Facing its gravest domestic crisis in decades, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad appears to have chosen force instead of reform to confront antiregime protests.
His forces clashed again with protesters Friday, reportedly killing at least a dozen people who participated in rallies in defiance of regime warnings and a heavy security presence.
In an uncompromising speech this week, Mr. Assad failed to deliver a widely expected package that would introduce change, perhaps even end nearly 40 years of draconian emergency laws, and bring some degree of political realignment to the country that his minority Alawite sect has ruled since the early 1970s.
The demonstrators, who have been inspired by the uprising throughout the Middle East, were dismayed and angered by the speech. And they have vowed to press on.
"No one is immune in the region," says Ayman Abdel-Nour, a prominent Syrian activist and former Assad adviser now living in exile in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "This is a new wave and a new atmosphere, and the young, the unemployed, the poor, the regular citizens have realized that they have rights."
The stakes in Syria are high. If Assad should fall, the ramifications will stretch from Iran to Saudi Arabia and possibly alter the balance of power in the Middle East. On one hand, Syria has deep connections with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas but is also seen by the United States and Israel as something of a stabilizing force in the region who has worked against Islamic extremists in HIS own country. Indeed, if Assad leaves, there will be a race to influence and guide whatever new leadership emerges.
"A new regime in Syria definitely will have an effect [on the region], but it depends on the nature of the new regime," says Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "Syria holds the cards of Iran, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, and whatever regime rules in Syria, it will not want to throw away those cards for nothing."
'God, Syria, and freedom'
Demonstrations were reported Friday in Deraa, the flashpoint town in southern Syria where the unrest began, in Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, and in Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates river in the east, where crowds chanted, "God, Syria, and freedom."
In the Kfar Susa suburb of Damascus, several hundred protestors locked themselves inside the Al-Rifai mosque when they were surrounded by plain-clothed security forces who were armed with clubs, electric batons, and pistols. The security forces reportedly beat anyone who attempted to leave the mosque.
Video footage posted on the Syria Revolution 2011 Facebook page showed a crowd inside the mosque chanting, “There is no God but God.”
With media access under tighter than usual control, it was impossible to confirm the scale of each protest. But initial reports suggest that crowds were in the hundreds or few thousands, perhaps an insufficient size to guarantee that the uprising will develop an unstoppable momentum.
“We need to adopt new tactics. Things are getting too predictable,” says one Syrian opposition activist.
Syria's surprising uprise
Developments in Syria have taken many by surprise, including Assad himself, who confidently declared in January that his nation was "immune" from the uprisings sweeping the Arab world that have toppled two regimes and threaten several more.
While authorities have a history of using repression to safeguard the regime, Assad has said that its stability rests on his anti-Israel stance and his refusal to yield to the dictates of the West. But opposition protests have shaken that confidence.
In his speech Wednesday, Assad blamed the unrest on "foreign conspiracies." He said "the final goal is to weaken Syria, fragment Syria, and remove the final obstacle in the face of the Israeli plan. This is what concerns us," he said. He became president in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.
Assad acknowledged that reforms have been slow in coming, but said delays were due to traumatic distractions over the past decade, including the 2000-05 Palestinian intifada, the 9/11 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war.
"We want to speed [reforms] up, but not be [too] hasty," he said. However, in keeping with past addresses at times of crisis, Assad gave away little in terms of what reforms the regime is considering or when they might be implemented.
Syrian officials had hinted that more would be offered in the rare public address. "It would have been better if he had said nothing than to raise everyone's hopes beforehand only to crush them again," says one Syrian activist who requested anonymity.
The opposition's next moves
The question now is what the opposition does next. Radwan Ziadeh, a Washington-based Syrian human rights activist, says that Assad "was very clear in saying that there is no neutrality – either you are with us or against the country.
"We ask the international community to act now and not to wait for more victims from the Syrian side," Ziadeh says.
So far, the demonstrations have been badly organized. But opposition activists say that a new young leadership is beginning to emerge and coordinate. Among the demands they have agreed must be fulfilled by the Syrian regime are a new democratic constitution, an end to the state of emergency, the release of all political prisoners, and a new political parties law.
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.
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.
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."