political activities, such as participating
in protests, if the
likelihood of severe punishment is great. However, the risks decrease rapidly
once the number of participants exceeds the government's capacity to punish
every infraction. By signaling to citizens that now is the time to act and giving them confidence that others will
do likewise, the Arab Spring makes it easier to reach this critical mass.
Efforts by Syrian activists to launch their own uprising
progressed slowly at first. Two attempts to organize rallies via Facebook
fizzled due to the heavy advance deployment of security personnel (no one wants
to be the first to provoke a squadron of riot police). Solidarity rallies in
support of the Egyptian and Libyan people provided a clever pretext for small
numbers of dissidents to shout generalized condemnations of dictatorship at the
top of their lungs, but they were quickly dispersed.
On Feb. 18, anger over the police beating of a Damascus
1,500 people to assemble in Al-Hamidiyah Souq demanding justice. Although
the protest was relatively tame, it exposed a glaring loophole in the regime's
security screen -- spontaneous demonstrations in response to local grievances
are virtually impossible to anticipate and pre-empt.
The real game-changer came on March 6 with the arrest of 15
teenagers in the southern city of Deraa for having scrawled anti-government
graffiti on a wall. Ordinarily, their families would have quietly sought the
intercession of tribal and religious leaders and prayed for a miracle. This
time, however, the continuing detention of the children sparked massive
demonstrations centered on the city's historic Omari mosque, its
loudspeakers demonstrating how easily even the most carefully state-vetted
Sunni preachers can get swept away by popular passions.
Assad's initial response to the crisis was badly botched. By
the time the authorities released the 15 children, altercations between
protesters and police had claimed many lives, fueling a cycle (familiar to
students of Iran's 1979 revolution) whereby funerals for each wave of martyrs
become rallying points for the next. By the time Assad fired the regional
governor and promised an investigation into the killings, the crowds in Deraa
and nearby Sunni areas were torching offices of the ruling Baath Party and
destroying other symbols of the regime on sight.
As anti-government demonstrations began spreading across the
country on March 15, there was a revealing disparity. Secular liberal
dissidents took to the streets in relatively small numbers and avoided
confrontations with the police, while Kurdish groups largely abstained. In
contrast, the demonstrations in Deraa and other predominantly Sunni flashpoints
were 20 to 30 times larger, organized under the semi-inviolable protection of
mosques and clearly intended to provoke the security forces. While it is
premature to characterize the protests as an Islamist uprising, there is little
doubt that those most eager to risk death or severe bodily harm are
overwhelmingly Sunni and deeply religious.
Although many commentators quickly concluded that Assad must
either crack down relentlessly or implement sweeping reforms, neither extreme
makes much sense for the Syrian leader. Giving his security chiefs free rein
to squash the uprising plays into the hands of radicals, who hope that mass
casualties will turn a majority of the people squarely against the regime and
facilitate defections by hitherto quiescent Sunni political, religious, and
business leaders. On the other hand, lifting restrictions on freedom of
expression only gives dissidents a free hand to mobilize the public and make
greater demands from a position of strength.
Instead, Assad has sought to deflate the protests through
selective minor concessions (increasing public sector wages, releasing a few
hundred political prisoners, etc.), while instructing the security apparatus to
employ suppressive tactics that are less visible or can be plausibly denied. The mysterious rooftop snipers who opened
fire on protesters in Latakia on March 26 served two purposes -- punishing
Sunnis who dared to make trouble in the Alawite heartland, while hinting that
there are malevolent forces beyond Assad's control ready to wreak havoc on
civilians but for the protection of the state.
As in the past, Assad has tried to deflect personal
responsibility by cultivating the perception that he is not fully in control of
his regime. The spectacle of his close advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, proclaiming
at the height of the violence that she had personally witnessed him ordering
security forces not to fire "one bullet" was intended less to deny
that they were shooting people (this much was plainly evident to the public)
than to plant the belief that the president of Syria was powerless to stop
them. Likewise, her seemingly premature announcement that Assad was preparing
to introduce a range of sweeping reforms -- days ahead of a televised speech in
which he conspicuously made no such promises -- encouraged speculation that
regime hardliners had blocked him from taking action.
Whether or not the Syrian public will buy into this
"blocked reformer" pitch remains to be seen, but it is already an
overseas hit. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said --
without a hint of sarcasm -- that many American lawmakers view the Syrian
president as a "reformer."
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images