No easy path to democracy for Syria

Shashank Joshi analyses the Syrian protests and the power politics behind the regime.

President Assad

It was thought that Syria might be immune to the democratic winds of the Arab Spring. Bashar al-Assad is a youthful 45, in comparison to the aged figures of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Gaddafi. His tenure has been relatively short – ten years, versus Gaddafi’s 42. A recent ill-timed puff piece in Vogue magazine described Assad’s wife as on the way to turning Syria into “a beacon of culture and secularism”.

None of this has been enough to forestall protests from reaching even pro-regime towns. Dara’a in the south is a majority Sunni tribal region that has produced various military elites and even the vice president. Latakia in the north is dominated by the minority Alawi sect. Both have seen unrest, with 55 people killed in the latter town alone.

Alawites make up about a tenth of Syria’s 23m people. They were built up by the French colonial powers as a counterweight to a nationalist movement. Sunnis comprise roughly two-thirds of Syrians.

Put simply, Syria is ruled by Alawites in concert with an elite Sunni business class. Were the latter to swing away from the regime, it would signal the end for Assad. But there is no sign of this yet.

Thus far, this is hardly Tahrir Square. Protests have been limited in size; been met with brutal but effective force; and have yet to spread to Damascus in strength. Leading imams have backed the regime and Assad’s radical and anti-Israeli foreign policy enjoys popular support. In Egypt, by contrast, protests were overwhelming in size; convulsed the heart of the regime in Cairo; and were directed against a government that had pursued a pro-US policy for over three decades.

It is also important to understand that security forces are the pivot of a revolution. But Egypt’s army swung against the regime partly because junior officers would not fire on protesters for fear of tarnishing the institution’s nationalist credentials. Evicting Mubarak was the generals’ optimal strategy for preserving the unity and prestige of the armed forces.

In Syria, though, Alawite officers dominate the army. Their privileges are therefore bound up more closely with regime survival. In 1982, the Syrian army perpetrated the Hama massacre on the orders of Assad’s father Hafez, killing up to 30,000 to quell a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion. Egypt’s army had never used this kind of force against its own people.

In short, the Tiananmen model is more feasible and attractive to the regime and military than it was in Cairo. Repression trumps reforms. Though the Syrian government hyped Assad’s speech scheduled for today, it turned out that the address entailed a rant about the dangers of satellite television and a promise to prevail against “a big plot from outside”. And if protests escalate, the regime will prefer civil war to compromise.

In part, this defiance stems from an internal power struggle.

Assad is a weak leader, who succeeded his father only because there were no other candidates. Two of his uncles, Rif’at and Jamil, have persistently criticised his rule. When Assad tried to initiate political and cultural reforms in 2000, the reactionary camp forced him to reverse the changes a year later. With Alawite officers waiting in the wings, and his own powerbase narrow and fragile, Assad would struggle to make concessions even if he were so inclined.

But even if they fail to overhaul the Baath-dominated politics of Syria, these protests are significant.

First, they underscore that no regime is immune to unrest. Assad’s popularity is certain to fall after his disappointing and belligerent speech on Wednesday, and he may yet be sidelined further as a consequence.

Second, domestic and regional sectarian divisions are likely to widen. Sunni-ruled states fear a Shia revival, which began with Iraq’s transformation in 2003, continued with Syria’s eviction from Lebanon in 2005, and was stoked further by Shia protests in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. A sudden blow to Shia influence in Syria is unlikely, but could upset this balance further and induce a deterioration of Iran-Saudi relations.

A loss of Iranian influence in Palestine and Lebanon would be a largely positive change, but sectarian conflict within Syria would not. The spectre of Lebanon and Iraq, with their prolonged and bloody infighting, looms over what is still Assad’s Syria.

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