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It was slow in coming, but the Arab revolutionary wave of 2011 has reached Syria. Its arrival has forced a reassessment of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s domestic legitimacy and prospects for survival. Over the past few months, many commentators have maintained that the regime would remain sheltered from regional turmoil. As the prominent Syrian dissident Suhair Atassi lamented, her country is “a kingdom of silence” dominated by fear.
Now, the story line has changed dramatically. Events in the southern city of Deraa have challenged the conventional wisdom about Syria’s stability. Protests began on March 18, after security forces detained 15 children for spraying anti-regime graffiti on walls there. Seeking to nip any ideas of revolution in the bud, Assad’s security forces attacked the protesters, killing four.
The next day, thousands took to the streets, torching the ruling Baath Party headquarters, several other government buildings, and the local branch of the country’s main cell phone company, Syriatel, which is owned by Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, whom the protesters singled out by name, calling him a “thief.” They also defaced many of the ubiquitous posters of Assad that the regime, Soviet-style, hangs in public places, and tore down a statue of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.
The regime’s heavy-handed crackdown on the children lit the fuse on the Syrian people’s political and economic grievances. They initially demanded an end to the emergency laws first enacted 48 years ago when the Baath Party seized power in Syria. But by March 19, they were calling for “revolution.” The old regime-sanctioned chants of “God, Syria, and Bashar only” had been replaced with “God, Syria, and freedom only.”
The regime attempted to calm the situation by sending to Deraa a delegation headed by Faisal al-Miqdad, the deputy foreign minister, to offer condolences and promise an investigation into the deaths of the four protesters. It also pledged to release the original 15 detainees. But the delegation was not well received, and the riots continued and spread to some neighboring towns.
By March 22, the regime judged the situation in Deraa to have gotten out of hand and dispatched several tanks and helicopters to seal off the city. Although they were initially repelled, the security forces subsequently made a final push against the protesters at dawn on March 23, resulting in what dissidents have called a “massacre.” According to human rights activists and witnesses, more than 100 people were killed. Rumor has it that the push was undertaken by the Republican Guard -- a force tasked with protecting the Assad regime commanded by Bashar’s brother, Maher.
Despite the bloody crackdown, the protesters continued to come out in the thousands, expressing their resolve to push ahead. In particular, the regime was clearly concerned about plans for a major rally on March 25 after Friday prayers, and about the prospect of it spreading beyond Deraa. In a desperate attempt to head it off, Assad’s spokesperson, Bouthaina Shaaban, made public statements promising that the regime would “study” lifting the emergency laws. By all indications, however, her statement only increased the protesters’ determination to press on. To the protesters, such gestures may simply be too little, too late.
According to many observers, Assad was supposed to be immune to this kind of popular movement. His anti-American policies and enmity toward Israel were thought to boost his legitimacy in the eyes of his people. Compared the advanced age of Egypt’s former president, 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, and Tunisia’s ex-president, 74-year-old Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Assad’s relative youth at 45 was also thought to be an asset. One Syria specialist, Joshua Landis, noted that unlike the aging Mubarak, the young Assad was “popular among young people” who “tend to blame [corruption] on . . . the ‘old guard.’” An unfortunately timed puff piece on Asma al-Assad, the president’s glamorous wife, in the current issue of Vogue, spoke of the “first lady’s central mission . . . to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen [and] encourage them to engage in what she calls ‘active citizenship.’” It gave plausibility to the claim that the Assads are a fresh breeze blowing through a decrepit house.
Ironically, the basis for such arguments was Assad’s own public relations strategy. When Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, he adopted the “old versus new guard” theme to cultivate his image as a reformer and bolster his legitimacy at home and abroad. For a brief period, he allowed dissidents to criticize corruption openly. But this so-called Damascus Spring was a cynical mirage. In the past decade, Syria has not seen a single meaningful act of reform.
The truth is that Assad could not have pursued such reform even if he had wanted to, as this would have meant taking on the corruption of his immediate family. Assad’s cousin, the billionaire Makhlouf, is widely considered to be the second-most powerful man in the country, even though he holds no official title. He is essentially the economic arm of the regime, using his business empire to co-opt the Sunni merchant class. (Makhlouf, Assad, and most of the ruling elite and high-ranking officers are Alawites, a minority sect.) When the people of Deraa set fire to the Syriatel office, they were not targeting the old guard; they were targeting the very heart of the current regime, or, as one Syrian activist in Deraa told Reuters, the very symbols of oppression and corruption.
The idea that Assad’s anti-Western ideology is popular enough to shield him from public discontent comes from him as well: in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in late January, he explained that the Mubarak regime was unpopular due to its alliance with the United States and its peace treaty with Israel. By contrast, he suggested, the Syrian regime was ideologically united with the people. As Assad put it, Syrians “do not go into an uprising,” because “it is not only about [their] needs and not only about the reform. It is about the ideology.” Assad’s foreign policy and ideology of “resistance” may indeed be popular in Syria. But the protests are driven by concerns over domestic issues. The idea that ideology and foreign policy trump concerns about lack of freedom, economic opportunity, and political participation has proved wrong.
Other commentators who dismissed the likelihood of the Assad regime falling pointed to solidarity among the Alawite elite. Unlike the Egyptian army, which functioned independently of Mubarak and broke with him at a key moment, the Syrian brass, as part of a small religious minority, views its fate and safety as inextricably linked to Assad’s and therefore will not fail to crack down on protests.
Still, that threat has not deterred all the protesters. And on March 22, the sectarian dimension of the conflict became explicit: the Deraa demonstrators broke a long-standing taboo, chanting, “No to Iran, no to Hezbollah, we want a God-fearing Muslim” -- by which they meant, “We want a Sunni Muslim running the country.” In a show of solidarity with the regime, Alawites replaced their own headshots on Facebook with pictures of Bashar.
It has been suggested that the best way for Assad to deal with sectarian tensions would be to reform and democratize. But to democratize is to take the Alawite hand off the tiller. And, the bankrupt regime’s latest concession to quell the unrest -- the announcement of a salary increase for state employees -- suggests that even Assad’s supposed economic rationalization is over. With its sources of legitimacy badly undermined, brute force is the only tool left to secure the regime’s rule.
On March 24, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged that Syria follow Egypt’s example. However, as the protests spread throughout the rest of Syria, Assad will surely follow another example: Hafez al-Assad who set the precedent, in 1982, when he pulverized Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion city, killing nearly 20,000 to secure his rule. That legacy has kept the Syrians fearfully silent -- until now.
The regime’s concern about the Friday protests was justified. Today, demonstrations have erupted everywhere, including in major cities, such as Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Latakia, and Qamishli. Chants of “Down with Bashar’s regime” have been heard regularly. The regime’s response continues to be violent repression coupled with attempts at political maneuvering. It is hard to predict where the demonstrations will go after today. If unrest takes hold in the northeast (among the Kurds) and northwest (in large Sunni areas), it will be a sign that the Assad regime’s grasp on power is weakening. The people of Deraa have shown that the population’s barrier of fear can be broken. That is something that Assad cannot allow to persist and take root. Whether he manages to reinstill it will prove decisive for his family’s rule.
For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.