Syrian opposition activists hope that the shockwave of Egypt and Tunisia's mass uprisings, which have shaken the Arab world, will begin to reverberate in Syria, with calls for a “day of rage” Friday throughout the country.
But analysts believe opponents of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad face a daunting struggle in replicating the street revolutions that so far have toppled one head of state in Tunisia and left another teetering on the edge in Egypt.
“We have been surprised before in this crisis, but my sense is that it’s unlikely we will see large, large, large groups of people coming together because the security services will be intimidating people, arresting people, keeping a very tight lid,” says Nadim Houry, Lebanon representative of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based watchdog.
The seismic upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt have triggered unrest elsewhere in the Arab world, particularly in Yemen and Jordan. Syria, ruled by the Baath Party since 1963 and the Assad family since 1970, also seems at first glance potentially vulnerable. It shares some passing similarities with Tunisia and Egypt, particularly economic hardship – rising prices, unemployment, poverty, and the cancellation of subsidies on basic commodities.
Yet there are also critical differences, which may lessen chances of a Tunisia-style revolution taking hold. Perhaps chief among them are the sectarian divisions within Syria. Such divisions, if unleashed by protests, could cause bloodshed and chaos similar to the experiences of Lebanon and Iraq in recent years.
“The cautionary tales of its neighbors to the east and west – Iraq and Lebanon – have only reinforced Syrian anxieties about the dangers of weakening the central government in a country with a mixed sectarian and ethnic population,” says Elias Muhanna, author of the influential Qifa Nabki blog.
Syria’s population is predominantly Sunni, but the backbone of the regime is drawn from the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of the Shiite sect. The marginalized Kurdish population is also a potent factor in the country’s sectarian and ethnic composition.
Intimidation, repression discourages opposition
Syrian activists have used Facebook and Twitter to spread the word in the past week, calling for protests and demonstrations on Friday and Saturday. Although Facebook has been blocked in Syria since November 2007, many Syrians use proxy servers to sidestep the ban. President Assad himself has a Facebook page.
“The storm against tyranny and monopoly must come to Syria,” says a statement released by the Popular Movement for Change in Syria. “Don’t be afraid and know the government does not have a choice but to listen to your voice when millions will demonstrate in the streets.”
The prediction of “millions” taking to the streets in the next two days seems overly optimistic judging from the small number of protestors who held a recent series of gatherings in Damascus in support of the Egyptian uprising.
Some 200 people turned up for a candlelit vigil outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus on Sunday. According to Mr. Houry of Human Rights Watch, Syrian security officers also were present, taking photographs of the demonstrators and demanding to see the identification cards of some attendants. That security presence appears to have had a chilling effect on the demonstrators, as fewer numbers attended subsequent gatherings.
On Wednesday, the police stayed away, but some 20 men turned up to harass the protestors, questioning their motives, and accusing them of serving outside powers, says Houry, who is in regular contact with the activists. Another gathering was scheduled for Thursday afternoon to protest against Syria’s two cellular phone services, Syriatel and MTN Syria, which are regularly criticized for their high tariffs, the second highest in the Arab world. Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, is the majority shareholder of Syriatel, Syria’s largest private corporation, which fuels accusations of cronyism.
Anti-regime demonstrations in Syria are rare due to rigid state control and a fractured opposition. The strongest opposition to the the 48-year-rule of the Baath Party in Syria have been from the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian Kurds who live mainly in the northeast adjacent to Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq.
A rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s was ruthlessly crushed in 1982. The organization remains banned in Syria and its leaders live in exile. The Kurds have demonstrated for greater rights on several occasions. The most recent uprising, in 2004, was heavily suppressed and followed by a campaign of arrest and imprisonment of Kurdish activists.
“Authorities continued to broadly violate the civil and political rights of its citizens, arresting political and human rights activists, censoring websites, detaining bloggers, and imposing travel bans,” said a report on Syria’s human rights policy in 2010 released by Human Rights Watch last week.
Why change is slow to come
When Assad succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000, many Syrians expected a process of political liberalization to follow. But changes have been slow, with the focus on gradual economic reforms rather than political freedoms.
The traumatic and bloody developments in the region over the past decade also have done little to hasten a speedier transition. Syria’s backing of anti-Israel resistance movements, such as Lebanon’s militant Shiite group Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, as well as its long-standing strategic relationship with Iran, placed it at odds with the US. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the mass demonstrations in Beirut two years later, which led to Syria pulling its troops from Lebanon, further isolated Damascus and placed it on the defensive.
Still, unlike the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, no one can accuse Assad of being a lackey of the West, which gives him a degree of credibility in the eyes of many Syrians and Arabs of other countries. Furthermore, his relative youth (he is 45 years old) stands in marked contrast to many of the ossified kings and presidents elsewhere in the Arab world.
“By successfully supporting Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements and by opening Syria’s borders to over a million Iraqi refugees, Assad helped boost Syria’s sense of national pride,” says Camille Alexandre Otrakji, a Syrian blogger and author of www.creativesyria.com, a web forum for Syrian culture and politics. “Mubarak, the president of the largest Arab country, humiliated his proud people by consistently appearing to be nothing more than an American and Israeli puppet.”
Still, Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that support for anti-Israel groups and standing up to the US, “doesn’t work well where the regime is weakest: skyrocketing corruption and lack of reforms.”