In late January, as popular protests shook pro-American regimes in the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad boasted to the Wall Street Journal that he had nothing to fear. Assad argued that unlike the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, he did not seek to please the United States and his foreign policy choices made him more “closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” But by mid-March, protests erupted in Daraa, a southern town near the border with Jordan that has suffered under corrupt officials and economic neglect by the central government. Like other protests convulsing the Arab world, these demonstrations were driven by local grievances and not concerns about Syria’s foreign policy.
On March 6 security forces in Daraa arrested a group of teenagers who had scrawled graffiti on a wall—a phrase they had seen used by the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the fall of the regime.” The security forces probably thought nothing of the arrests; it was a reflex move by low-level members of an autocratic regime that has been in power for nearly forty-one years. But this incident set off the most serious challenge to the Baathist regime since the 1980s. Within a week of the arrests, large protests erupted in Daraa, which led to clashes with security forces and dozens of casualties. Assad and his advisers botched the initial response: the president failed to offer condolences to the families of those killed or to visit Daraa, setting off a new round of protests, which spread to other parts of Syria. As the crackdown intensified, demonstrators also shifted their rhetoric from demands for “freedom” and “dignity”—and an end to abuses by the security forces—to calls for Assad’s overthrow.
Assad’s boast to the Journal was partly true: he does have greater popular support than other Middle Eastern rulers ousted by recent uprisings, such as Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. For Syrians worried about the carnage in Iraq, Assad’s Baathist government offered security, even as it arrested prodemocracy activists and stifled any hint of opposition. But as his crackdown intensified and he continued to ignore the need for fundamental change after four decades of rule by his family, Assad squandered much of this political capital. It wasn’t until April 21 that he finally lifted the state of emergency in place since 1963 and disbanded the draconian security courts associated with it. (In practice, these steps do little to restrict the power of various security agencies, because Syria has other laws that guarantee members of the secret police immunity for virtually any crime committed in the line of duty.)
Assad’s response to the protests—a violent crackdown followed by token concessions, such as appointing a new cabinet—is modeled on a major principle that kept his father in power for three decades: the Syrian regime does not make compromises under pressure, whether external or internal. Assad also likely studied the initial response to protests in Tunisia and Egypt and concluded that by not cracking down forcefully, the rulers there appeared weak and encouraged protesters to broaden their demands. Assad has been deft at dealing with external pressure on Syria, applying the lessons of his father’s foreign policy: stay firm, do not give ground so as to avoid appearing weak, and grind down your opponents. But today he is facing unprecedented internal pressure rooted in grievances over government repression, corruption, a weak economy and lack of civil liberties. He cannot just hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.