Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must wince whenever he recalls saying in a January interview that unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Syria was stable because the leadership is “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.
“This is the core issue,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.”
Now Syria is in the throes of escalating protests and an intensifying government crackdown that has left more than 400 people dead, including 15 today in the southern flashpoint town of Deraa. The protest movement has issued a stark ultimatum to the president: Transition to democracy, or be toppled.
Why Syria's uprising is even more surprising than Egypt's
It’s not just Syria, of course. The stunning events in the Arab world over the past four months represent the greatest regional upheaval since the modern Arab states were established by European colonial powers more than 70 years ago.
But the outbreak of Syrian protests in mid-March was even more surprising than the events in Egypt in some ways. While former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was widely seen as on his way out, President Assad was young, married to a modern wife recently profiled in Vogue, and was regarded by many inside and outside Syria as a potential reformer.
Yes, Syria shared some of the same ailments as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, such as an ossified state structure, poor economy, endemic corruption, lack of freedoms, and swelling population. But most analysts and diplomats shared Assad’s confidence that Syria was somehow immune to the protest movements sweeping the Arab world.
Concern, but little sympathy for Syrian regime
The Assad dynasty, after all, had managed to survive 40 years in the turbulent Middle East using a combination of repression, guile, strategic foresight, and luck. Its neighbors – Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, all have been at odds with Syria at some point in the past four decades, complaining that Syria was meddling in their affairs, dispatching insurgents and militants into their territories, and providing support for their enemies.
Now some of Syria’s neighbors are quietly gloating at the Assad regime’s discomfort, while others are worried that the instability will spill across their shared borders. But both Syria’s foes and friends recognize the country’s central role in the chaotic dynamics of the region – and its Machiavellian ability to act as a spoiler when marginalized or threatened.
Domestically, the Syrian population either was cowed by the state’s omnipresent and ruthless security apparatus or quietly accepted that the lack of freedoms was a price worth paying to ensure internal stability. The ruling Baath Party’s Arab nationalist ideology papered over the sectarian and ethnic cracks that define Syria, which is ruled by the minority Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East and optimizes the deep complexity of the region’s schizophrenic social geography,” says Joshua Landis, who heads the Middle East Center at the University of Oklahoma. “On the one hand, it has always made a claim to be the beating heart of Arabism, calling for unity and secularism, and on the other, it is a deeply fragmented nation with a regime dominated by a religious minority.”
Assad senior: ruthless, but pragmatic
After Syria gained independence from France in 1946, Syria was plagued by successive coups – there were three in 1949 alone. In March 1963, the Baath Party launched its own coup. Seven years later, Hafez al-Assad seized power, ending several years of internal bickering within the party.
Under Assad’s leadership, Syria achieved stability for the first time in more than 20 years, but it came at the cost of personal freedoms. Assad was determined to preserve his regime against all threats and was not afraid to use maximum force to achieve that goal. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Assad regime faced its greatest domestic threat from a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brothers assassinated dozens of leading regime figures and even Assad narrowly escaped being killed in a grenade attack.
In February 1982, Assad deployed a crack Army brigade against the Brotherhood in the city of Hama. The operation razed part of the city to the ground and is thought to have killed at least 20,000 people. The Brotherhood never recovered, and is still banned in Syria, with its leadership in exile. Even today, the memory of the Hama massacre haunts Syrians and it was often cited as a reason why a mass popular uprising was unlikely to take root.
Assad was ruthless, but he also was a pragmatist. He forged an unlikely alliance with Iran in 1980, tying together the secular Baathists of Syria with the newly established Islamic Republic in what has proved to be a surprisingly durable relationship, lasting three decades. When Israel’s invasion of neighboring Lebanon in 1982 threatened to weaken Syria’s position with its tiny neighbor, Assad fought back, working with his Iranian allies to help create Hezbollah as a Shiite resistance against the Israeli occupiers and tacitly backing the suicide bombing campaign that forced Washington to abandon Lebanon in 1984.
Bashar Assad more rigid, focused on foreign crises
Since inheriting the presidency when his father died in 2000, Bashar al-Assad has also faced a raft of foreign crises. They included the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the 2003 Iraq invasion, and Syria’s forced departure from Lebanon two years later amid suspicion that it had been behind the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri. In 2005, Syria had almost no friends in the region, apart from Iran, and was isolated internationally.
Assad appears to lack the pragmatism of his father, relying instead on a dogged inflexibility – refusing to buckle to the West’s dictates, instead biding his time until more favorable circumstances emerged. It seemed to have worked in foreign policy. Damascus managed to reestablish much of its lost influence in Lebanon and once again became an essential address for foreign diplomats visiting the Middle East.
Yet, analysts say, prevailing over foreign challenges perhaps led the younger Assad to overestimate his regime’s strength. Mr. Seale, the Assad biographer, says that both Assads possessed a hint of “self-congratulation ... at having survived all those crises.”
“You have to put yourself slightly into their shoes,” he says. “They have been on their guard, fighting back, trying to form defensible alliances for the last several
decades and facing sanctions, isolation.”
That concentration of effort on foreign crises meant neglecting the domestic front, a fact that Assad must rue now that he is forced to fight for his regime’s survival.
While it is too soon to tell whether the regime can survive this unprecedented challenge, the Syria that emerges from this crisis will not be the same Syria as four months ago when Assad confidently spoke of its immunity from upheaval.