Can the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad withstand the wave of popular protest which has this year overthrown the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt and is threatening others -- notably in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain? Even in usually tranquil and well-ordered Oman, the Sultan has had to yield some of his powers.
Will Syria be next? Is there any reason why it should escape? In this infectious moment of “Arab awakening,” are not Syrians making much the same demands as those voiced by others?
The demands now stirring the blood of young people across the Middle East fall into three broad categories, of which the first two may be described as political and economic. Political demands are for freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, freedom to form political parties, freedom to choose one’s own representatives in free elections, and freedom from police brutality, torture and arbitrary arrest. The release of political prisoners and an independent judiciary are also important political demands.
Economic demands are for jobs, for food and housing at affordable prices, for fair opportunities for advancement, and a better future for oneself and one’s children. In most of the countries where protests have broken out, there is also a fervent wish for the punishment of a handful of powerful men close to the center of power whose greed and corruption have become notorious.
The protesters, however, have a third demand, which is perhaps of equal importance to the other two. It is for dignity. Ordinary citizens want to be treated with respect by the authorities, and not be insulted, mocked, beaten, or even simply neglected.
Predictions are always dangerous, especially in a fast moving situation, but one can say with some confidence that if the Syrian regime were to make a serious and honest effort to meet the demands of its people, it would stand a good chance of survival. If it does not, it is likely to face continued rebellion. The new factor is that young people seem ready to risk their lives. Killing protesters with live fire may perhaps earn the regime a brief respite, but it destroys its legitimacy. As President Asad himself said in his speech on 30 March, “Without reform we are on the path of destruction.”
This remark by the President should be taken seriously. It suggests that he knows that change must come. Why then has he not announced radical reforms and taken urgent steps to implement them? This is the real puzzle about the Syrian situation.
There are several possible explanations. One is that President Bashar -- much like his father, the late Hafiz al-Asad who ruled for thirty years -- hates being put under pressure. He wants to act in his own way, and in his own time, in the belief that he is the best person to prepare Syria for a place in the global economy. Hence the financial, economic, educational and technological changes he has introduced in the past decade. His overriding strategy would seem to be to advance gradually so as to ensure stability -- his overriding priority. As Volker Perthes, Germany’s leading expert on Syria, wrote in an article in the International Herald Tribune on 31 March, “Asad... is not a reformer. He can best be described as a modernizer.”
Asad’s gradualist approach may have worked in the past, but it is clearly no longer appropriate. Revolution is at the door. The time has come for the President to act boldly and with all possible speed. But can he do so, even if he wanted to? There are evidently powerful forces in Syria which do not want change. Everywhere in the world there are people who reject change if it risks threatening their interests. Syria is no different.
Who then are the defenders of the regime? First and foremost, are the powerful Alawi-led army and security services. They would almost certainly fight to maintain the regime in power. Supporters are also to be found among the leading Sunni merchants of Damascus, who have long been allied to the regime.
A still wider group consists of the several thousand members of the new affluent bourgeoisie, which has benefited in recent years from the opportunities created by the inflow of foreign investment, by the opening of private banks and insurance companies, and by the general switch from a state controlled to a market economy.
To these different groups should be added those Syrians of all classes who, having observed the slaughter and destruction across the borders in Lebanon and Iraq, prefer to opt for stability and security, even at the cost of harsh repression and a lack of political freedoms.
These then are the defenders of the regime. Who are its opponents? In this category one can put the young working-class poor who protest in the street because they see no possibility of a better life. To them should be added a rebellious core made up of the new middle-class poor -- that is to say educated or semi-educated young people who, on graduation, find that there are no jobs for them. Undoubtedly, youth unemployment is one of the motors of revolution in Syria, as it has been in other Arab countries.
Intellectuals of all sorts make up another hostile group. They yearn for freedom -- to speak, write, publish, meet freely and debate every aspect of their society. They are perhaps the most frustrated of all Syrians. Many of them have chosen exile, where they form a vocal opposition. Yet another group of disgruntled opponents is made up of small businessmen whose ability to make money has been blocked by the corrupt and greedy men at the top.
And then there are the Islamists. After he crushed the uprising of the Muslim Brothers in the 1980s, the late President Hafiz al-Asad sought to defuse some of the bitter hatred this punitive action had caused by making overtures to moderate Islam. He encouraged large-scale mosque building and gave particular consideration to the leaders of ‘official’ Islam. These efforts had some initial success, but they now seem to have turned against the regime. There would appear to be something like a sullen movement of Muslim opposition across Syrian society.
This then is the line-up in Syria. From a distance, it is hard to say which of the two sides has the upper hand. By acting with imagination and resolve, President Bashar has a chance to earn himself some more years in power. But if he drags his feet, he risks an uncontrollable explosion. Syria’s enemies, both at home and abroad, are eager for the kill.
The President’s window of opportunity is narrow and shrinking daily.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).
Copyright © 2011 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global