Syria: Can Assad Defeat the Protesters?

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Syria: Can Assad Defeat the Protesters?

The Syrian regime has dramatically intensified its crackdown against the protesters in an effort to crush the opposition.

The country is now on the brink of all-out war.

Residents say thousands of heavily armed soldiers, backed by tanks, are swarming the streets of their cities and towns.

In Deraa on Sunday, witnesses said that security forces had opened fire in the city, shooting indiscriminately, even though no protests were being held at the time.

Already, more than 300 people have been killed in a crackdown across the country, human rights groups say. Hundreds more have been arrested.

But this is only a glimpse of the bloodshed we are likely to witness in Syria.

It was a tactic used by former President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current leader, Bashar al-Assad, against opposition forces led by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982.

Some 10,000 Syrians died as the town was virtually flattened by elite government troops.

It is well known that unlike in Tunisia or Egypt there is no daylight between the Assad regime and the Syrian army, particularly the presidential guard, a powerful elite force.

Despite tentative reports about emerging fissures within some army units, the majority of Syrian special forces come from the minority Alawite sect of President Assad and are the spearhead of his regime.

There are many reports of crackdowns around Syria, despite the lifting of an emergency law last week
They are in a fight for their own survival, as well as the survival of their community, not just the political leadership.

We will not see killings on the same scale as Hama, but it is clear that the regime is prepared to use massive force to crush the protesters.

The regime has other supporters – members of the Alawite and other minority groups, including Christians, Druze, and some Sunnis whom the regime has co-opted into the power structure over the years.

But the intensity and depth of the social uprising has exposed a major rift between state and society.

As more innocent blood is spilled, the divide deepens with devastating repercussions for social harmony and peace.

Even in Syria, which has one of the most repressive security apparatus in the Arab world, the fear factor has gone. Tens of thousands of Syrians have challenged the authority of the Syrian government.

‘New Arab citizen’
Contrary to President Assad’s assertions, this is not a foreign conspiracy.

It is an internal uprising that encompasses multiple segments of Syrian society – middle-class professionals, human rights activists, the disadvantaged poor who have been hurt by years of drought and unemployment, and members of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

They are disillusioned by the fact that, more than decade after he assumed power upon the death of his father, the younger President Assad has not carried out many promised reforms.

These include opening up the political system, relaxing the heavy hand of the Mukhabarat (security services) and ending the monopoly of the ruling Baath Party on political life.

Unlike his recent claims, Syria is not immune to the mutating democratic virus sweeping the Middle East.

The fact that it has reached Syria speaks volumes about the changing mood and psychology in the Arab world.
There is a new Arab citizen who feels empowered and emboldened – and determined to have a say in how their government is run.

‘Ethnic tolerance’
But we have not yet seen in Syria the massive crowds along the lines of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.

Many people worry about Syria being plunged into all-out sectarian war, like neighbouring Iraq.

They believe that President Assad could still rise up to the challenge and enact real change.

The protesters have worked hard to stress a non-sectarian, non-tribal, non-violent agenda.

Although it is too early to know the exact composition of the protesters, a new Syrian identity appears to be emerging, anchored in inclusiveness and ethnic tolerance.

On Tuesday, more than 100 Syrian intellectuals who live abroad signed a petition condemning the killings and the brutal measures. The intellectuals include Sunnis, Alawites, Sunnis, and Kurds.

This is a testament to the maturity of Syrian society, despite decades of repression.

The response of the international community is important to impress upon the regime a sense of urgency to engage with the opposition and the necessity to resist the use of force against unarmed protesters.

The Obama administration has begun drawing up targeted financial sanctions against President Assad and senior members of his inner circle.

Although the Western response is crucial, Syrians themselves will determine what happens in Syria in the next few weeks and months.

‘Balance of power’

This is an internal crisis that pits the regime against critical social forces. A fierce battle of wills will determine the outcome of this structural crisis.

For now, the umbilical cord between the security apparatus and the political leadership has not been cut.
This is likely to allow President Assad to weather the storm in the short-term. But in the medium and long term, the uprising could take on a life of its own.

The more the killings and bloodshed, the more it will fuel further protests.

As more Alawites and other fence-sitters step forward to join the protesters, the security forces will think twice about firing on unarmed civilians.

This is what tipped the balance of power in Yemen, where senior army officers defected to the side of the people as the protest movement grew.

When President Ali Abdullah Saleh realised that he could no longer rely on the army, it spelled the beginning of the end.

The Syrian crisis will simmer, it will go several rounds.

Regardless of whether the regime survives or not – and it is most likely to survive – President Assad will emerge deeply injured and weakened.

For now, though, the odds are against the protesters.

Fawaz Gerges is a fellow at ISPU and a Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

This article was published by the BBC on April 26, 2011:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13193210