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Assad State of Affairs

Will Syria’s dictator be the next to fall?

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By LEE SMITH
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Bashar al-Assad

Reuters / Newscom

It’s Friday again, and across the Middle East people are waiting to see if and where the next uprising gathers steam. In retrospect, perhaps this period, starting with Mohamed Boazizi’s self-immolation in a small Tunisian city, will be seen as the season that Arabs poured out of their mosques after Friday prayers to take to the streets and wrest their destiny from their ruling regimes. In the midst of this season of Fridays, we’ll soon have a sense of what’s going to happen in Syria.

Protesters are now out in most of the country’s major cities—from Deraa, where the protests kicked off, to the capital Damascus, as well as Sunni strongholds in Homs and Hama. Perhaps worst of all for the regime is that the Kurds have now entered the fray as well, going to the streets in Qamishli in Idlib. The security services are out in force, but the fact is that the Alawite minority that runs Syria’s repressive state apparatus is simply incapable of policing so large a country, if the more than 75 percent of Syria comprising the Sunnis and Kurds has in fact turned on Assad as it now seems.

The Lebanese have been quiet these last few weeks regarding the bloody protests unfolding next door. There’s no reason to attract the attention of a wounded mastiff like the regime in Damascus. Even so, the Syrians are believed to be responsible for minor acts of discord here​—​the bombing of a church in Zahle, the kidnapping of seven Estonian tourists from the Bekaa Valley whose freedom, when secured, will no doubt be thanks to the gratuity-induced exertions of the Damascus government, kidnapper-cum-liberator of long standing.

That part of Lebanon’s political spectrum that has been held hostage to the violent whims of Syria is watching with a sense of hopeful expectation that events may eventually usher in a friendly government in Damascus, or at least one less inclined to use Beirut as a laboratory for its sociopathies. And all of the Lebanese, including allies of Syria like Hezbollah, fear that the violence likely to follow a mass uprising will visit this country as well. Other regional actors are watching too, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whose futures may be shaped by events in Syria.

A rumor circulating in Lebanon’s Shia regions is that the Saudis have reached out to a number of Syrian Sunni sheikhs and told them to keep people off the streets. Even as Syria’s relationship with Iran has set it against Riyadh over a number of issues these last few years​—​from the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri to Iraq’s 2010 elections​—​in the end, both are Arab regimes that must stand back-to-back or else risk losing power should the wave of uprisings keep coursing through the region. The Saudis see Syria as a good place to stop the domino effect​—​by helping the Syrians dig in, the Saudis hope they can save themselves.

Of course it’s not clear that a bunch of Sunni clerics in Syria tarnished by their association with the Assad regime have much influence with the young men who have already taken to the streets against their rulers. Bashar al-Assad certainly didn’t help himself with his performance the other day before the Syrian parliament, a bizarrely self-involved oration suggesting that the regime does not understand that the global media revolution has pushed its regional theater troupe​—​Bedouins, heroes, revolutionary poetry, etc.​—​onto the world stage. 

In 1982, news of the regime’s massacre at Hama, where Bashar’s uncle Rifaat al-Assad led the forces that killed 20,000 to 40,000 Syrians, took weeks to reach even Beirut. Today, cell phone video feeds posted to YouTube make the regime’s crimes public within minutes, while CNN exposes for all the world to see that the giggling dictator in Damascus is a maniacal adolescent who holds the lives of 21 million Syrians in his nervous fingers.

Many observers argue that the Assad speech was evidence of a difference of opinion in the regime. After one of his chief spokesmen suggested earlier in the week that the government would lift the country’s 48-year-old emergency law, Assad made no mention of the law or of any other reforms. Perhaps he remembered that the emergency law is the regime’s sole source of legitimacy​—​only the cold war with Israel, and the danger that any criticism may fragment the country and keep it from presenting a unified front to the Zionist enemy, justifies Assad’s repression. Accordingly, Assad blamed the antiregime demonstrations on “conspirators.”

“He’s signaling that he means to crush the demonstrators ruthlessly,” says Lebanese political analyst Elie Fawaz. “If they were just protesters, then he’d have to listen and take their complaints seriously. But if they’re just plotters, then he can deal with them any way he likes.”

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