Assad 311 (B).
(photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)
Once thought untouchable, the Syrian government has been brought low over the
last two weeks as the revolts rocking the Middle East finally reached Bashar
Assad’s police state. In a week, the dynasty that kept its people under lock and
key for decades has been thrust into a battle to prove both its mettle and its
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“According to many observers, Assad was supposed to be
immune to this kind of popular movement,” Tony Badran of the Foundation for the
Defense of Democracies wrote Friday on the Foreign Affairs website. “His anti-
American policies and enmity toward Israel were thought to boost his legitimacy
in the eyes of his people.”
The image of an invulnerable, inviolable leader was carefully cultivated by
Assad’s father Hafez, Syria’s ruler for nearly three decades, and adopted rather
less successfully by his gangly, physically awkward son. Still, Assad actively
and effectively played the role of resistor to supposed US and Israeli designs
Eyal Zisser, a Tel Aviv University scholar and the author of
five books on Syria, said at a conference Monday at the university’s Dayan
Center that polls showed that Assad’s hard-line foreign policy had made him one
of the Arab world’s most popular leaders for years.
In a rare interview
with Western media in January, Assad told The Wall Street Journal, “Syria is
stable... Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the
This is the core issue.
When there is
you will have this vacuum that creates
The implication was that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had been
too cozy with Washington and Jerusalem, and the gap between his sentiments and
those of his people brought about his ouster.
Now, over a week after
major protests first erupted in southern Syria, Assad’s government is
experiencing, for the first time, the kind of strife that unseated the
decades-long rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.
“If we thought Syria was immune
or isolated from the winds of change, now we see they have reached the regime as
well,” Zisser told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday.
anti-government demonstrations began March 15 in the southern city of Deraa, the
heart of the poor, tribal Sunni region of Hauran.
On Friday, protesters
launched a second front in Latakia, a port city on Syria’s northwest coast that
is the heartland of the Assads’ minority Alawite sect.
that 200 people dared to take to the streets of Damascus,” Zisser said Monday,
three days after 200 people demonstrated in the capital in a rally quickly put
down by Assad’s security forces. “Still, most of the protests have been in
peripheral areas – particularly Deraa – as well as in coastal Syria, where the
greatest friction exists between Sunnis and Alawites.”
Should the Kurds
in the country’s northeast – systematically disenfranchised, with many lacking
Syrian citizenship – rise up, Assad will find three corners of his ethnically
disparate nation in revolt, and may begin fearing for the fate of
“All the reasons for unrest that can be found in Egypt, Tunisia
and Libya can be found in Syria as well,” said Elie Podeh, chair of Hebrew
University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.
there is the fact that the Assads have been in power for 40 years. There is no
freedom, no liberty, no individual rights – basically, there is no possibility
of electing a candidate other than an Assad.”
Keeping a population as
disparate as Syria’s quiet requires more than empty promises of standing up to
America and Israel. It requires brute force. In 1982, the elder Assad put down a
Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama with a brutal reprisal that
killed anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 people. Weeks passed before news of the
massacre reached Western media. In today’s digital age, such media immunity is
impossible, as the Western intervention against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya has
proven to autocrats across the region. To remain in power, Assad will have to
meet the protesters with enough force to keep others from taking an example,
while not provoking Western fears that Libya-scale bloodshed may be in the
Completing that balancing act will determine whether Assad
remains in Damascus’s presidential palace or finds himself going the way of his
disgraced counterparts in Tunis and Cairo.