Syria experienced its first day of political calm in over two weeks on April 3. The Sunami of protest and youth awakening that swept over Syria as part of the earthquake that hit the Arab World over two months ago has profoundly shaken Syrians. So accustomed to being the “island of stability” in the Middle East, Syrians are now wondering how long the Assad regime can last.
The Baathist regime has presided over Syria for 48 years; Bashar al-Assad has been president for eleven since inheriting power from his father. Both remain in firm control, although badly bruised and shaken. Western accounts of the protest movement in Syria have been exaggerated. At no time was the regime in peril. No officials resigned or left the country as happened in Libya. The Syrian army remained loyal to the president, unlike the armies of Egypt and Tunisia. And the protest movement that grew large in the Syrian countryside failed to take root in the cities. The number of demonstrators that turned out in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama, three of Syria’s four largest cities- counted in the hundreds and not the thousands.
Damascus was the only one of these three cities to have demonstrations. There were four in all. The two most significant occurred early in the process on March 16 and 17. Dozens of young demonstrators marched through the al-Hamidiyeh and Hariqa souqs on March 16 shouting, “God, Syria, Freedom – is enough,” a chant that became the standard slogan of the movement that spread to other parts of Syria in the following two weeks. The day after, scores of human rights activists and the relatives of political prisoners demonstrated in front of the Interior Ministry. After Deraa flared up, the citizens of Damascus fell quite rather than getting on the bandwagon.
Aleppo, a hotbed of Muslim Brother support in the 1970s, was completely unaffected by the anti-government movement. Instead, Aleppines turned out in sizable numbers to support the government.
Hama was also unaffected. It was the city that the Muslim Brotherhood was able to take over in 1982 before having its old districts destroyed brutally by the regime. A friend from Hama, who was asked, “Why isn’t Hama rising against the regime and taking revenge?” answered, “Syrians demonstrate for their own reasons. Don’t ever think anyone in Daraa will shed a tear for Hama or the other way around.” He said there is no great Syrian revolution – just locals having internal issues.”
In Homs, by contrast, a sizable protest took place near the old city on Friday. Demonstrators chanted “Allahu Akbar” and called for “Freedom”. It was localized; violence flared up at the end. There were wounded on both sides, including security forces. The protest in Homs indicates that the cities are not immune to the movement. The hallmark of the successful Middle Eastern revolution has been the ability of the protesters to overwhelm security forces in the capital city. Damascus dispatched over a million of its inhabitants to a pro-Assad rally, leading many to conclude that the broad public remains on Bashar’s side.
All the same, many suspect that the protest movement, even if contained and sporadic, may become a nagging problem for the regime. Business will be reluctant to invest. The five year economic plan that was rolled out last year already looks wildly unrealistic. Its centerpiece is the gamble that Syria can attract 10 billion dollars of foreign investment a year. This year foreign investment will probably be less than 2 billion dollars. Economic failure will compound the regime’s problems. Opposition members insist that the barrier of fear in Syria has been punctured and that the long contained waters of liberty will eventually sweep it away. Others argue that the government will hit hard at the opposition to rebuild the wall of fear, making the protest movement a short lived phenomenon.
Deraa has been the site of the greatest demonstrations and the most violence. Tens of thousands took to the streets; some one hundred persons were killed in there and in the neighboring towns; many more were wounded. The protests were sparked for a very local reason. Fifteen high school kids were arrested for scrawling anti-government graffiti on the walls. But the long-term causes were not entirely local. The slogans chosen by the schoolkids mimicked those used by protesters in Egypt and their call for freedom. A six-year drought has also hit the entire East of Syria hard, devastating agriculture a ruining the wheat crop along with incomes just at the time that the youth bubble generated by decades of an elevated birthrates have brought frustrated and unemployed young onto the streets of Syria’s provincial cities. What is more, Deraa is a tribal region, which some blamed for the severity of the demonstrations. Tribal tradition requires local leaders to protest the incarceration of their children and for the members of the tribes to come out in force. Even today, the tribes can provide a vehicle of resistance to the central state. Arab and Kurdish tribes were some of the last social units in Syria to buckled in the face of central authority and national identity.
Latakia on the coast also saw several days of demonstrations and violence. This was surprising because it is the capital of the Coastal region dominated by Alawites. Twelve were killed. A number were also killed in Duma, a town outside of Damascus. Demonstrations broke out in many provincial cities indicating that opposition demands for curtailing corruption, lifting the emergency law, and greater freedoms and speedy reform have widespread resonance across the country.
What Has Changed?
Even if the government in Damascus remains powerful for the time being and Syrians cling to the stability it promises, there can be little doubt that we are witnessing a profound break from the past. The Arab Street has finally come into its own. Rulers will have to think twice before treating their people like sheep. Economic failure will be punished. The video phone has become the Arab equivalent of the six-shooter in the American West. It is the new “equalizer.” It offers a modicum of equity and justice to the ordinary man who can now hold his phone aloft to capture police brutality and send it to Youtube. Technology has been transformative. The recent unrest could not have been sustained without it.
The Syrian community abroad has been irrevocably reunited with Syrians inside the country. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this change. The young of Syria can no longer be isolated from foreign movements and intellectual trends. Those who go abroad used to become dissociated from Syria. Calling home was prohibitively expensive and returning made difficult by mandatory military service. Technology has attached the two communities. Skype, Facebook, and email have been all important to this revolution. In the past, the brain drain siphoned off Syria’s best and brightest; opposition leaders were sent into exile. Now they are leading the the charge against the regime, pumping sedition into every Syrian household with Youtube and Twitter updates.
A number of Arab states, in particular Tunisia and Egypt, have earned the right to be called nations. Their people have stood up as one to demand sovereignty. Although emergency rule has yet to be lifted in Egypt and a stable government has yet to take shape in Tunisia, there is good reason to believe they will. For other Arabs, particularly those of the Levant it is too early to make such bold statements about national integrity. The leading reason Syrians did not take to the streets in larger numbers is fear of communal strife and possible civil war. They do not dislike their government enough to risk going the way of Iraq. Among large segments of Syrian society, Bashar al-Assad remains popular. As a multi-ethnic and religious society, Syria could come unglued.
But in a four or five years, the next generation of Syrian youth will not remember the turmoil in either Lebanon or Iraq. Palestine will be a cause remembered only by grandfathers. Instead of defeat and hopelessness, invoked by Iraq and Palestine, young Arabs may well have the examples of Egypt and Tunisia. They may well be on the road to becoming the Arab World’s first democracies.
This begs the question of how long the Assad regime can last. Syria’s youth are no longer apathetic. They have tasted revolution and their own power. Many commentators have remarked on Bashar al-Assad’s stubbornness. He may be a “modernizer,” but not a “reformer,” is how Volker Pertes recently explained it. This is a polite way to say that he is not preparing the way for a handover of power from Alawites to Sunnis. Assad’s refusal to prepare the present regime for a soft landing spells bad news for Syria. The day that regime-change will come to Syria seems closer today than it did only a short time ago.