Perestroika deemed too dangerous for under-threat Syrian regime

Shashank Joshi analyses of the current situation in Syria, the threats to its regime and the barriers to change.

Bashar al-Assad has had difficult moments in his eleven-year tenure. His early attempts at incremental liberalisation – the ‘Damascus Spring’ – were aborted after opposition from more authoritarian segments of the regime.

In 2005, the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri prompted the UN Security Council to condemn Syria and evict its troops from Lebanon after nearly thirty continuous years of occupation. Two years ago, Israel destroyed, with some impunity, an embryonic nuclear facility deep inside Syria.

But, weeks after protests looked to have been successfully contained, Assad now faces the severest challenge not just to his personal rule, but also to the regime itself. This is its most precarious moment since the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama.

Syria’s army’s, unlike that of Egypt, is dominated by an ethnic and patrimonial logic. As popular mobilisation continues apace, inflamed by a defiant speech by Assad and the death of over 200 protesters, the security forces will not blink – their survival hinges on that of the regime itself.

Protests now span every one of the regime’s power bases: Sunni-dominated Deraa in the south; Alawite-dominated Latakia in the north-west; coastal Baniyas; and Damascus itself. The choice they face is between repression and capitulation, because reforms that are deep enough to effect meaningful change would also eliminate many of the state’s economic and political privileges.

Perestroika is deemed to be too dangerous.

In Egypt, the army would not put down demonstrators; in Libya, it could not. But in Syria, it is both able and willing to do so. And if a civil war emerges – something that is still unlikely – it will unfold on terms even more asymmetric than those in Libya.

Syria also highlights the complex diplomatic web around Damascus. Egypt’s revolutionary president, Gamal Abdal Nasser, famously described Syria as “the beating heart of Arabism”. For years, Syria kept Nasserite radicalism alive in the Arab world – violently resisting the Israeli occupation of its own territory in the Golan Heights and fighting Israel, and others, inside Lebanon.

And yet, it is not just co-radical Iran which wishes to see the regime hold together. Turkey, an increasingly powerful regional actor under the Justice and Development Party, has gone from brinkmanship with Syria (during a 1998 border crisis) to cultivating extensive economic, diplomatic, and military ties. Saudi Arabia, which might be thought to oppose a Shia republic, is also ambivalent. Syria has mediated some Saudi-Iranian conflicts.

More importantly, King Abdullah is loath to see another established regime dissolve in the face of popular mobilisation. In a phone call, he encouraged Assad to ‘foil the plot’.

Nor are the US or Israel desperate to see the regime implode. Syria is a formally secular country, but the Assad regime has made increasing concessions to Islamist groups over the past five years to shore up support. During the Iraq war, Syria first stoked Islamism by encouraging fighters to join the Iraqi ‘resistance’, but later angered these same groups by stemming the flow.

While Mubarak’s Egypt co-opted Islamists and other opposition, Syria atomised and exiled them – both Israel and the US are therefore terrified of what may follow regime collapse. Neither has demanded that Assad leave.

Syria’s contribution to the Arab Spring is, therefore, unpredictable. Both the demand side (mass protest) and supply side (repression) of civil conflict are present, but the threat of fitna – discord – is invoked not just cynically, by Assad himself, but ordinary Syrians and outsiders. The gamble for the regime is that inflecting the uprising with a sectarian character, as in Bahrain, would reinforce these fears at the same time as alienating important constituencies for the regime.

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