Unrest shatters illusions of Assad regime’s stability

Analysis: Image of "resistance" against US, Israel fails to shield Syrian ruler from revolt.

March 28, 2011 23:01
3 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

Assad 311 (B). (photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)


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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 very legitimacy.

“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.”

Syrian forces open fire to disperse Deraa protest
Our World: The Syrian spring

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 on Syria.

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 people.

This is the core issue.

When there is divergence...

you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances.”

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.

Large-scale 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.

“It’s dramatic 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 Damascus.

“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.

“First, 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 offing.

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.

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