Syria is facing growing protests as part of a broader Arab demand for democracy. The Syrians have now been demanding a change of regime that has ruled their country for more than 40 years. Uniquely, Syria has been under the emergency rule since 1963. But its revocation on April 21 to appease the protesters has hardly been a success. Its evidence was visible on Friday last when huge demonstration was organized opposing the establishment in the vicinity of Damascus.
Bashar al- Assad who succeeded Hafez al-Assad in June 2000, has been ruling Syria craftily taking a cue from his deceased father. He has been tactful in following his father’s footsteps not to make concessions under pressure. However, in introducing some big reforms like lifting of emergency, abolishing the state security court and bringing in a law allowing peaceful protests the Syrian president is also showing his willingness for change.
Whether such display of accommodation for meeting people’s demands will enable Bashar to weather the storm that has swept the Arab world is too early to predict. There is no dispute that he enjoys greater level of popular support than some of the Arab dictators who have been recently removed from power by people’s uprising. One of them Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been sent to jail on corruption charges. Bashar al-Assad has the advantage to choose either from his toppled Arab friends or the Libyan leader who is fighting a protracted war against NATO-led coalition in defiance of UN demands.
One of the distinct characteristics of Syria compared to other Arab government particularly Tunisia and Egypt is that there is no splintering between political and military leadership. Bashar’s own sect of Alawite (Shiite) Muslims, though in minority has a sway over the military and security forces, whose fate is closely intertwined with the survival of present Syrian regime. As the empirical evidence shows the military will have a decisive role when oppositional protests gather momentum but Syria has become an exception to this. The localized protests in Syria look much more disparate unlike to Tunisia and Egypt. This will make people’s demand of Bashar’s removal more difficult to realize.
Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in Council for Foreign Relations, observes that the Syrians have watched the implications of Iraq war and hence don’t want to risk the stability of their country the credit of which goes to the Assad regime. As a host to 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and being next door to Iraq, the Syrians have experienced the war much more directly than many other Middle Eastern countries.
The people of Syria despite their disdain for dictatorship do not want to see the repetition of Iraq, which is characterized by destabilization and chaos. There is increasing polarization in the country between those who are now in the streets demanding Bashar’s ouster and the silent majority which is more concerned about Syria’s stability.