Syria Showdown?

The Assad regime faces a new Arab uprising.

Bashar Assad

In January, Syrian President Bashar Assad sat down for a Wall Street Journal interview and explained why he was unlikely to face a popular uprising similar to the ones in Tunisia and Egypt.

Assad remarked that change inside Syria was shaped by “the people’s feeling and dignity, [it is] about the people participating in the decisions of their country.” While Syria faced circumstances more difficult than those in most Arab countries, the country remained stable. “Why?” the president asked. “Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.”

Many Syrians might dispute that Assad is closely linked to his people’s beliefs. Despite a 48-year-old emergency law, his regime is facing growing domestic discontent. Demonstrations took place last week throughout Syria, and have continued in the southern town of Dara. On Wednesday, security forces fired at protesters near the Omari mosque and at a funeral procession, killing at least 15 people, according to opposition sources. By Thursday, the uninterrupted bloodletting led the opposition to estimate that around 100 had died, with scores more detained. Hundreds of people were also said to have been arrested in Damascus, Aleppo, Suwayda, and Baniyas.

A key indicator of the uprising’s momentum will be whether the situation escalates after Friday prayers this week. The Assads are taking no chances. The brutality in Dara is a testament to the family’s sense of vulnerability. The minority Alawite-led regime controls all levers of power and intimidation in Syria, including elite military units and the intelligence services. Reports have suggested that troops whose principal role is regime protection were swiftly dispatched to the south. According to Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, this included Republican Guard detachments, and rumor has it that Assad’s younger brother, Maher, has been directing operations.

Haytham Manna, the spokesman for the Arab Committee for Human Rights, appeared to agree that internal security companies, not the army, were leading the repression. He told the BBC Arabic service that “security branches, military and civilian, wearing civilian clothes, they are the ones engaging in [attacks against the Omari mosque].”

The fear is that the situation may take on a sectarian coloring, with Sunnis, some 74 percent of the population, turning against Alawites, who represent roughly 8 to 12 percent. This is simplistic. The Assads will defend Alawite domination as an existential necessity, but Sunnis thrive in many sectors, especially the economy. Assad is married to a Sunni. Syria is characterized by complex, sometimes crisscrossing, political, regional, tribal, ethnic, and class bonds that transcend a narrow sectarian reading of events. That’s why a breakdown of authority could bring about a situation even more volatile and vicious than in Libya.

That’s not to suggest that  perpetuation of Assad rule is the solution. If anything, it has become a major problem. The Arab world is going through radical transformation, and the dictatorship in Damascus is no different than the others that have been lustily overthrown lately. Although Syria is nominally a republic, the president inherited office, and absolute power, from his father, Hafez Assad. Family members are widely viewed as presiding over networks of corruption and patronage. British author William Dalrymple inadvertently caught the essence of the system’s dysfunctional nature when he wrote, approvingly, that Syria was “a police state that tends to leave its citizens alone as long as they keep out of politics.”

Like his father, Bashar Assad has maintained his supremacy by methodically undermining all potential alternative centers of power and legitimacy. The Syrian system is built in such a way that it offers a stark choice between the Assads or chaos. Hafez Assad sharpened that arrangement after fighting a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency starting in the mid-’70s. This culminated in the ferocious siege of Hama in February 1982, in which tens of thousands of people were killed.

Bashar Assad still enjoys support from states preferring him to chaos. In the Gulf and Iraq, leaders facing popular rebellions of their own have no wish to see another despot ousted; nor do they want to have to manage a dangerous political void in Syria. Saudi Arabia still seeks cooperation with Damascus to contain Shiite influence in Lebanon and Iraq. Pointedly, the Syrian government defended the deployment of Gulf forces in Bahrain on behalf of the Sunni Al-Khalifa monarchy, even as Iran sided with the marginalized Shiites. Damascus won’t soon break with Tehran, but Assad needs the Saudis on his side to help absorb anger, especially Sunni anger, at home.  

Assad can also garner anxious approval from outside the Arab world. The Obama administration does not want another Middle Eastern headache, and it has been thoroughly tongue-tied over Syrian events. Israel, too, prefers the routine of Assad rule to the unknown, not least because the Assads have kept their mutual border quiet for nearly four decades. Iran regards Syria as a strategic ally in the Levant, while Turkey has used relations with Damascus as a wedge into the Arab world. Even so, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Assad last week that he needs to embrace democratic reform.

Erdogan was right. Foreign tolerance for Assad will mean nothing if a majority of Syrians unites against his leadership. The president might recall what his wife, Asma, said in a recent Vogue profile. She urged her countrymen to engage in “active citizenship,” as she put it. “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward. … We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.” It will indeed, but conceivably without the Assads.