The regime has been rocked by protests and is offering to make changes even as it clings to power. But divisions of sect and social class mean that its fate may rest with the choices of the Sunni social elite.
The Ba’athist regime that has ruled Syria for 48 years is on the ropes. Even President Bashar al-Assad himself seems to have been shocked by the level of violence used by Syria’s security forces to suppress demonstrations that began a week ago, and on Thursday afternoon his office announced unprecedented concessions to popular demands. But the question of whether those concessions assuage protestors, or prove to be too little too late may be answered on the streets after Friday prayers.
The protests began a week ago in the dusty agricultural town of Dera’a, near the border with Jordan, over the arrest of high-school students for scrawling anti-government graffiti. Those demonstrations quickly spun out of control, with thousands joining in, inspired by the wave of revolutions that have rocked the Arab world, to demand political freedoms and an end to emergency rule and corruption. The government responded brutally, killing over 30 demonstrators and wounding many more, according to activists. Gruesome videos of the crackdown, disseminated via the internet in recent days, has enraged Syrians from one end of the country to the other.
On Thursday, the regime began to try a different tack, with Assad’s spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban offering his condolences to the people of Dara’a and acknowledging their “legitimate” demands, even as she insisted that reports of the scale of protests and the number of casualties had been exaggerated. Oddly, the President has himself not appeared on TV since Syria’s political troubles began, apparently hoping to protect himself from criticism. But Shaaban insisted that Assad was completely against the use of live fire in suppressing the demonstrations. She emphasized that she had been present in the room when the President ordered the security agencies to refrain from shooting at protesters [EM] “not one bullet.”
But the only promised concessions that can be taken to the bank are pay raises for state employees’ of up to 30%, and the release of all activists arrested in the past weeks. Other reforms, which the regime undertook to study, are job creation, press freedoms, permitting the formation of opposition parties, and lifting emergency law. Should they be implemented, those changes would be nothing short of revolutionary. But many activists have already dismissed Assad’s offer as a stalling tactic to make it through the next few days of funerals and most importantly, Friday prayers. The opposition has called for Syrians to assemble in large numbers in mosques, for a day of “dignity” and demonstrations.
In order to mount a serious challenge to the regime’s iron grip on power, opposition activists will have to move their protest actions beyond Dera’a and its surrounding villages, and extend it to the major cities. Their attempt to do so presents the country with a choice of great consequence: They must decide if Syria is more like Egypt and Tunisia, where the people achieved sufficient unity to peacefully oust their rulers, or whether Syria is more like Iraq and Lebanon, which slipped into civil war and endless factionalism.
Like its neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, Syria is a multi-religious and ethnically diverse society. President Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shi’ism whose adherents comprise just 12% of Syria’s population. The Dara’a protests prompted Alawites in the coastal city of Latakia to gather in large numbers in a central square, Dawwar az-ziraa, to show support for their embattled president. Many have changed their Facebook profile images to a picture of Bashar. Syrian Christians and other religious minorities that together make up a further 13% of the Syrian population have also shown broad support for Assad, who has defended secularism. Many have worked themselves into a panic about the possibility that political upheaval will empower Islamists, as happened in Iraq. Almost a million Iraqi refugees live in Syria, their presence a cautionary tale of regime-change gone wrong.
Key to a successful revolution is splitting Syria’s elite, which comprises the Alawite officer class of the security forces, and the great Sunni merchant and industrial families, who preside over the economy as well as Syria’s moral and cultural universe. If those elites stick together, it is difficult to envisage widespread but scattered popular revolts overturning the regime. But an Alawite-Sunni split within the elite would doom the regime. The cohesion of those elites, though, is a question of social class as much as of confession.
The centrality of Dera’a in the uprising may have limited its appeal to the urban elites. The dusty border city marked by tribal loyalties, poverty, and Islamic conservatism may inspire Syria’s rural masses who suffer from poverty, a prolonged drought, and joblessness, but mass demonstrations there frightened Syria’s urban elite. Even those that share an anger at repression and a hope for liberation with their rural counterparts still fear the poor and the threat of disorder.
The urban elites, in fact, see the regime itself as a dictatorship of country folk. The Ba’ath Party that took power in 1963 was dominated by young military officers and rural elements that had little more than high-school educations and a mishmash of socialism and Arabism to guide them. Their meager education combined with resentment at the wealth and privilege of Syria’s urban elites provided a lethal brew, prompting nationalization of land and businesses.
Having been brought up in privilege in Damascus, the President has more in common with the capital’s elite than he does with the Alawites of the coastal mountains who brought his father to power. When Bashar al-Assad took over after his father’s death in 2000, he began liberalizing the economy and society. High culture has boomed. Foreign imports, tourism and the arts are being revived. Today, Syria is a wonderful place to be wealthy; life is fun and vibrant for the well-heeled.
For the impoverished majority, however, the picture is grim. One third of the population lives on two dollars a day or less. Unemployment is rampant, and four years of drought has reduced Syria’s eastern countryside to a wasteland of dusty and destitute towns and cities like Dera’a. The last thing wealthy Aleppines, Homsis and Damascenes want is a revolution that brings to power a new political class based in the rural poor, or for the country to slip into chaos and possible civil war.
The Arab rebellion is “sorting out” the countries of the Middle East, distinguishing those that have become true nations, with a cohesive political community, and an ability to leave behind the post-colonial era of dictatorship and repression, from those doomed to struggle by divisions of ethnicity, sect and tribe. Lebanon and Iraq have both stumbled. Libya is crashing before our eyes, and Yemen may also follow in a downward spiral.
In all likelihood, there is no soft landing for the Syrian regime, whether it comes sooner or later. Fearful of being pushed from power and persecuted, Alawite military leaders are likely to stick by the president. What remains to be seen is whether the Sunni elite, which has stood by the Assad family for over four decades in the name of security and stability, will continue to do so [EM] or whether President Assad is willing to risk making profound and risky changes.