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Syrian protesters face more violence in campaign against Assad

At least 12 protesters were reportedly killed today in demonstrations across Syria, where greater instability could alter the balance of power in the Middle East.

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A crucial factor in Assad's favor is that, unlike Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, he still retains some support in the West and the Arab world. Despite his militant connections, Assad is regarded as a stabilizing factor given the potential alternative leadership in Syria. In particular, there is a concern among many Syrians that without Assad, Syria could plunge into the same kind of sectarian turmoil that engulfed Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion.

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What's more, Syria's Alawite (an offshoot of Shiite Islam) community, which represents only a small minority of the largely Sunni population, is well placed within the military and security establishment to protect its place at the top of Syria's power structure.

Syria does, however, appear to have all the ingredients for revolution: a frail economy, rampant corruption, a growing population, and rising unemployment. While revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt were driven by democratic reforms, they were also spurred by a simple desire for jobs.

Far-reaching ramifications

If Syria does fall into greater turmoil, analysts say that regional actors – chiefly Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, but also the US and possibly even Israel – will try to influence an outcome.

Iran will attempt to shape a state hostile to Israel and the West and willing to maintain its existing strategic relationship with Iran.

Syria plays a key role in the so-called Jabhat al-Muqawama, or resistance front comprised of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, which is loosely organized to confront Israel and US policy in the Middle East. Syria is the linchpin that connects Hezbollah and Iran, serving as a conduit for the transfer of weapons into Lebanon. Saudi Arabia will want Syria to abandon its ties to Iran, limit Tehran's influence in Lebanon, and return fully to the Arab fold.

The US will aspire for a democratic secular Syria open to the West and peace with Israel, while Israel's primary concern is to prevent the country from falling into the hands of Islamist Sunnis, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

It has long been a paradox of the Arab-Israeli conflict that Syria is one of the most ardent opponents of the Jewish state, yet its joint frontier, which includes the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has barely seen a shot fired in anger since the October 1973 war.

Successive Israeli governments rail against Syria's alliance with Iran and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, yet they also tacitly acknowledge that the tough secular regime in Damascus is preferable to potential alternatives.

An undeterred rebellion could throw all of this into question if protests gain momentum and withstand the power of the regime. Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer in Damascus, says the opposition is now just really starting. "We have returned to the point zero."


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